Page Illustration: Boys Don’t Cry Magazine, 2016
ASSIGNED READINGS & MEDIA
Ocean, Frank (2016). Blonde. United States: Self-Released (Stream album via numerous sources paid and free).
Lewellyn-Taylor, Benjamin (2019). The Free Black Artist: Frank Ocean Through a Decolonial Lens. Black Theology 17(1): 52-68.
Hartman, Saidiya (2019). “The Beauty of the Chorus,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, 297-343. New York: Norton (Required Text).
The Beauty of the Chorus
In the chapter, “The Beauty of the Chorus,” Hartman introduces us to Mabel Hampton, a 17 year old girl, who fled her lot in life as a servant in a white family’s home in Jersey City to become a chorus line dancer in Manhattan – in the summer of 1919.
Similar to the thematics in Frank Ocean’s Blonde, we are brought into the complex network of friendships, lovers, and queer spaces that helped to shape Mabel in her search for freedom.
Three key themes run through both pieces that we will focus on in this week’s lecture content: (1) Practicing freedom and autonomy; (2) Black queer love as revolutionary and heartbreaking; and (3) racial capitalism.
Practicing Autonomy and Freedom
In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments Saidiya Hartman suggests that for Mabel, “Coney Island provided her exit from servitude, and the stage was the free territory” (299). For Mabel, dancing and singing provided her with a radical hope of living otherwise and, as Hartman explains, “choreography was just another kind of movement of freedom, another opportunity to escape service, another elaboration of the general strike.”
If we reflect on Benjamin Lewellyn-Taylor’s article, “The Free Black Artist,” we witness a similar story in the rise of Christopher Lonny Breaux (aka Frank Ocean). Frank Ocean’s upbringing in New Orleans surrounded him with music, including the jazz records introduced to him by his mother (who we hear in a vocal recording titled “Be Yourself”, track 3 of Blonde). He struggles working multiple jobs to pay for recording time in studios only to have his entire home/recordings washed away in Hurricane Katrina. He is forced to leave his hometown to pursue a career elsewhere, first in Houston, then Los Angeles. His struggles for freedom from the corporate controlled recording industry and his influences in the Black queer community become central to his personal, social, and political development.
Tumult, upheavel, flight – it was the articulation of living free, or at the very least trying to, it was the way to insist I am unavailable for servitude. I refuse it. (299)
On the dance floor it was clear that existence was not only a struggle, but a beautiful experiment too. It was an inquiry about how to live when the future was foreclosed. How was it possible to thrive under assault. Could the joy afforded by the cabaret attenuate the assault of racism? (307)
Reflecting on these concepts of living free and beautiful experiments in Hartman’s story of Mabel Hampton, think about the interplay between the tracks “Be Yourself” and “Solo”. In Season 3, Episode 11 of the podcast Dis/sect, host Cole Cushna delves into the interesting interplay between Ocean and his mother.
She is giving heartfelt advice in “Be Yourself” about not doing drugs and yet, the opening line of “Solo” talks about Ocean on an acid trip:
Hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing by myself
Gone off tabs of that acid
Ocean, like Hartman, is describing the push-pull of desire/freedom and responsibility. The song “Solo” plays with the theme of duelling heaven and hell. It is meant to portray the fears, tensions, failures, and vulnerabilities that are imbedded in one’s journey to freedom and autonomy.
Ocean suggests, “in hell, in hell, there’s heaven” – how can we related this to Mabel Hampton’s story of freedom?
Black Queer Love as Revolutionary & Heartbreaking
Without a doubt, both Hartman’s narrative of the life of Mabel Hampton and Frank Ocean’s autobiographical Blonde are meant to grapple with the revolutionary possibilities of Black queer love but also the heartbreaks, failures, and missed opportunities that are produced by the social and political context of the day.
