Speaking of Courage

The circumstances surrounding Frank Ocean’s celebrity constitute a case study at once poignant and also highly relevant for the exploration of sexual orientation amongst public figures. Ocean’s debut studio album, Channel Orange (2012), earned unanimous critical acclaim and shipped over 500,000 copies in just eight months. The album garnered six Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist and Album of the Year, and the New York Times Magazine recently featured Ocean in its cover story. In the summer of 2012, Ocean announced his participation in a gay relationship via an open letter posted to his Tumblr blog. The news shocked the public (and fellow musicians) and generated a media frenzy. While the notion of an openly gay singer is not new, Ocean’s case stood out as groundbreaking. Ocean’s work located him at the center of the hip-hop and R&B music community, while his sexual orientation disassociated him from the hyper-masculine, chest-pounding braggadocio and homophobic underpinnings of the very genres within which he was a rising star.

The letter begins with these words: “whoever you are, wherever you are, I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike. Human beings spinning on blackness.” The use of the second person pronoun “you” personalizes the message to each individual reader and also evokes a sense of familiarity between Ocean and his fans. This letter constitutes something personal shared between them. He goes on to elucidate similarities he shares with his readers by saying, “[we] all want to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to.” Ocean addresses the connection between his fame and the collective desire for recognition. He further appeals to the fundamental human desire for physical contact and meaningful social interaction. Ocean unites humankind under one banner — explicitly, as a group of people who want to feel wanted. The elimination of every other barrier — be it ethnic, racial, geographic, or sexually oriented — is immediate and intentional.

The banishment of such labels generates a feeling of universality. This is not a letter intended merely for men or for women, African American or Caucasian. Its target audience is any and every person who wants other people — or one special person — to find him or her interesting, worthy of attention, and perhaps even lovable. Readers need not even be a fan of Ocean or familiar with his music. The only prerequisite is the possession of a desire for recognition and connection.

Ocean appeals next to a feeling of empathy in his readers. Specifically in regards to bereavement or sorrow that arises as a byproduct of unrequited love. He describes his emotionally downtrodden state as “malignant,” “hopeless,” and inescapable. These adjectives imply that Ocean’s grief was severe and all-consuming. He claims that he wept as he declared his love for this man, and compares the lack of reciprocity from that man as akin to being “thrown from a cliff.” The language resonates with emotion despite its hyperbolic tone. Ocean felt helpless and distraught and even slightly fatalistic in the wake of his lover’s rejection.

The sentiments generated from this section of the letter complement the first. Ocean never uses the term “homosexual” or “gay” anywhere in his writing. This, again, is likely intentional. The absence of specificity, or a label, on the relationship allows for the circumstances surrounding that relationship to encompass a much broader scope. Here, anyone who has endured a similar situation (either in a heterosexual or homosexual relationship, with a male or a female) will be inclined to empathize with Ocean. All persons who have felt wronged by an individual who feigned or manipulated their romantic feelings are allied with Ocean against his former lover. Ocean creates and outlines a common enemy and merits empathy because his sorrow is tangible and sincere, if slightly exaggerated.

The final sentiment that reverberates throughout the last half Ocean’s letter is gratitude – gratitude to his fans for their support, to his mother for raising him to be “brave,” and gratitude to his anonymous lover who, despite his flaws, gave Ocean an unforgettable romantic experience. These words are highly indicative of tremendous personal growth and maturity on Ocean’s behalf. The letter is cathartic, near the end he says he feels “like a free man” (because he no longer has any secrets that need to be kept), but in a unique way. Ocean does not dedicate line after line of text to demonize his first love; instead he acknowledges the experience for what it retrospectively was: a time of unmitigated (and unmatched) joy in his young adult life. He writes, “even though it was never enough, it was.” The laconic and honest language Ocean employs to relay his thanks is the final element of pathos that elicits acceptance from readers of the letter.

Fans of Ocean expect gratitude for their support, and they receive it. The bereft are provided wisdom to aid in overcoming their emotional suffering, and those most close to Ocean are praised for their unyielding loyalty and unquantifiable contribution towards shaping him into the man he is. Public recognition defines celebrities so it is pragmatic for Ocean to acknowledge his enthusiasts. Scorned lovers frequently embellish the extremity of their sadness and might even be inconsolable. Ocean admits to feeling the same but intimates that the end of a romantic relationship is not synonymous with the end of the world – it is instead a step on the path towards self-actualization. And finally, he must pay homage to his support system of friends and family because they endured these troubled times with him, and will endure the hard times yet to come.

Analytically, it is only logical to conclude that this letter was well-received and admired by the general public. Russell Simmons, a business magnate in the hip-hop industry, extoled Ocean for “giving hope and light to many young people still living in fear.” He went on to say that Ocean “broke down a wall that should have never been built.” His thoughts were echoed by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Solange Knowles, and many others. Ocean’s candid language coupled with the percolating pathos in his letter inspired feelings of unity, empathy, and reciprocal gratitude within readers, and thus became worthy of acceptance and commendation.

Ocean’s first encounter with love (and love lost) is not one unique to him or even to homosexual relationships. It is a profound and universal human experience that has afflicted many and will continue to afflict many more. He does not imply that these circumstances are special because they are homosexual. Rather, they are special because they inexorably changed his life, and ultimately for the better.

Today’s celebrities are bound to endure any number of intrusive invasions into many facets of their personal lives. The burgeoning of social media websites and the pervasiveness of handheld cameras and video recorders transform any ordinary citizen into aspiring paparazzi. Additionally, tabloid news outlets like TMZ and Gawker offer remuneration for the exploitation of information about the private lives of public figures. As such, speculation about the sexual orientation of celebrities, among many other things, is routine among the general public. Consequently, the discussion of sexual orientation by celebrities must be handled with deft precision. Prominent public figures can certainly glean some wisdom from Frank Ocean’s example.

The public discussion by celebrities of sexual orientation for the purpose of acceptance can be effective provided it adheres to the model outlined in this essay. That is, if the message contains a substantial amount of pathos, eschews labels and specificity to appeal to a vast audience, and uses candid and heartfelt language to denote an intensely personal conversation between friends — as opposed to a declaration proselytizing the virtue of tolerance — it should be well-received. But acceptance also requires courage on behalf of the audience. The courage to ignore momentarily our disagreements, petty and ideological alike, and be willing to open our minds to something new. For we all fear what we do not know, but when can a person be courageous if not when he or she is afraid?

[*This essay was written six months ago as an assignment. It appears here almost exactly in its original form. At the request of my professor/editor, the essay was submitted for review in a scholarly writing competition.]

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