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Sexuality: Frank Ocean's coming out marks a sea change for hip-hop

The singer-songwriter is a member of a group scorned for its use of homophobic lyrics. His announcement yesterday promises a brighter future for the genre
  • @timwalker

In a 2005 interview with MTV, Kanye West claimed, "Everyone in hip-hop discriminates against gay people… I wanna just tell my friends, 'Yo, stop it.'" The genre's troubled relationship with homosexuality was challenged again yesterday, when 24-year-old singer-songwriter Frank Ocean published an emotional open letter on his Tumblr blog, detailing a past relationship with a man, whom he described as his "first love". In a post suggesting that he is gay or bisexual, Ocean wrote: "Four summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost… By the time I realised I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love. It changed my life."

Ocean, whose real name is Christopher Breaux, originally planned to publish the letter in the sleevenotes to his debut album, Channel Orange, due for release on 17 July. Early reviews of it reveal that many of its lyrics also refer to a male love interest. The R&B singer posted his letter after rumours about the subject matter of the songs began to circulate online.

Though not technically a hip-hop artist, Ocean is very much a member of the hip-hop community as a West collaborator, and an affiliate of the US hip-hop collective, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Ocean's fellow OFWGKTA member Syd Tha Kid is a lesbian. Last year, however, the group's appearance at New Zealand's Big Day Out festival was cancelled after complaints about the homophobic and misogynist content of their lyrics. Frontman Tyler, The Creator, was criticised for his repeated use of "faggot"; he defended himself at the time, claiming, "I'm not homophobic, I just think 'faggot' hits and hurts people". Yesterday, Tyler tweeted his support for Ocean: "My Big Brother Finally Fucking Did That. Proud Of That Nigga Cause I Know That Shit Is Difficult Or Whatever. Anyway. Im A Toilet."

Much has changed since 2000, when Eminem rapped "Hate fags? The answer's 'yes'." Terrance Dean, a former MTV executive, is the author of Hiding in Hip-Hop, a 2008 memoir of the the hip-hop industry's thriving, secret gay subculture. A star of Ocean's stature coming out is great,Dean says. "Artists are now unafraid to be who they really are. It makes a bold statement not only for Frank, but for the LGBT community as a whole. Everybody's been waiting so long for the day when somebody like Frank comes out, so it's a victory for all of us. Attitudes in hip-hop have totally changed since my book was published. It's not the same industry it was 10 years ago. It's not the industry it was two years ago."

On Monday, the CNN reporter and anchor Anderson Cooper also published an open letter acknowledging that he is gay. Last month, punk musician Laura Jane Grace, previously Tom Gabel, went public about her transgenderism, and met with widespread support. But it's even more important for gay people to be visible in less tolerant communities like hip-hop, says Peter Tatchell, the veteran British LGBT rights campaigner:

"Given the traditionally macho, homophobic nature of much hip-hop music, this is quite a milestone. He's sending a very positive, affirmative message that challenges the prejudice of many hip-hop fans. I hope the generous, sympathetic response that Frank has received will embolden other hip-hop stars to also come out."