In Frank Ocean’s tracks, “Self Control” and “Good Guy” we hear Ocean talk about the beautiful experiments of love that he explores in queer relationships. In self control he is rueing a lost love or a missed connection – the timing isn’t right – the fears and vulnerabilities each is willing to expend contradict each other. Their sexual relationship is on the down low, and Ocean is wishing that it could be public, but the other person is in a relationship and fears leaving and perhaps fears the queerness of his love.
I came to visit, ’cause you see me like a UFO
That’s like never, ’cause I made you use your self-control
And you made me lose my self-control, my self-control
Keep a place for me, for me
I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s no thing
Keep a place for me
It’s no thing, it’s nothing
It’s no thing, it’s nothing
In a similar way we learn about Mabel Hampton’s relationship with Gladys, an older women married to a man, who promises Mabel’s best friend Mildred’s mom that she wouldn’t “mess around” with Mabel. But their desire for each other, their desire to find queer love in spaces where it felt so hard to find creates a situation where Gladys plays on the emotions, vulnerabilities, and naïveté of a young 17 year old Mabel in a way that both deeply hurts the girl and provides her with a window into the possibilities of queer love. It is a messy and at times unconsensual lesson in the ways that Black queer love is circumscribed by the fears, harms, and intergenerational traumas caused by the constriction of freedom in living in a racist and homophobic social context.
In contrast, Ocean’s “White Ferrari” talks about the transformative possibilities of queer love. In parallel to the relationships (some romantic/sexual and other platonic) that helped to shape Mabel’s life (Mildred, Ruth, A’lelea Walker, Gladys Bently, Jackie Mabley, etc.), Ocean uses “White Ferrari” to talk about how intimate relationships are foundational to the transformative power of love.
Primal and naked
You dream of walls that hold us imprisoned
It’s just a skull, least that’s what they call it
And we’re free to roam
We immediately see Ocean questioning this freedom. In the next track, “Seigfried,” Ocean struggles with the vulnerability of living outside of the logics of dominant society.
He recoils, singing:
The markings on your surface
Your speckled face
Flawed crystals hang from your ears
I couldn’t gauge your fears
I can’t relate to my peers
I’d rather live outside
I’d rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here
Maybe I’m a fool
Maybe I should move
And settle, two kids and a swimming pool
I’m not brave (brave)
I’m not brave
In Black Marxism, the Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Cederic Robinson introduces us to the concept of racial capitalism. He suggests, as we have studied in the works of Black feminists like the Combahee River Collective, that we must understand capitalism as being inherently tied to racism. That the two are inseparable.
Hartman seeks to reaffirm the depths in which racial capitalism transformed the lives of young Black women seeking to live free in early 20th Century New York City. By the end of the chapter, Mabel Hampton whose experiences as a chorus dancer had given her a love for theatre, opera, for freedom and uncompromising queerness in an era that disallowed it, and a desire to live her life in a more masculine expression – was still – in the end relegated back to domestic servitude.
Her lived reality returns her to the market for day laborers, Hartman noting, “that white uniform was the one dress she was still forced to wear”. Exhibiting that her ability to freely express her gender, her sexuality, and her queer Blackness was still tied to the social and historical context of racial capitalism that returned her to one of the few means of survival for Black Americans in that time.
Meanwhile, on the final track in Frank Ocean’s Blonde, “Futura Free,” Ocean reflects on his success and his desire to live free in relation to the context of racial capitalism in America.
Ocean starts “Futura Free” reflecting on his life and how fame and fortune has transformed it. The song, is sung as though Ocean is speaking directly to his mother.
If I was bein’ honest
I’d say long as I could fuck three times a day
And not skip a meal, I’m good
I used to work on my feet for 7 dollars a hour
Call my momma like “Momma”
“I ain’t makin’ minimum wage, momma”
“I’m on, momma, I’m on”
“Now I’m makin’ 400, 600, 800K, momma”
“To stand on my feet, momma”
“Play these songs, it’s therapy, momma”
“They payin’ me, momma”
“I should be payin’ them”
I should be payin’ y’all, honest to God
I’m just a guy, I’m not a god
Sometimes I feel like I’m a god, but I’m not a god
He struggles with the fact that people are paying him all this money to play these songs that he considers “therapy”. He says, “I should be playing them” and rejects the way stars become deified (I’m not a god).
