Television perpetuates an idea that already exists and greatly magnifies it. For example, ‘thin women are pretty’ or ‘it’s funny when little kids say adult things.’ In their portrayal in mainstream media, hip hop and rap have been hyper-masculinized to the point of homophobia. Traditionally, hip hop and rap culture is very rigid in the portrayal of men and women with strict roles for each sex to play; men are strong (sometimes violent) providers, women are beautiful objects of lust and affection. There is no room for deviation, no room for men in this category to perform any other role.
I use the terms ‘hip hop’ and ‘rap’ very consciously; Childish Gambino is most certainly a rapper, but Frank Ocean’s genre is more elusive. When asked if he identifies as an R&B artist, he has said, “In the United States, if you’re a singer and you’re black, you’re an R&B artist. Period.” When uploading his EP Nostalgia, Ultra to iTunes he labeled it ‘heavy metal’ and ‘bluegrass’ seemingly to prove a point about the arbitriness of genre.
Frank Ocean and Donald Glover (stage name Childish Gambino) exist outside the predetermined package for their sphere. Ocean because he came out as bisexual and Glover because he practices ‘self-conscious rap,’ both things that go against what has previously been socially acceptable for performers of a similar genre. Both artists seem to approach their lyrics as pages in a vocal diary addressing issues deeply personal and controversial. They address these issues in clear, accessible and most importantly, vulnerable terms. This is what sets them apart from what has come before them in this tradition.
Earlier this year Ocean published a letter to his Tumblr intended to be the liner notes for his upcoming album Channel Orange. This letter revealed that his first love at the age of 19 was another man. He chose to publish the letter before it appeared in the album because in a few of the songs already released, he used the pronoun ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ and it raised questions about his sexuality. Earlier I referred to this as, “coming out as bisexual” but in actuality Ocean never said that; he simply said his first love was a man. Most media outlets reported this as Ocean, “coming out as gay.” Having a sexual identity other than straight in male hip hop and rap culture is for the most part unprecedented and typically looked down upon. Wonderfully, after Ocean’s news broke, many rappers and hip-hop artists came out in support of him.
Donald Glover operates outside the predetermined package of rap because he practices what some people have started referring to as, ‘self-conscious rap.’ The vast majority of rappers sing songs about situations in which they are strong, dominant, have the most power, or are succeeding somehow. In direct opposition, Glover raps almost exclusively about moments of disappointment: situations where he was weak, vulnerable or emasculated in some way.
Some of Donald Glover’s songs from Camp (his first studio album, but in actuality his third album) make the listener cringe with embarrassed empathy for both the speaker and the subject. Lines like: “Semen on my spacebar/fucking tired of Skype sex” and in the song “Hold You Down”;
“You such a fuckin’ lame/That’s what they used to yell back in seventh grade/My momma said she’d get me that new jacket when the cost go down/ hit the office, stole some Tommy Hill from the lost and found… But them niggas saw through me… Dope-boy swag/I always wanted that/But my persona was always more of that than Arthur Ash/ But no love for the son of a commuter/Who was a radio head and okay at them computers… But niggas got me feelin’ I ain’t black enough to go to church/culture shock at barber shops cause I ain’t hood enough/We all look the same to the cops, ain’t that good enough?… Dude you’re not not racist cause The Wire’s in your Netflix queue/ subtle racism… This one kid said something that was really bad/He said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad/I think that’s kinda sad/Mostly cause a lot of black kids think they should agree with that.”
Glover writes with a blistering honesty about his life that makes you feel as if you’re pulling the words out of his chest as he thinks them. He writes about not fitting into black culture, referring to himself as an ‘oreo’ (black on the outside white on the inside) and the concept of ‘real black,’ people who do fit the mold of what society thinks young black men should be-violent, strong, aggressive, and in the heartbreaking example above, without a father.
Ocean’s music reverberates with raw honesty as well but in a completely different way. He has the poet’s gift of ingenuity through simplicity; the talent to pick the exact combination of words that weave a tired cliché into a sparkling new revelation, heavy with meaning and insight. In the particularly harrowing, “There Will Be Tears” he sings in a beautiful haunting falsetto about the loss of his father. He sings, “Hide my face hide my face/Can’t let’em see me cry/Cause these boys ain’t have no fathers neither/And they weren’t crying/My friends said it wasn’t so bad. You can’t miss what you ain’t have/Well I can. I’m sad.”
The honesty of this confession, these two words, “I’m sad” is something most have heard and said many times over but in this context they feel revelatory and profound.
In both examples the men address the issue of ‘not having a father’ in a way unique to male hip hop and rap music culture. Glover has a father and highlights that this is not what is expected, and it results in a confusion of identity for him, which he raps about. Ocean doesn’t have a father, but instead of accepting it as part of his identity silently as is tradition, he openly laments it.
