When it’s important and when it’s not important

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I have mixed feelings about this quote from Miguel in Vibe Magazine that I discovered today:

“I don’t know if the word is eclipsed. [Long pause] That’s a really tough question to answer, man. In all reality, Frank Ocean took a big chance the way that artists are supposed to. I mean, even his album doesn’t sound like mine or anyone else’s. So sonically and how he writes and what he’s writing about and how he chooses to express himself vocally, all his choices are very unique, and I appreciate that about him. Not only did his announcement overshadow my music, but it overshadowed his as well. The general public was in awe and championing him for being brave enough to make that announcement publicly. I congratulate him for his successes. I would love to hear more of his music. He’s one of those artists that’s being himself and pushing boundaries. I gotta celebrate that.”

I think this was a poor choice of words on Miguel’s part more than anything else. That’s what I hope, anyways. Nonetheless, saying “his announcement overshadow[ed] my music” reads as a thinly veiled accusation of a publicity stunt. There’s a narrative about how Frank chose to “come out” (come out as… not straight? because he certainly does not identify as either gay or bisexual), right before his album dropped to gain publicity. But revealing that you are not heterosexual is not really an act that is rewarded enough to be a publicity stunt — in fact, a lot of people pay a heavy price for that. The shift towards acceptance of gay artists was not firmly established in Franks genre (and to be honest, I don’t think it’s firmly established in any mainstream genre), r&b, which is one that heavily (and graphically) celebrates and depicts heterosexual relationships. His album didn’t perform so well because he revealed that he’s loved a man in the past, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge (as Miguel did, although it was ill-advised), that Frank’s sexuality is an uncomfortable point of conversation.

It’s important because he serves as an example of the what the rest of us could be– comfortable with who we are and feeling confident without labels. At the same time, the stress on sexuality can detract from the person and the content, as I’ve talked about in my post about Le1f. There’s a line somewhere between example and novelty, and when Frank becomes the beacon of our acceptance of non-heterosexual relationships, what, exactly, does that mean for other artists of the same caliber? What does that mean for Frank?

Identity and Agency of Gay Rappers

Shoutout to Le1f’s Twitter account for bringing my attention to a somewhat troubling occurrence. The rapper took issue with the way his music is covered, particularly the focus on his sexual identity when that might not always be relevant.

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It reminded me of a tweet he posted a while back (which appears to have been deleted) about how not every dance he does is voguing, despite how it’s framed. For music writers to label that incorrectly reads as though they have little desire to understand the culture that they’re covering, especially since voguing has such a well-documented history. Misrepresentation of what that entails in order to cram as many gay references into an article about a gay artist is a means of erasure of experiences.

As far as identity goes, there’s an uncomfortably thin line between acknowledging an artist’s contributions to breaking down barriers, and using that identity as a novelty. Le1f is clearly not down with his sexuality being at the forefront of every conversation, and that’s a very valid way to feel, especially considering how fond music writers are of pinpointing trends (Le1f, Zebra Katz, Mykki Blanco, and Cakes da Killa are often grouped together by virtue of being gay rappers who live in New York). For publicly identifying as gay, Le1f does not have the benefit of divorcing himself from his sexual identity, and that informs how even innocuous verses (like those about playing Pokemon on the 1train) are perceived.

This is not to discount the importance of representation of gay artists in music (although there is something to be said about the particular kind of hand-wringing that comes with covering a gay rapper), but to point out the lack of agency in the the way gay artists, and gay rappers in particular, are framed.