By the end of the song, however, just like Mabel Hampton, Ocean worries about how his Black queerness and his success will be felt by others. Will racial capitalism allow for his success to continue? He likens his life to that of Selena who was murdered by the head of her fan club. He worries that his success will be fleeting and throws him back into sex and drugs as a means of avoiding these big questions.
I’ll keep quiet and let you run your phone bill up
I know you love to talk
I ain’t on your schedule
I ain’t on no schedule
I ain’t had me a job since 2009
I ain’t on no sales floor
You say I’m changin’ on you
I feel like Selena, they wanna murder a n***a
Murder me like Selena
The album ends with a recording taken in his childhood by his little brother, Ryan Moore, who would go on to die in a car crash in 2020 at 18 years old. In the recording you can hear Frank Ocean and some of his friends dreaming about what they wanted to be when they grow up. It is innocent, gentle, nostalgic, and seeks to bring us back to the possibilities of dreaming.
Artefacts – Nikes
ARTEFACT #1 – THREE VOICES
In “Nikes” we hear three distinct “voices,” each sung by Frank Ocean himself, but each presenting a different angle/analysis.
The three voices include: (1) Pitched Down/Screw Vocals; (2) Pitched Up Vocals; (3) Frank’s Unadulterated Voice. We will analyze the role each of these voices plays in the song.
As we study in Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments in her chapter “The Beauty of the Chorus,” the lived experience of Black folks and specifically queer Black folks is often an exercise in shapeshifting and code switching. In a society so concerned with being your “true” and “authentic” self, how does one who must shape-shift to survive and life a life of relative freedom reckon with what it means to be real? We grapple with this question in Week 6 when are confronted with the concept of “realness” in the NYC ball scene in the film Paris Burning.
In “Nikes,” Ocean uses the three versions of his voices to enact these multiplicities of being. In doing so, a more full and nuanced understanding of the artist emerges.
VOICE #1: Pitched Down/Screw Vocals
The first voice we encounter in “Nikes” is the pitched down (screw) version of Frank Ocean’s voice. The voice is distinctively in the genre of Houston’s early-mid 2000s “chop-and-screw” music scene, led by DJ Screw. The notable features of a “screwed-up” vocal style are: low pitch, slow tempo, drawlish cadence – these vocals are meant to emulate the effects of drinking lean (aka sizzurp or purple drank) which is a combination beverage that includes prescription grade cough syrup (with promethazine), soda, and hard candy. The drug was popularized in the Houston chop-and-screw hip hop scene and is now cited and referenced in multiple genres of music and in many cities.
The drug combination can be addictive and deadly and in the last two decades numerous rappers have had serious medical issues, addiction, or have died from its use – including Lil’ Wayne, Mac Miller, and Pimp C (one of the originators of screw and one of the artists memorialized in Nikes).
The Pitch/Down and Screw vocals pays homage to Houston and that scene because it is the place that took Frank Ocean in following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in his home town of New Orleans in 2005.
These vocals serve as an unfiltered subconscious voice that allows Ocean to perhaps say things that he would otherwise be afraid or feel uncomfortable sharing in public. To some extent, drawing on the sociologist Erving Goffman’s work, we can consider this screw voice as the “backdoor” of Ocean’s personality.
