OPINION: Frank Ocean and the redefining of masculinity

The metro coughed its final route back to its Vienna/George Mason University stop as a friendly handrested on my shoulder. Yo what’s up, Lauren?! Shocked to hear my name in such a busy, faceless rush, I pulled a blaring earphone from my ear.

To my surprise, the voice came from someone I’d met on campus. We spoke momentarily, and then I put my headphones back in and turned the music up. After a while, the blaring music seemed to disturb him. He asked very defensively, “Yo wait a second, are you listening to Frank Ocean?”

I agreed, praising the album for its risks and suggesting that it’d likely be nominated for Grammy and asked if he liked the album.

He responded: "Nah, he sings about dudes. I can’t rock with him." I was dismayed at his response. Just days before, he’d praised Chris Brown’s music and mocked his abuse of Rihanna as Chris simply “handling his business” and “keeping her in her place.”

Many other young males I’ve discussed Ocean with have repeated these sentiments.

When it was announced that both Brown and Ocean were nominees for the Grammys Best Urban Contemporary Album, I reveled with joy, because, finally, there was a larger playing field for multiple definitions of “urban” and the role of masculinity within those definitions.

In his letter to his first love explaining how he felt, Ocean recalled “[weeping] as the words left [his] mouth,” becausehe “could never take them back for [himself].” In the letter, he recalls the moment he realized he was in love as “malignant” and his “hopes” uncontrollable. 

The genius of his visceral expression is that he never labeled himself; instead, he explained emotions that nearly everyone can relate to. Instantly, I was reminded of James Baldwin, who wrote crassly of his sexuality, asserting particularly in a 1961 interview with Studs Terkel, “you have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”

While this peer of mine and many others who share his sentiments regard Ocean and other gay men as lesser, if not completely emasculated, I argue instead that this bold expression of self in the face of so much opposition ismasculinity in it’s typical definition of being strong and deliberate.

More importantly, however, I think Ocean’s presence has frustrated previous understandings of masculinity by demanding that they are questioned.

Many who share the same sentiments as my dear friend, who insists that it would be somehow immoral to listen to Ocean, will have to ask themselves why songs flaunting theobjectification of women are acceptable but a love ballad from a man to another man is wrong. Denying Ocean’s presence or any other aspect of his identity because of his sexuality is, I believe, born of a fear of the questions that his presence begs: how much of music is informed by definitions of masculinity, and what do these definitions say about us as listeners?

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