Pride Month 2020: How music enigma Frank Ocean 'broke the glass ceiling' by coming out as bisexual black man
In 2016, the singer-songwriter opened up a lot more with 'Blonde' giving deeper glimpses into his relationships, family and childhood
Some of the most brilliant musical minds have lived their lives shrouded in mystery, their pursuits of perfection hidden away from prying minds that may not grasp the need for such secrecy. In truth, these misunderstood wizards don’t hide away from the world in their ivory towers but are constantly challenging us to see the world from their unique perspective, conveyed by their striking art. When it comes to the intimate, yet emotive music of Frank Ocean – singer-songwriter, record producer and photographer, recognized for his idiosyncratic musical style that is both introspective and elliptical – we often see glimpses of genius, even though the artiste himself is something of a modern-day enigma.
In celebration of Pride Month 2020, here's a quick look at the life and work of one of the best modern-day R&B singer-songwriters who has brought light and love to the LGBTQIA+ movement.
Raised by his mother and godfather, a young Christopher Cooksey aka Ocean lived a simple life in New Orleans but dreamed of great things. By the time he enrolled in the University of New Orleans studying literature, Ocean was already piecing together recording equipment to set up his own home studio and begin work on his music. But with the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought in 2005, Ocean lost most of his gear. But the 19-year-old would not take this down as defeat.
With barely a few hundred dollars to his name, Ocean made the perilous journey to Los Angeles to follow his dreams. He made a living in LA by working odd jobs and ghostwriting music and rhythms for established singers like John Legend, Brandy and Justin Bieber. During this time, he was also sneaking in studio time to piece together his first mixtape.
During his ghostwriting stint, producer Christopher "Tricky" Stewart saw Ocean’s spark of brilliance and was instrumental in introducing him to show business. He worked towards securing a deal for Ocean with Def Jam Records. Unfortunately, Def Jam didn’t seem too keen on putting out Ocean’s music and stalled with a recording budget, effectively stonewalling any progress that he tried to eke out. After a four-year-long struggle, Frank Ocean seemed to be cast adrift.
This is when fate stepped in, in the guise of the hip-hop supergroup Odd Future, featuring Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, among other stars, who saw Ocean as a kindred spirit and were eager to get him exposure. By February 2011, Ocean was ready to unleash ‘Nostalgia ULTRA’, a mixtape that caused deep ripples throughout the music community. Sampling music from bands like Coldplay, MGMT, and Radiohead, bands that he grew up listening to, these songs were emotionally deep and complex, revealing hints of what Ocean had been brewing for a long time.
With songs like ‘We All Try, ‘American Wedding,’ ‘Lovecrimes,’ ‘Novocaine,’ ‘Strawberry Swing,’ and ‘Song for Women,’ Ocean had shown the world that he was far ahead of his contemporaries in the music scene. His musicology was surreal and intimate, often steeped in imaginative wordplay and social commentary. Yet, one was hard-pressed to find Ocean seeking the limelight to promote his art to a larger audience. But that isn’t to say that his music wasn’t being heard.
On a car ride with her husband Jay-Z, Beyoncé was blown away after hearing one of Ocean’s songs for the first time. Beyoncé immediately knew that she wanted to work with Ocean and arranged for him to fly down so that they could work on six songs together. Around this time, rapper Kanye West also invited Ocean to work on songs from his ‘Watch The Throne’ album, most notably on the tracks, ‘No Church In The Wild’ and ‘Made In America’. Still, the humble and shy Ocean stayed away from the bright lights and media scrutiny, happy to let his music do the talking for him.
His next project, ‘Channel Orange,’ was written in three weeks but Ocean spent the next nine months fine-tuning the many intricate elements that would truly cement Ocean amongst the GOATs of music. This time around, Ocean’s work was being produced by Pharell Williams and Om'mas Keith. Dealing with themes of intoxication, love, loneliness, heartbreak, and triumph, Ocean's deft yet incredibly complex compositions gave listeners and fans more peeks into the inner workings of his mind. He collaborated with John Mayer on two songs, ‘Pyramids,’ and ‘White,’ and on ‘Pink Matter’ with Andre ‘3000’ Benjamin, and ‘Super Rich Kids’ with Earl Sweatshirt. Ocean went on to bag himself the first-ever Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album in 2013 for 'Channel Orange'.
"Love, power, freedom, money, and honesty are more intoxicating than drugs," said Ocean about the themes that pervade most of his work. His choice of honesty as an intoxicant is interesting, because Ocean was certainly flying high on this new zephyr of inspiration.
In keeping with his enigmatic persona that the world knew him by, Ocean chose to reveal his bisexuality in an open letter on Tumblr, where he confided that his first-ever love in life had been a man. Absolutely cavalier about the ramifications of such a candid move, Ocean continued to do his own thing. While Ocean has chosen to deflect questions about his sexuality in subsequent interviews, one has to laud the vulnerability and honesty with which Ocean chose to momentarily open up his inner sanctum to a larger audience. The Los Angeles Times called his coming out as: "The glass ceiling moment for music. Especially black music, which has long been in desperate need of a voice like Ocean's to break the layers of homophobia."
Ocean’s tendency to keep his private life under wraps stems from his belief that his music is of much greater value than the celebrity status that the world was quick to adorn him with. What seemed to really baffle fans and the larger, more curious world out there was that most of his songs featured trysts with women and the many complex relationships he shared with them, despite his big reveal.
Between 2013 and 2016, Ocean disappeared from the public eye again. Moving to London for his next project, this phase also saw Ocean revamp his management and PR teams to better achieve his goals. With his own earnings, Ocean bought out his Def Jam contract while retaining rights to his master recordings and musical legacy. As a compromise, Def Jam went on to distribute ‘Endless,’ Ocean’s experimental video-album concept that saw its first worldwide release on iTunes.
In a move that surprised many, Ocean released his next studio album, ‘Blonde’, just two days after ‘Endless’ came out. ‘Blonde’ saw Ocean open up a lot more as an artist, with deeper glimpses into his relationships, family, childhood, and further rumination on life's great mysteries. ‘Ivy’, ‘Pretty Sweet’, ‘White Ferrari’, and ‘Godspeed’ are great examples of the wonder and surreal mystery often associated with Ocean. Believing himself to be a visual artist as much as a musical one, Ocean also developed a ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ magazine that coincided with the release of the album.
In another move that surprised the world, Ocean neglected to send in ‘Blonde’ for Grammy consideration, stating, "The Grammy’s aren’t represented very well to people who come from where I come from." And with that Ocean had once again faded away into a world entirely of his own, apart from the occasional release or public appearance. In a world that is geared for instant gratification and conspicuous consumption, authentic artists like Ocean show us that a unique, individual identity can speak volumes more than the cookie-cutter idols that the industry tends to promote. The world was thrilled when he was announced as the headliner for the 2020 Coachella Music Festival, but after the coronavirus pandemic derailed those plans, we might have to wait till 2021 to catch up with this superlative performer.