The voice repeats “I’ve got two versions” and this is a line that we can trace to the lead up to the release of Blonde. Recall from the Lewellyn article that Ocean drops Endless to get him out of his contract and then the very next day drops Blonde as a self-released album that undercuts the success of Endless and allows him to buy back his Masters from Def Jam ostensibly freeing him from the grips of the corporate music industry. Many have speculated that this is an intentional “rubbing in the face” to Def Jam by Ocean who reveals his sleight of hand in the video for Nikes. Particularly the part in the song where this voice says “This is a set up…Tell these guys you ain’t basic.”
There is no spacing between the pitched down/screw vocals and the pitched up vocals – they are interspersed and we can imagine them as being the multiplicities of being within the Black queer body/experience.
Listen to the track only focusing on the pitched down vocals.
What does this narrator do in the story of Nikes? How does this vocal track work to reflect and recognize people Frank admires? How does this narrator reveal some of Frank’s insecurities and vulnerabilities?
VOICE #2 – Pitched Up Vocals
We encounter the second voice roughly 30 seconds into the track. This pitched-up vocal might be understood not only as a new voice, perhaps in Goffman’s analysis “the front stage” (the you, you seek to present to the world – aka your Instagram self), but we might also see this as Frank’s attempt to complicate gender. Using the pitched-up vocals, he’s able to give a feminine (though with a hint of cyborg – shout out to Week 3) quality to his vocals. We hear the opening line amidst the pitched-down/screw voice saying “I’ve got two versions”.
The first line spoken for voice #2 are the opening lyrics to the song: “These bi***es want Nikes/They looking for a check/Tell them it ain’t likely.” We learn that one of the core themes of the song is the validation that comes with conspicuous consumption and the commodification of the body (including Black bodies, queer bodies, femme bodies, and all intersections thereof).
There is a tension being held throughout the video – the body and body parts are portrayed often in commodified ways – in which only specific body parts, the performance of sexual desire, etc. are centered in the shots. However, the body is also portrayed in these power, consensual, and erotic ways that affirm sexuality, beauty, desire, and sensuality as critical to freedom. The pitched up vocals act as our narrator into these themes.
Listen to the track only focusing on the pitched up vocals.
This voice is the primary narrator in Verse 1 of the song. Listen to the track using the lyric sheet as a guide. How does Nikes move between a rant on hedonism/capitalism to an intimate admission of vulnerability, fear, imperfection, desire?
VOICE #3 – Ocean’s Unadulterated Voice
We finally hear Frank Ocean’s voice without the effects of auto-tuning in the second verse of the song. Here we can imagine this to be, again in Goffman’s analysis “the side-door,” where parts of an “authentic true” self are revealed. However, Frank Ocean seems to reject this notion of the partitioning of oneself.
Voice #3 doesn’t speak about oneself, instead it uses the “we” pronoun and clearly seeks to situate Frank Ocean within a particular community. We can assume this is the Black queer community and this segment of the song speaks directly to the queer love shared within the community, akin to the story of Mabel Hampton in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. We witness here that the pitched-down/screw vocals have disappeared and the pitched-up vocals return at the end of the song to harmonize with Ocean.
Listen to the track only focusing on the unadulterated vocals.
This voice is the primary narrator of verse 2. How does the imagery change between verse one and verse 2 in the video? How does this line up with the change in vocal styles and topics? Using the etymology of the word “queer”, identify the queer markers of these vocals tracks.
ARTEFACT #2 – CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION & COMMODIFICATION
To understand the politics of Frank Ocean, we need to take a step back and explore the ground-breaking Los Angeles hip hop collective, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All Don’t Give a Fuck (OFWGKTADGAF or Odd Future). Odd Future was a decentralized, off-kilter, controversial collective of rappers, artists, skateboarders and fashion designs who had come together to create. The most famous members of the collective included Tyler, the Creator (a co-founder), Earl Sweatshirt, Syd (front person for the Internet), and Frank Ocean. While the collective was known for often homophobic and misogynistic lyrics, many of the members of the collective (including Tyler, the Creator, Frank Ocean, and Syd) have come out as queer/non-straight. Tyler, who perhaps had the most well-deserved criticism, speaks about creating these “monstrous” type homophobic characters as part of his struggles to come to terms with his own sexuality.
