Earlier this month, rising R&B crooner and Odd Future member Frank Ocean came out of the closet. (More or less.) Since then there's been an outpouring of support from fans, the media and the music industry. Russell Simmons called the move a “game changer” in the notoriously queer-unfriendly realm of hip-hop and R&B. Aside from some random trolls, most folks are singing his praises, and indeed he won tons of new fans in the process.
Ocean has a new album, Channel Orange, and a show at the Wiltern tomorrow night. We too salute him. But all of this fanfare gives us pause. Because it wasn't that long ago that another Odd Future member, Syd the Kyd, went public with her sexuality. One could say that was a much bigger deal; in fact, she was literally the first mainstream hip-hop artist to come out of the closet.
But that announcement barely made waves, and in fact she even faced a bit of criticism. What gives?
True, Ocean has more visibility than Syd; he's more famous. He just performed on Jimmy Kimmel, he's penned tunes for Beyonce and Justin Bieber, and his own songs get some play on urban radio. So while Syd's somewhat known for her work as Odd Future's DJ and recording engineer — and for her group The Internet — she's not on everyone's radar.
But this issue goes deeper. In hip-hop, machismo and heteronormative ideals reign supreme, which makes homosexuality in men more taboo than in women. (Rappers and R&B singers have been lusting for lesbians for years, if only the type found in male pornography. The word “gay,” however, remains synonymous for everything one doesn't want to be.)
So, even though Ocean never described himself as “gay” or “bisexual,” for that reason one could still argue that it took more courage for him to come out than Syd. But women in hip-hop face an altogether separate challenge, one that's less about sexuality than about asserting themselves in a community where they're still very much in the minority. For a woman to come out might not be to risk great fanfare, but to risk trivializing yourself completely.
Syd was actually criticized for the way she came out, via The Internet's controversial video for their single “Cocaine.” In it, her character picks up a girl at a carnival, gives her drugs, makes out with her, and then pushes her out of a truck after she overdoses. Syd told us that the video was meant to have an anti-drug message, but she was nonetheless trounced, as one feminist site put it, for being “just as careless and offensive as the rest of Odd Future.”
The truth is that Syd simply made her announcement in a bold, visual way, while Ocean was more subtle about the whole thing. In fact, his announcement was full of nuance — he also mentioned relationships with women. The way each artist's sexuality has been received suggests that the mainstream still doesn't want to be confronted by queerness, it wants to warm up to the idea of it: The overall effect of a handsome, heartbroken R&B singer struggling to come to terms is likely more palatable to the mainstream than Syd's mohawked, baggy-jeans-wearing androgynous singer-DJ persona who makes controversial music videos.
Hip-hop and R&B still have a ways to go until they're friendly for queer artists. And Ocean and Syd should be applauded for cracking that glass ceiling. But that's the rub — they both should be applauded. And in the end, these artists are reminding us that what's most important isn't how we label ourselves, but that matters of the heart, and matters of identities, are never easy to get a handle on.