In 2012, singer-songwriter, rapper and record producer Frank Ocean made headlines when he confessed that he had fallen in love with a man at the age of 19, in an open letter posted to Tumblr. He drew even more attention when people assumed that some of the songs on his Channel Orange album were addressed to a man. In the post, Ocean wrote:” 4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence. Until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realised I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating the feeling. No choice. It was my first love. It changed my life.” For the most part, the artist has left his sexuality ambiguous, choosing not to label himself as being either gay, bisexual, pansexual, or really any of the labels that people are expected to adopt and wear either as a scarlet A, or a badge of pride (which is highly unlikely). It is my firm belief that people who identify with whatever sexual orientation or gender identity they do, are only expected to do so because cisgender, heterosexual and patriarchal society needs a name to put to all of this identity in order to other it. It is a lot easier to hate something you choose to not understand if, at the very least, you have something to call it.
The poignancy and honesty of Ocean’s (real name Christopher Breaux) post drew numerous declarations of support. A number of black, male rappers took to social media to praise his courage, among them 50 Cent and Tyler, the Creator. This is particularly noteworthy because homosexuality (or really any sexuality that is not macho heterosexuality) is not normally met with kindness and understanding. Rap as a genre has been characterised by homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. Often times it is not easy to separate the misogyny and homophobia – nor is it necessary to. At times it seems as though homophobia occurs because of a perceived proximity to femininity – an individual who identifies as male being seen as mimicking a woman simply for loving a man. This might be rooted in how little our society has thought of women, and the understanding that anything that resembles femininity is undeserving of any respect. It might be necessary to point out that my earlier thought does not seem to account for women who might love other women in a romantic way. Still, women who identify as lesbian frequently fall victim to all manner of abuse, physical and sexual. The current scourge of “corrective rape” proves just how much men might assume ownership and control over women’s bodies.
This then begs the question; (how) is it possible to reconcile the public displays of support – if it can be called that – shown to Frank Ocean after his confession, with the rampant homophobic and misogynistic culture that hip-hop music festers and thrives in? More often than not, this is a question that goes unanswered. The question of how can you claim to love women, respect someone’s sexuality and appreciate the lives and lived experiences of black people, when you effectively disregard their humanity and differences?
A noteworthy response to the homophobia and abuse within not only hip-hop music, but society as a whole, is the personified status quo disruption known as S’bonakaliso Nene, known as Gyre. Gyre is a queer rapper, who also happens to be a student at Wits University. Gyre is noteworthy because he embraces his being queer, thriving in a genre of music that can be considered highly abusive to his lived experiences. In a recent interview on the SABC 1 youth show, Expressions, Gyre pointed out that he saw the queer community as being an evolutionary leap, “like the mutants on X-men. We’re like those people.” He believed that being a queer individual is something to embrace, and being a rapper who is unabashedly queer contributes to his mandate of being disruptive in spaces that have grown far too comfortable in their bigotry and abuse. On the TV show, Gyre gave a live performance of his most recent song, called Premium Bottom, wearing the most beautiful pair of tight jeans I have ever seen, and a headwrap. In his song, which has been dubbed a #BottomsAnthem, Gyre effectively addresses not only homophobia and exclusion, but even bottom shaming within the gay community. Gyre serves, and exists as a grand antithesis to the rejection that the queer community faces at the hands of society by making a bold reclamation of his and the identities of a proud community.