Odd Future, however, was also a collective that believed in fierce independence from the music industry and sought to subvert the control and dominance that music corporations had on the lives of artists, particular Black artists. They were one of the first groups to use viral media/social media as a tool to get their music out. Many of the artists who were part of this collective and who have had commercial success have either remained independent or, like Ocean, have found a way to gain their relative independence from the corporate music industry.
Frank Ocean has just pulled a major feat in which he delivered one album to get him out of his contract with Def Jam (Endless) and then stunningly drops a second (Blonde) the very next week. He then takes an advance for the sales of Blonde from Apple to buy his entire back catalogue back from Def Jam/Universal. The video for Nikes, can be read and understood, as Lewellyn suggests in our readings, as a sort of statement of artistic freedom that refuses the trapping of hedonistic consumption pushed by corporate executives to keep artists tied to their contracts.
It is also a critique on the exploitation and appropriation of Black/queer/femme bodies by the music industry to sell records. When Frank Ocean sings “She said she need a ring like Carmelo. You must be on that white like Othello. All you want is Nikes,” he has cleverly dissected the capitalist trappings of success in the music industry and has (gently) criticized his fellow peers who have fallen for this.
She said she needs a ring like Carmelo
This lyric references the NBA player, Carmelo Anthony. One of the greatest basketball players of his generation, Anthony is perhaps best known as one of the few greats who has never one an NBA Championship. This is a photo of 36 year old Anthony playing for the Portland Trail Blazers. He has transitioned from a star player to a role player in search of that elusive championship – in which players are each granted individual rings for their accomplishment.
Here Ocean is using Anthony for a foil – suggesting that the “she” in this lyric is so desperate for the gold/riches “rings” that might be provided by the music industry that she is willing to hang on and continue to work her body for the possibility that is becoming further and further from reality.
You must be on that white like Othello.
This lyric is a triple entendre. It could be read as a reference to cocaine (i.e. you are snorting so much coke that you are delusional and overly optimistic – two common effects of the drug – that you are orchestrating your own downfall by being jealous of the financial success of others. It could also be read as a more literal reference to the Shakespeare play “Othello” in which the title character, a normally level headed and capable Moorish military officer, has just married a much younger and very beautiful white girl Desdemona and is eventually goaded by a bitter soldier into a fit of rage, jealousy, and insecurity that leads Othello to killing his wife who he truly loves. It could also be read as a comment on the racial character of the music industry – in which Black artists are made dependent on white music producers to advance their careers, but the trade off is their own subservience.
All you want is Nikes.
The last line in this triplet is biting. After dissecting both the desire and fallacy of the desire in the first two lines, Ocean simply responds, but “all you want is Nikes.” There’s a bit of a feeling of defeat. We aren’t aware if this is a personal battle inside himself or a critique at the broader hip hop culture, but the line seeks to show how conspicuous consumption has clouded our notion of what freedom looks like.
There are parallels between these lyrics and those on the (2000) critically acclaimed socialist hip hop album Let’s Get Free by Dead Prez. On the track “Hip Hop,” Dead Prez tackle similar themes and ask aloud:
These record labels slang our tapes like dope
You can be next in line and signed and still be writing rhymes and broke
You would rather have a Lexus or justice, a dream or some substance?
A Beamer, a necklace, or freedom
Recently, Senator Bernie Sanders, during his campaign to become the Democratic nominee for US President in 2020 appeared on the show Desus & Mero and discussed this culture of conspicuous consumption in a humorous sketch (start at 5:30 if you want to see the specific segement that deals with shoes).
