Can Frank Ocean Oust Chris Brown As a Hip-Hop Role Model?
Chris Brown isn’t looking good. Three years after the hip-hop artist was charged with two felonies for attacking his then- and now-girlfriend Rihanna, he's been accused of punching R&B singer Frank Ocean in a recording studio parking lot, and possibly calling Ocean a homophobic slur.
Ocean, on the other hand, seems a model for a new brand of masculinity. He sang and spoke openly about his feelings for a man, and wrote about striving for wisdom and peace after the fight with Brown in a post on his Web site.
Could Ocean offer an alternative to the traditional hypermasculinity of hip-hop?
"[Ocean is] defining his sexuality in terms of 'this sexuality is masculinity,'" said Marcyliena Morgan, a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University and the executive director of the Hiphop Archive. "It's this question of black masculinity at a time when Kanye West wears skirts."
Brown and Ocean faced off again at the Grammy Awards for Best Urban Contemporary Album, where Ocean took the category. Photographs abound of Brown seated, looking sour, while the rest of the audience stood and applauded Ocean’s success. Like reports of the parking lot fight, the image crystallizes Brown as petulant and hot-tempered against Ocean who assumed the role as the "bigger man."
While Ocean’s honesty about his sexuality suggests a shift in hip-hop culture, it doesn’t signify an upheaval. Hip-hop moguls Jay-Z and Russell Simmons both supported Ocean’s announcement in statements of their own, but Simmons noted real change will take more than one artist’s confession.
“There is still a very nasty streak of homophobia in this country that we have to overcome,” Simmons told the New York Times last year.
Morgan said Frank Ocean fans may not care about his sexuality or the significance of his coming out, but are more open-minded than they might have been five years ago.
"It's the challenge of this generation to both work through it and talk about it," Morgan told Campus Progress. "What I love about hip-hop is that it challenges you to deal with all this."
For years, people of all political persuasions and musical preferences have lamented a “crisis of masculinity.” The symbolic battle between Brown’s homophobic, sexist violence and Ocean’s people-loving peace shows us that both within and outside hip-hop, there are masculine identities that can break narrow, outmoded boundaries while still boasting swagger.
Molly Savard is a reporter for Campus Progress. You can follow her on Twitter @mollicules.