As we have established, both men are creating music that doesn’t fit in the male hip hop and rap music cultural mold, yet they are both highly popular. The key to this popularity despite their ‘otherness’ is that they are each part of a larger community that is inherently unlike them.
Frank Ocean is a part of the hip-hop collective Odd Future, a group with thirteen main members (and up to 60 contributing members according to founder of the group, Tyler, The Creator). They have released two albums and three mixtapes featuring various members. The group has a very strong presence online and a cult following. They are known for their graphic lyrics, which on many occasions outline rape and murder earning them the genre label, ‘horrorcore’ which they promptly and quite vocally rejected. When asked about the violent nature of their music, to quote Tyler and perhaps characterize him a bit he responded, “It’s fucking art. Why when a fucking black kid says it it’s such a big fucking deal?”
Specifically relevant to Ocean is Tyler’s use of the word, “faggot,” which is fairly frequent. A brilliant article by Malcom Harris, he brings our attention to an exchange on Goblin, Odd Future’s most recent album, where Tyler voices a counselor in a conversation he has with himself. The counselor tells him to cut down on his language, Tyler says he’s not homophobic then calls the counselor a faggot. It complicates the issue of Ocean’s sexuality in a good way that he is linked to this group because it conveys the idea that if he can be himself and exist peacefully in this group, there’s probably something deeper going on than you might imagine.
Donald Glover has a less formalized associated group of others. Glover comes from the world of comedy; he graduated from NYU with a degree in dramatic writing, he was a writer for 30 Rock, stars in the popular show Community, has performed two stand up specials and is currently developing his own show with NBC. He has a close personal friendship with Tina Fey, often crediting her with much of the success he’s had, she even makes a cameo on his most recent album Royalty. These close connections to mainstream comedy culture inform his work the same way Odd Future informs Ocean.
But the real importance lies not so much what these groups do for the individual, but what they do for the general viewer of the individual. In general, people aren’t wonderful at grasping complexity in large groups. It harkens back to the axiom, ‘individuals are smart, people are stupid.’ Too often ideas, people, issues, and political platforms are reduced to simpler ideas because it’s easier for people to process. In the Twitter-sphere, entire social movements get reduced to hashtags (i.e. #Kony2012). This is not good for the content of the message because so much of it is lost in the process. However if there is a complicated issue that somehow refuses to be condensed, the public benefits, because a concept didn’t fit in any of the pre-formed boxes they had, they were forced to learn new ones.
When Donald Glover says a line about race directed at white people: “I wasn’t white enough to swim in your pool when I was eight” or “He said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad” knowing that he works with and maintains positive relationships with white people professionally and personally changes the perception of his statements, it means the listener can’t interpret him as simply ‘young black man,’ but forces them to consider outside of stigmatising and reductive racial signifiers.
When scores of people heard that Frank Ocean had a relationship with a man, the knowledge that he hangs out with rappers who use the word “faggot” complicates the issue in a good way. If these two seemingly opposing things can co-exist, both sides must be deeper than what they appear on the surface.
To link someone very closely to something they are not strengthens both sides. It forces us, through the lens of the larger group, to see that person as an individual. Frank Ocean probably isn’t stereotypically effeminate and Tyler, the Creator probably isn’t murderous and homophobic.
This is the real struggle; getting people out of the purported boxes we all put each other in constantly and without thought. This widening of categorization allows for bridges to be built between previously disparate worlds, such as openly gay male rapper Le1f’s “Wut”, and “Ratchet Girl Anthem” (a popular video featuring two straight men in drag).
I would be remiss not to mention Kanye West and the huge influence he’s had broadening the perception of male rap and hip hop artists in the public eye. His love of fashion and art (something that is culturally feminized) is almost unparalleled and is certainly the most documented. He constantly publishes pictures to his Twitter of outfits he likes, to Christian Louboutin shoes he wants. Celebrated artist George Condo did the cover art for his most recent solo album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Kanye made a 32 minute music video for a collection of songs also from this album.
The video revolved around a human phoenix crashing to earth and living with him in a surrealist world of deer, dinner parties and ballet that he constructed and could be called nothing but art. By having all these artistic pursuits, Kanye is visually placing male hip hop and rap artists in locations they have not been before; front row at a fashion show, on the front page of an art blog. And every time he does this, because he is famously known as a ‘rapper’ first and foremost, he is broadening the media’s cultural definition of male hip hop and rap culture.
When men like West, Ocean, and Glover simply existing outside what is expected of hip hop and rap culture, it clears a path for others to do the same and opens the public eye to this reality. To go against everything I just said and try to reduce this article to a few takeaway sentences in an effort to be a conclusion; the subtle changes brought on by outliers in hip hop and rap music culture are innumerable and paramount, and for them to continue it is crucial to view individuals through a larger contextual lens.