ARTEFACT #3 – ON HISTORICAL & SOCIAL CONTEXT
The song and video for “Nikes” is very aware of the social and political context in which it is written. Beyond tracing Frank Ocean’s political chess game with Def Jam, signalling the anti-authoritarian origins of Odd Future, and laying the groundwork for a statement against conspicuous consumption – Ocean situates himself and the characters in the video – all of whom straddle the lines between beautiful and grotesque, in the current realities of Black people in America.
As noted above, the song itself pays homage to the legendary music genre of “chop-and-screw” that came out of Houston. Ocean also recognizes the other musical influences in his work but giving a shout out to the A$AP mob (New York City) who blended the Houston style “chop-and-screw” sound with a woozy New York style rap/singing style of the early 2000s.
In the video we see a cameo by A$AP Rocky, one of the most visible members of the A$AP mob, when Frank Ocean pays tribute in the first verse.
Pour up for A$AP
RIP Pimp C
RIP Trayvon, that n***a look just like me
Here we can see Frank Ocean do multiple things at once. As noted above, he situates the track and his influences within the song itself, honouring the rappers A$AP Yam and Pimp C for their contributions and inspirations to Ocean’s work. A common practice in hip hop, we can understand this practice as akin to citations in academia, we are publicly and openly citing our inspirations and sources – we are not claiming individual genius, but rather that our work is derived from a long lineage of art, thought, culture, and production. It is honouring to cite people in your music.
The final homage goes to Trayvon Martin, the 17-year old Black boy who was murdered by George Zimmerman in Florida (and for which Zimmerman was eventually acquitted based on Florida’s “Stand-Your-Ground Law“. In this part of the video, we see Frank Ocean holding up Trayvon Martin’s photo and he emphasizes the uncanny resemblance between himself and the murdered teen.
In this moment, we see Ocean wearing a blue hoodie with the words “Lover” written on the front and holding the young man’s photo. We see the visceral pain in Ocean’s eyes and feel the affective statement that Black Americans live in terror in the United States – with Ocean reflecting on how it could just as easily have been him that is being memorialized.
ARTEFACT #4 – ON QUEER BLACK FUTURITY
At exactly the 3:00 minute mark of the video Nikes, the song takes a dramatic turn. We have been listening to a discordant duet between the pitched up and pitched down/screw vocals that have to this point addressed much of the themes we’ve reflected on above.
There is silence and Ocean now appears in a simple jeans and t-shirt. The t-shirt contains text taken from NYC-based artist Jenny Holzer’s piece “truisms,” but is also evocative of text usage on the social media platform Tumblr. It is on Tumblr where Frank Ocean first spoke openly about his queerness and it is fitting imagery for the moment.
The sound comes to a brief stop. And then we hear Ocean’s true voice return – as he sings his ordinary look becomes extraordinary and he is now transported to a stage that is lit up where he wears a full white outfit and he is wearing makeup and his face is painted with a shimmering glitter.
We’ll let you guys prophesy
We’ll let you guys prophesy
We gon’ see the future first
We’ll let you guys prophesy
We gon’ see the future first
Living so the last night feels like a past life
These lines speak so clearly to José Esteban Muñoz’s queer futurity. But they are speak very clearly to the notions of the Black radical imagination that we’ve encountered in Hartman, Kelley, and other people’s works over the term. Here Ocean uses the first person plural “we” to address the audience. He says, “we’ll let you guys prophesy” and repeats this intermittently between saying, “we gon’ see the future first”. This is such a critical juncture in the song.
On the one hand Ocean can be understood as speaking about critics, media members, mainstream society, the music industry, etc. who are always trying to suggest that we should remain closed, conservative, and small – that they somehow have the ability to prophesize the future.
