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By Nicholas Brady
Those African persons in “Middle Passage” were literally suspended in the “oceanic”… these captive persons, without names that their captors would recognize, were in movement across the Atlantic, but they were also nowhere at all. Inasmuch as, on any given day, we might imagine, the captive personality did not know where s/he was, we could say that they were the culturally “unmade,” thrown in the midst of a figurative darkness that “exposed” their destinies to an unknown course.
-Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”
Frank Ocean is no longer here. Or there. Or anywhere his name is being written about. Perhaps he never was in the first place.
Hundreds of articles, thousands of words, millions of hits, shares, and retweets try to locate him, yet all acts bury him further. Each attempt to understand Frank Ocean’s will performs – in direct contradiction to the intent of the authors – what Hortense Spillers calls a “theft of the body” that severs “the captive body from its motive will…” Each attempt to clothe him with a new name strips him naked and reveals the “general powerlessness” of the black body.
Black thought – even when it opens up space for critical inquiry – always feeds the screaming vacuum that devours our ability to name ourselves. Frank’s tumblr post heard ‘round the world seems to be no different. A post without a title, directed to no one specifically, describes his first unrequited love. This post was meant to be included with his first album as an attempt to name himself. A carefully written piece, Frank makes no attempt to label himself or the love he felt for this man. In spite of this, the discourse that has proceeded has done nothing but apply labels. Frank is the courageous confessor, the new Elton John, candidate for man of the year, gay rights advocate, the first queer “rapper” and my personal favorite: “the god particle.” It would seem the screenshot of a narrative Frank wrote on Textedit has given mass to what matters today.
Yet of all the labels that have engulfed Frank, none has been more prevalent – and dangerous – than calling his narrative universal. Much of the initial coverage can be summed up by two conclusions: either Frank has written a beautiful story about unrequited love that everyone has experienced or everyone can respect and should congratulate his courage. The universality of his narrative can, at least partially, be attributed to the national media coverage of Anderson Cooper “coming out” only a few days before. Fitting into this news cycle, the stories were fused into a general narrative on how our society is growing more tolerant and accepting. His post was also the perfect package, for it discussed love, not sex. Much like slave narratives that pulled a veil over “proceedings too terrible to relate,” sex and sexuality seem to be purposefully absent in Frank’s post. One of the first articles I read on this topic commented it was happy to read a “coming out” story that “stayed above the groin.” While the writer is a noted queer journalist, it brings up an interesting tension about the silences necessary for one’s point to be properly received. The only way universal acceptance can be gathered is through a disavowal of the monstrosity of queer, black sexuality.
This discourse on his universality obfuscates what truly separates Anderson and Frank. There is the obvious matter of class. Frank Ocean fled New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit while Anderson Cooper reported on the matter. In Frank Ocean’s words, Anderson’s “spoon has fed him good.” Yet beyond this, there remains another dimension. Even if many consider Anderson Cooper “sexy,” he is in control of his sexuality – at least to an extent incomparable to Frank Ocean. There were rumors about Anderson’s sexuality for years, yet he was able to ignore them and “come out” on his own schedule. Frank Ocean released his tumblr post as an attempt to get out ahead of slight rumors about his sexuality that could have overtaken the hype around his album. Frank chose to release his story early in the same way a person chooses to run for their life if a rabid animal is chasing them.
What is interesting about the post is that Frank began it with the phrase “[h]uman beings spinning on blackness” as a way to describe a universal feeling of wanting to belong. What – or better yet, who – is the blackness human beings spin around? Frank’s line brings to mind the images of storms we get from radars where the high-pressure clouds swirl around a black dot in the middle. The typhoon of humanity spirals around the phobic object of the black. Frank is one of the many bodies at the center from which the storm gathers its energy, its life-force. In this lies the difference between Anderson and Frank. Anderson’s body is not a powerless object to be “pornotroped,” but Frank never owned his body or his story in the first place, let alone his sexuality. His tumblr post was courageous in that it threw him further into the storm, but from day one–indeed, from the time of the Middle Passage to the present–Frank’s body was always already open to the wanton gaze of white society.
The other equally troubling discourse is to frame Frank Ocean as a radical musician resisting the black community’s affirmation of hyper–masculinity and homophobia. Hip hop – and the black community writ large – are seen by many as the last refuge for open homophobia in the media. The very first section of his Wikipedia page reads, “Ocean was one of the first major hip hop artists to announce that he had a same–sex relationship, significant because the industry is known for its heteronormativity”. So the story goes: Frank was braver than Anderson Cooper because he came out within the black/hip hop community that despises gay men more than non-black folk. On the flip side, black people get to prove their progression towards enlightenment by acknowledging and accepting Frank Ocean within the public theatre of political correctness. Through Frank, the nation gets to undergo a group session of therapy and catharsis. Tensions are eased and we can congratulate ourselves for a job well done, all within one news cycle.
There is merit to the claim that Frank’s music is more sensitive and openly emotional than the majority of male-driven popular music. Frank Ocean’s ability to affirm his own vulnerability in the face of certain pain is a major aspect of what makes his music powerful. The emotional center of his mixtape “nostalgia, ULTRA” was the song “There Will Be Tears” that expressed his unresolved feelings towards the absence of his father. Detailing the difference between him and other boys who were missing their father, Frank sang, “My friend said it wasn’t so bad/ you can’t miss what you ain’t had/ Well I can/ I’m sad.” His friend represses the pain, while Frank wallows in the contradictions of simultaneously hating, yet desiring one’s father. To fill in this void – both literal and mimetic – Frank has affirmed the centrality of his mother. On the last song of his recently released album “Channel Orange,” Frank sings, “I remember when all I had was my mother/ she didn’t compromise/ she could recognize/ our daughters and our sons are just candles to the sun.”
