Frank Ocean’s Case of “Bad Religion”

Frank Ocean is an anomaly to the black community within a predominantly homophobic hip-hop/R&B scene, and he knows it.

Musical genres like hip-hop, which, since their origins, approached music with notoriously hyper-masculine and homophobic attitudes, did not seemingly promise acceptance of queer men within their movement.

Frank Ocean, a once unknown collaborator in hip-hop collective Odd Future, punctured that homophobic bubble in what was considered a bold move before his release of “channel ORANGE”, when he published a letter about his first love, a man, on Tumblr:

4 summer ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost… Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping.

Ocean’s confession, which confirmed his identity as both black and bisexual, provoked mixed reactions from the internet.  At its core, it forced musicians from the hip-hop/R&B world to think “how compassionate and open are we going to be?”

His debut masterpiece titled “channel ORANGE” was based on the colors he perceived the summer he (first) fell in love.  The album was produced by Ocean and his friend and collaborator James Ryan Ho (famously known as ‘Malay’).  Malay likened himself to a babysitter in the the music-making process, with Frank as the father of the record and Malay as the co-parent who stepped in to influence the child’s upbringing.

A fascinating aspect about “channel ORANGE” is how Ocean’s choice to intertwine songs dedicated to men with songs dedicated to women shed light on the artist’s bisexual identity.  Despite Ocean not presenting himself as an LGBT spokesperson, his decision to post a confessional letter of his first love and to write songs directed to men and women, even if it were out of artistic license (which is unknown), marks a personal intent that pervades traditional heterosexual narratives in music.

“Bad Religion”, a standalone track in “channel ORANGE”, typifies a heart-wrenching case of unrequited love from one man to another, where the speaker uses the taxi as a confessional booth and his driver as his “shrink for the hour.”  Ocean’s bad religion is being trapped in a “one-man cult” as he pushes his voice to the breaking point over his lamentation that he could “never make him [the man] love me [him].”

Live performance of “Bad Religion”

Ocean’s album, born from the need to channel worlds that were “rosier” than his, plays like a catharsis after a thunderstorm, a series of films that follow a musical sequence through his storytelling.

Confessing to Tumblr (and the world) his sexuality prior to “channel ORANGE” liberated him as a musician and a person.  As he free fell after shattering a glass ceiling of homophobia in the musical spheres he belongs to, he wrote, “listen closely… I can hear the sky falling too.”

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