The hottest young star in R&B/hip-hop crossover music just told the world he loved a man.
From where I sit as a longtime scholar of hip-hop, fundamentally the most powerful branch of youth culture in my lifetime, Ocean’s connection to those kids matters more than any genre distinction, and certainly more than straight folks’ fears about LGBT realities. Ocean’s honesty about his own life is a beacon for young people—especially young people of color who struggle, sometimes unsuccessfully, to figure out how to live in a society that sometimes openly hates them.
“Especially in the African-American community, instead of beating each other down, we really need to be building each other up,” says Donja Love, the local playwright. “So many outside forces are already trying to tear us down that we really need to make the effort to praise and support one another.” Even though he and others will concede that we have a long way to go in order to achieve true equality, these kinds of gestures by public figures can significantly impact the lives of those who need it most. In this case, that’s millions of hip-hop fans here—and everywhere Ocean’s music permeates—who wrestle with the strictures of the heteronormative world in which we live.
Being a gay brother in the City of Brotherly Love has both its challenges and its triumphs, Love says. “We have a ways to go, [but] people can be extremely liberal and extremely accepting.” Ultimately, he believes that the real struggle with one’s sexuality is internal—the constant concern about what other people, meaning straight people—think about and see in their encounters with gays. Ocean’s openness, Love claims—and the fact that he’s a popular black male artist—will help those Philadelphians, who now, like he did in the past, struggle with their own sexual identities and the capacity for the community to accept and embrace them. He echoes a popular LGBT slogan: “It does get better. But only when you become more comfortable with who you are.”
James Braxton Peterson is the director of Africana Studies and associate professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of academics dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. Follow him on Twitter: @DrJamesPeterson.
PW news intern Caroline Newton also contributed reporting to this story.
PW's Music Issue 2014