Seven years ago, Frank Ocean got us talking about a revolution — or at least hoping for one. On the eve of releasing “Channel Orange,” his groundbreaking 2012 debut studio album, the then-24-year-old alt-R&B singer-songwriter wrote an open letter on his Tumblr blog in which he revealed that his first love had been a man.
Despite the controversial admission, Ocean and “Channel Orange” enjoyed critical and commercial success, and it seemed like a long-awaited change was going to come for the black LGBTQ music community … at last. As it turned out, though, the movement stalled.
For gay black male singers and rappers, outside the closet remains mostly a don’t-go-there zone, into which only a few artists since Ocean — including “Empire” star Jussie Smollett, Brockhampton leader Kevin Abstract and rapper ILoveMakonnen — have ventured. The only openly LGBTQ black man to enjoy Bruno Mars- and the Weeknd-level success, though, has been a fictional one: Jamal Lyon, the character Smollett played on “Empire.”
Meanwhile, a number of black and biracial female performers — Janelle Monáe, Halsey, Kehlani, Azealia Banks, Syd from the Internet, Tayla Parx and Young M.A among them — have emerged as visible members of the LGBTQ community.
“Instead of supporting each other, sometimes we can get stuck in a box and people can hold it against us,” says Atlanta’s ILoveMakonnen, a former Drake protégé who came out as gay in 2017. “Hopefully, I’m here to show that no matter what people think, I can still live my life on my own terms, and there are ways around what people think.”
Anti-gay sentiment in the black music community is driven, in part, by old-time religion and a God who, according to some beliefs, condemns homosexuality. But it isn’t just about church. It’s also about a toxic, narrow definition of black masculinity — a masculinity stripped away by slavery and compromised by centuries of racism.
Emasculation has led to overcompensation, for only the strong (i.e., the manly) survive. As protectors of machismo see it, homosexuality and what is perceived as “feminine” behavior by men further strip black men of their masculine power. This is particularly true in hip-hop, where terms like “gangster,” “hard” and “street” are viewed as badges of honor.
Craig Seymour, whose “Craig’s Pop Life” podcast explores entertainment from a black gay point of view, sees the black LGBTQ gender divide as a case of history repeating itself. “It doesn’t surprise that black women are leading the way when it comes to music,” he says. “Janet Jackson was one of the first black artists to talk about issues of sexuality within a pop/R&B context [on 1997’s ‘The Velvet Rope’]. The women are leading, and the men will soon follow along.”
But will they? When it comes to general acceptance, lesbians don’t encounter the same roadblocks as gay men. Even if hard-liners in the black community aren’t fully on board, they won’t necessarily deem a gay or bisexual black woman a threat to either black femininity or masculinity.
Rapper Big Freedia, who has been featured on recordings by Beyoncé and Drake, suspects she’s been passed over for collaborations and branding opportunities because of her gender fluidity, but it’s also been “an important part of my rise.”
Says Freedia: “It’s still less of a taboo for females to come out, so it’s less of a risk to them and their careers. We haven’t come that far for men yet. There’s still a level of discomfort.”
Furthermore, many straight men, both black and white, see lesbianism as an aphrodisiac. Even if a female artist is sexually attracted only to other women, straight male fans still can include her in their sexual fantasies. Once a man comes out as gay, however, he no longer fulfills the white — or black — knight fantasy.
“I don’t think it’s the gay thing; it’s the expression of it,” says Young M.A, a gender-nonconforming rapper from Brooklyn who was born female. She believes sexually explicit rap about women, like her 2016 smash “OOOUUU,” has worked to expand her audience. “Being that the [hip-hop] industry is male-dominated and very aggressive, if I speak my mind and talk about me getting females, that’s something men can still relate to.”
Billy Porter, an openly gay recording artist who has enjoyed success as a Tony-winning actor, attributes unequal perceptions to the male-centric gaze. “It’s the general patriarchy of our culture, with men who like to see women have sex together,” he says. “That’s an easier visual to stomach, because you know the only thing people are interested in when they hear ‘gay’ is what we’re doing in our bedroom.”
Porter, who starred on Broadway’s “Kinky Boots” and has a leading role on “Pose,” faced droves of bloggers and commentators (including YouTube personality Willie D and former TV judge Joe Brown) branding him a scourge on black masculinity for wearing a tuxedo gown to the 2019 Oscars in February. Despite the homophobic outrage, Porter’s gay pride hasn’t crippled him professionally.
“My success came after I walked away from the toxic homophobia that still rules the music industry,” Porter says, citing Monáe and Sam Smith as two of the few LGBTQ breakthroughs.
“But let’s be clear,” he adds. “Sam Smith is white. Sam Smith is from another country [Great Britain]. The same version of a black person can’t even get airtime. I know that everybody talks about Frank Ocean, and I love Frank Ocean, but how crossover-successful is Frank Ocean? Is he Sam Smith? Does he have 17 Grammys?”
How far we haven’t come from the 1960s, when jazz pianist Don Shirley, the subject of this year’s best picture Oscar winner “Green Book,” had to keep his sexual orientation a secret and seek out male partners under cover of night. The more permissive disco era in the late ’70s allowed Sylvester to be both openly gay and, briefly, a chart star, but throughout the ’80s up to his death in 2005, Luther Vandross concealed his homosexuality, presumably, in part, to protect his reputation as R&B’s premier boudoir balladeer.
Some progress has been made in recent years, though. Jay-Z went from dropping homophobic rhymes on his early releases to honoring his lesbian mother on “Smile,” a track on his 2017 album “4:44.” He and his wife, Beyoncé, received GLAAD’s Vanguard Award in March for being allies of the community.
Straight rapper Young Thug can comfortably wear dresses and still be considered “hard.” Jaden Smith flirts with pansexuality and has referred to Ocean’s former Odd Future bandmate Tyler, the Creator as his “boyfriend” (perhaps jokingly). Tyler seemed to come out as LGBTQ in 2017 when he talked in an XXL magazine interview about a boyfriend he had as a teenager (though he later insisted his comments had been misunderstood). That same year, he included the line “I been kissing white boys since 2004” in his single “I Ain’t Got Time!”
Still, stars remain reluctant to specifically call out fellow performers for homophobia. And straight A-lister support, whether strong or tentative, has had its own drawbacks. Frenchie Davis, a bisexual singer who has competed on “American Idol” and “The Voice,” thinks LGBTQ musicians might be looking for solidarity in all the wrong places. “If we’re not focusing our energy on being supportive and affirming to one another first, then we really aren’t progressing, no matter what famous straight people are out there advocating for us,” she says. “We rely too heavily on hetero-normative validation. We are constantly having conversations about the struggles that LGBT artists and performers face, but when you go to many of the gay pride festivals, it’s all heterosexual performers headlining the shows.”
Young M.A feels the “LGBTQ” label itself is part of the problem: “The community wants to be accepted, and I’m all for it. But to me, it’s almost contradictory, because how do you want to be accepted — but we still separate each other with labels.”
So we’re left waiting for the revolution. Ocean’s coming out was an excellent first step, but black LGBTQ men in music are still learning to crawl, and it might take more than an Ocean to get the tidal wave rolling. Former Vibe editor-in-chief Emil Wilbekin is optimistic. “I believe the world is ready for a black gay superstar,” he says. “Someone who is an incredible lyricist, a powerful performer, and someone who is out, authentic and using their platform to empower and liberate the black community — at all of its intersections.”