If you’re looking for some fantastical voyage through the ghetto, Channel Orange is not the album for you. But it is the album you need. Ocean doesn’t hide from the range of problems in the hood. He affronts them with honesty and deals with its consequences.
For instance, in the song Bad Religion, Ocean writes:
If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion;
Unrequited love, To me it’s nothing but a one man cult. ~Frank Ocean
Ocean clearly challenges religious sects’ responses (or lack thereof) to homosexuality. He also shows how unanswered love is a self-destructive philosophy in itself. That’s what I love about Ocean’s work when compared to his contemporaries – his openness to suffering.
Remember when R&B put forth black suffering through the captivating wails of the singer. Remember when hip-hop spoke when news agencies wouldn’t on what’s going on in the hood with great wit and clarity. What’s absent from contemporary R&B music is blues. What’s missing from hip-hop is realness. Ocean’s album Channel Orange doesn’t hide from the pain or realities of urban living and dying. Consequently, Ocean simultaneously became the best rapper and R&B singer in one album.
Ocean discovering romantic love from another man should not give us pause. Black, gay courage is nothing new. Langston Hughes, Baynard Rustin, Alvin Ailey and James Baldwin are some of more notable leaders who brought positive change to our world at great risk. These are our heroes. Nevertheless, we should not shackle Ocean’s art with a limiting label of sexual identity. When we accept people for whom they claim, we come closer to higher forms of tolerance and respect.
Besides Ocean’s art is more important than a conversation on sexuality. In response to my original post found on WWNO.org, my friend and colleague Brenton Mock (@bmockaveli) wrote,
What I'm really interested in are the conditions in New Orleans that made a Frank Ocean possible. An artist of his revelation could have come from any city, any era -- so why this city, and now? I wonder how many other Frank Oceans exist across the city, and I'm not referring exclusively to his love interests. His poetry, approach to music, and his peers are all revolutionary signals. But I don't think New Orleans is given enough credit for those signals. Between Ocean, Sissy Noble and bounce music in general, New Orleans has kinda birthed a new jazz infusing identities and behaviors that society once deemed profane/vulgar into the mainstream, and making it the new curriculum of pop culture. America is obsessed with castigating New Orleans as murderers, but less eagerly recognizes them as lovers, though the city proves this almost every generation (Be Mock Facebook entry July 20).
Mock’s accurate descriptor of “lover” is critical. We have love, art and culture emanating from New Orleans and let’s not filter its brilliance with a label. Although Ocean has not claimed a sexual identity, we can’t let our frailties as a society consume Ocean like Cobain. We must reciprocate our love for Ocean and truth.
Ocean’s artistry reminds us that honesty will always teach the right lessons. But as the Buddhist proverb goes, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I hope folks are ready for Frank Ocean.