As Hortense Spillers wrote in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” Frank “has been touched, therefore, by the mother…” This has to do with more than simply the actual absence of his father. The violence that robbed Frank of his ability to name himself and own his sexuality also denies him, and all black men, the authority of “the Father” and his law. Recognizing the severity of the rift the Middle Passage caused on our subjectivities, Spillers has proposed two choices for black men: either we can disavow our inability to enact the Father’s law or we can perform the radical action of saying “‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within.” This is where Frank’s music can be said to be radical, the potential he has to affirm the “heritage of the mother” and, perhaps, actually affirm the female within himself.
Yet, buried underneath the hype of Frank as humanitarian singer of the year is a silence about what the female means to him. While Frank is known for his storytelling, he has yet to tell the story of his mother. His mother is only referenced as a strong figure that sacrificed for him. This is certainly a nice sentiment, but it remains a caricature of a woman who has feelings and desires outside of her child. There is no equivalent to “Dear Momma” (2pac’s song to his mother) in his corpus. While Frank sings praises for his mother in the background of the ending track, in the foreground a woman affectionately tells Frank he is “special.” Frank’s voice is distorted, unemotional, and does little else than chuckle knowingly. After she speaks, he leaves behind the car and her without a word. The link between his mother and this woman remains unspoken, but clear: their place within his imagination is dependent on them taking care of and affirming him. This is not an indictment of Frank Ocean’s “real” interactions with women, instead this about the space women occupy in his imagination. Within much of his music, the “female” is an object used to buttress his sense of manhood that had been radically ungendered through the Middle Passage and beyond.
This song is not isolated. In fact, in all the songs Frank writes about women, none of the women have been much more than drug-pushers, whores, or heartbreakers. The palpability of his music rests on a well-played tension between an affirmation of love and a negation of the “female.” In the background of the aforementioned ending track, Frank sings, “he wrapped the whole wide world in a wedding band/ then put the whole wide world in her hands/ she got the whole wide world in her hands/ he got the whole wide world in his hands.” She only owns that which he gave to her and even then he still possesses it. Continuing this pattern, Frank demotes Cleopatra from ruler of an empire to a passive prostitute in the song “Pyramids.” As Cleopatra pleasures Frank, he sings, “The way you say my name makes me feel like/ I’m that nigga/ even though I’m unemployed.” Frank does not have the ability to enact “the father’s law” because he is an “unemployed…nigga,” yet the black female body becomes a symbolic object to achieve the illusion of – not to be confused with the actual achievement of – such a power. In another song, entitled “Pink Matter,” someone asks Frank, “What is your woman/ is she just a container for the child/ that soft pink matter.” Frank’s reply is, “…fall into you/ My god, she is giving me pleasure.” Andre 3000, who features on the song, replies, “frankly when that ocean’s so good/ make her swab the wood.” Andre 3000, like Frank Ocean, was the center of rumors of possible homosexuality. Many people hinted that Andre would be the first rapper to “come out.” While Andre and Frank share the experience of being made legible through pejoratives and ill-suited labels within a field of homophobia and anti-blackness, their performative bonding happens through the medium of the black female instead. The black female body becomes the prosthetic – the elastic object – to assemble the illusion of patriarchal bonds between bodies denied such a position. Thus, if Cleopatra is nothing but a lady of the evening working overtime in the pyramids in Frank’s imagination, what room is there for saying yes to the monstrosity of Sapphire, the female that can name? It seems the proposition Spillers gave to black men remains little more than potential disavowed within Frank’s music.
Within the ever-growing tide of thought-pieces and hype, every attempt to bring Frank ashore drowns him further: every recovery is simply an act of re-covering his being. Every attempt to name entombs him in the paradigm. Is he a courageous artist of revolution or an image that allows us to exorcise our demons without exercising any real change to the structures of domination?
Who Frank Ocean is will not be found here either, but contrary to the popular sentiment, Frank Ocean is a not a revolutionary, yet. A unique, sensitive songwriter perhaps, but he is far from James Baldwin or even Me’shell NdegeOcello. The ability to say yes to Frank Ocean does not signify an ability to say yes to the female within – or without for that matter. America’s desire for and identification with Frank Ocean revolves around the horror of touching the monstrosity of Frank’s (black) sexuality in a dynamic, self-sustaining motion. In order to connect with the structure of feeling and desire unleashed on his body, Frank’s actions and writing must be nimble. He is walking a very fine line and his success depends on his skill to be more Prospero and less Caliban; to dazzle, but not disgust. Within this contradiction is the sweet spot every black pop star – perhaps every black person – hopes to reside in.
Yet, such a point of immunity and self-possession is unattainable because we are the blackness humanity spins around. The blistering winds of desire and love can quickly turn into the thunder and lightning of revulsion and hatred. Either way, Frank is performing in the middle of a storm spinning around his black body. His ability to wallow in the inherent contradictions between his blackness and his desire “to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to” is what will determine how long he can survive. And it is with this in mind that the sentence that ends his tumblr post is the closest he has come to prophecy: “I feel like a free man. If I listen closely… I can hear the sky falling too.”
Nicholas Brady is an activist-scholar from Baltimore, Maryland. He is an executive board member of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a community-based think tank focused on empowering youth in the political process. Through the organization, he has helped to produce policy and critical intervention papers, organize the efforts in Baltimore against the prison industrial complex, lead educational forums on a myriad of community-oriented projects, and use debate as a critical pedagogical tool to activate the voice of young people from ages 10 to 25. He is also a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and currently a doctoral student at the University of California-Irvine Culture and Theory program.