But Ocean refuses this. He suggest, “we gonna see the future first.” For Ocean, this futurity is formed not through predictions, but in practice. It is formed through the practice of queer Black love – something that we see intimately displayed throughout the video. Think back to the story of Mabel Hampton or Mistah Beauty in Hartman’s Wayward Lives, think about the opening story in Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, think about the worlds being created by the queens dancing in the NYC balls in Paris is Burning, think about the movements on the ground in the summer of 2020 evoking and practicing a world in which Black Lives Matter. “We gonna se the future first” is a testament to the hope, possibility, and power of radical futurity as a practice and not as a passive prediction of things to come. It is not allowing our lives to be determined but doing the hard work to have a say in the futures that could be possible.
This passage of the song ends with the line “Living so the last night feels like a past life.” There is another double entendre here. We can understand this line to be a literal reference to the queer party culture that Frank Ocean is signalling towards – one where you like with a freedom and a queer Black joyfulness that blurs time/space. There is also this second meaning, where Ocean is collapsing the past/present/future because this Black queer futurity is so powerful that we are transforming so rapidly that even last night feels like lifetimes ago.
In this respect, the song alludes to intimacies of queerness and Blackness that are outside of the white cis-heteronormative framework.
Ocean then makes illusions and comparisons between this power and the power of psychoactive drugs.
Acid on me like the rain
Weed crumbles in the glitter
Here Ocean reference the drug LSD (Acid) when he sings “acid on me like the rain” – referencing the ways in which LSD opens you up to alternate experiences – and then follows with “weed crumbles in the glitter” – evoking the imagery and intimacy of a group of presumably queer folks prepping for a night out. There are crumbles and flecks of weed mixed in to glitter (both substances notoriously hard to contain when prepping for use). There is meant to be a mix of the ethereal and the intimate in this section and so Ocean repeats “rain, glitter.” Here Ocean is trying to create a setting for the space of liminality – between dream and wake – the place of the radical imagination.
He then finishes this verse by singing about the messiness and non-conformity of queer Black love.
I may be younger but I’ll look after you
We’re not in love, but I’ll make love to you
When you’re not here I’ll save some for you
I’m not him but I’ll mean somethin’ to you
I’ll mean somethin’ too
I’ll mean somethin’ too
You got a roommate he’ll hear what we do
It’s only awkward if you’re fuckin’ him too
This final piece of the song lyrics suggest different types of intimacies – intimacies that we can trace in the lives of Hartman’s subjects in Wayward Lives. That love, intimacy, and devotion are not and do not have to be constrained by the singularity of the institutions of monogamy, marriage, white supremacy, cis-heterosexuality, etc. That we can love and make love to one another outside of these trappings and that these forms of relations are no less valid and (in fact) may provide us with connections and intimacies that have been lost.
ARTEFACT #5 – ON SPIRITUALITY
The final piece of artefact that I want to address in Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” has to do with the multiple spiritual references and overtones that permeate the record/video.
The entirety of the imagery of Blonde, an album about nostalgia, childhood, awakening, and freedom, is underscored by Frank Ocean’s love of car racing. In the video we encounter Ocean in a flame-retardant racing uniform being lit on fire in front of a number of race cars. Here, the recurrent visuals of self-immolation nod to Buddhist monks self-sacrifice in the face of oppressive forces and the concepts of re-birth and re-awakening.
For Ocean, this video, and the album Blonde are a sort of re-birth and re-awakening. This is the album that he records free from his contract with Def Jam, but it is also his first album that address and deals with his life following his decision to speak openly about his sexuality (while he posted on Tumblr the day before the release of Channel Orange – the album had been largely conceptualized and recorded before the decision to post).
There’s also a moment where Ocean speaks about his fears and insecurities in these decisions and the lines:
Speakin’ of the, don’t know what got into people
Devil be possessin homies
Demons try to body jump
Why you think I’m in this b***h wearing a fucking Yarmulke?
In these lines Ocean speaks of the possessive pull of the industry, but also of normative society and the ways in which Blackness and queerness are deemed abject and horrific. He suggests that he’s wearing a yarmulke, to symbolize that he is aware of and continues to fear the power of God – despite seeking to live and be free and co-create futures outside of those that have been laid before him.