“Channel Orange” Taught Me
By KB Brookins
Illustration by Carter/Reddy
I n summer 2012, I was a Black masculine lesbian going into my senior year of high school. My two other out masc friends were girl-obsessed. When I say they were girl-obsessed, I mean I haven’t fucked with one of them since 2013 ’cause she chose to hang out with a girl instead of coming to my graduation. She tried to justify it: “Bro. B, that’s my girl. You understand.” GIRL. OBSESSED. We were kings.
Like many high schoolers with home and family issues, I was with my friends more than anybody else. We linked during passing periods, in Kik group chats, and after school. We ate hot chips and smoked weed together at the corner store up the street. We bitchshopped (as we called it then, forgive me) at every mall in our area and fantasized about meeting our own Beyoncé together. I didn’t have anybody else to talk to about the things that kept me up at night—girls and what to do with my body—so I stayed with my kings in the thick of the worst summer-leading-into-fall of my life.
All through high school, being in the Wildcat Marching Band at Dunbar High School was my thing. I spent that entire summer conditioning (read: being hazed) for a drum major position. It got me all my friends, and it was the Black band in the Fort Worth, Texas, public school district. If you know anything about Black bands, you know that we practiced at least forty hours for every fifteen-minute halftime show and showed OUT—synchronized line dances and drum routines galore—for two hours every football game. The days were brutal, and the two hours before and after band practice that I had to stay back and do more—to prove I was tough enough, mature enough, man enough to be trying out for drum major—were even worse. To be a drum major was to be top of the food chain. To be front and center of every show, every formation that the band, dancers, cheerleaders, and audience members looked toward as those stadium lights flashed down. For that recognition, me and five other drum major candidates did high kicks until our legs begged us to stop. We did burpees, ran laps, and blew whistles until we couldn’t bear the pain—all just to prove to our directors, two grown-ass Black men who re-lived their golden years of being in Grambling University’s band by hazing teenagers, that our suffering was for something greater. I remember doing push-ups as the Texas sun simmered our skin at least two shades darker, yelling with every up-and-down motion: “I like it / I love it / I want more of it / make it hurt / drum majors / make it hurt.”
Looking back, I see now that my respectable-but-still-in-the-hood ass school was not ready for a fat, Black, masculine lesbian to be head honcho top of the food chain of all high school arts endeavors. But this was my first ballsy endeavor in my life, and I was determined to get one of three hot spots in the Wildcat band. I must’ve shed something like twenty pounds trying to get my mile down to ten minutes. I learned every complicated dance move—spins, splits, and air-humping motions included—and became good enough at working out that I could encourage band members who were ready to quit on exercises. I hadn’t cared to keep up with everyone else less than two months earlier, but my body got stronger in a way I’d never experienced. I simultaneously became the kind of leader I’d never seen—no-nonsense enough to demand that everybody do better, and tender-hearted enough to tell the other fat kids to gulp eight big glasses of water each day. I told them to flick off anyone making cheap shots at their expense. In three months, I went from clowning on the drumline to giving pep talks to the outcasts of an already outcasted group of kids. If I wasn’t the best dancer, surely I was the best leader by a longshot.
And then, something happened.
“We can only have three, so one of y’all needs to go,” one director said. He motioned at me and another guy—one hundred pounds smaller than me—to do a head-to-head of the night’s dance routine. And we did it, fifteen times in a row.
If I wasn’t already glistening and gasping for air, I definitely was after ten splits, twists, and high-intensity knee-kicks in a row. Both me and my competitor made sure that every move, motion, and sound from our drum major whistles was precise. Though he was in better shape than me, I was keeping up, and I knew that I was a better leader—given his perpetual lateness and childish antics with other band members.
After three months of conditioning, and one hour of dancing until my knees nearly gave out, I was cut. When asked for a reason, both directors said, “You just weren’t as enthusiastic as him.” Though they’d both told me for months that drum majors need to be good dancers and, most of all, good leaders, being eliminated because I didn’t have the endurance of a one-hundred-sixty-pound teenage boy was the biggest blow I’d had to my confidence in all my eighteen years of life. Upon learning this, I involuntarily boo-hooed and requested to leave the band hall from the back door.
“This is bullshit,” I typed a million times via Kik. I didn’t want to quit band—the one extracurricular I shared with all my friends. I texted my kings with all my rage while flipping through my phone to find music to cry to.
The album Channel Orange by Frank Ocean had dropped two months prior, but because I was so busy trying to put on my poker-face for niggas who didn’t actually want me to win, I hadn’t listened to it yet. I planned to save all the music I needed to catch up on for after I made drum major. Since that ship had sailed, I said “fuck it” and huddled my sore legs close to my chest. I made a nest of myself under my sad-ass tear-soaked sheets.
My taste at that time was mostly Odd Future, Kanye West, the Weeknd’s House of Balloons tape, and Jodeci (don’t ask). Because I saw so much of myself in Odd Future—a group of Black kids who dared to do shit mostly attributed to white people—I kept up with their every move, ready to mosh at concerts and ride my skateboard around the tire plant close to my house while consuming their angsty content. Eighty percent of my listening that summer was the Odd Future tapes, Purple Naked Ladies, Bastard, MellowHype/High, and the “Oldie” video on repeat. I also listened to Goblin in secret since niggas thought Tyler was devil-worshipping or something. So it made sense to give Frank’s new project a chance, since he was part of the tradition that had fit who I was at that time so well.
Channel Orange was different from the rest. My kings had told me it was “mid,” but I wanted to listen for myself. From the “Start,” I felt emotions I’d never allowed myself: reflection, nostalgia, and queerness. I’d learned that in order to survive my hood, Stop Six, as a person with boobs and a vagina, you had to be straight and girly, a lipstick lesbian, or a hard-ass stud. There was no in-between since the in-between that still wasn’t accepted was queerness. There were no elders to teach me about Stop Six, an under-resourced Black neighborhood of a city that disowned or resented you for being anything close to queer, so I folded into its mold and stayed as incurious as possible. I leaned into what everyone was calling me anyway— slurs I won’t name here—so men lost interest in me (unless it was the lazy “I can turn you straight” come-on hurled at me from grown Black men while I walked home from school). I just wanted to survive.
The extent of what I’d already known about Frank Ocean was “Thinkin Bout You,” the hook he sang on “Analog 2” with Tyler, The Creator and Syd, and the eerily beautiful “White,” a version of which was also included on Channel Orange. I didn’t even peep his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra beforehand, so I went into streaming the LP with no expectations. The opening atmosphere took me to the backseat of my nigga Julian’s car in the spring before—all the nights we spent smoking weed and lying to our parents about where and who we were. The production of “Start”—the people laughing, clicks of the iPhone, and gaming sounds—was something like entering somebody’s weird-smelling house while their parents were outta town and watching dudes I secretly wanted to smash play video games till their high wore off. If you know, you know how beautifully that captures Black boihood.
And then I listened to “Thinkin Bout You” again. Though this record was hilariously memed in the earlier days of social media due to its dramatic portrayal of love (Google “a potato flew around my room”), it felt so vulnerable. And real. It didn’t hit me till I listened to Channel Orange that an r&b record could make you feel close to a beloved through poetic lyrics, spacey production, and layered guitar with a man spilling his soul in falsetto and performance alone. Frank Ocean didn’t mention gender at all in “Thinkin Bout You.” For the first time I closed my eyes and saw a lover in rotating gender presentations, holding all of me close.
Frank embodied all my awkwardness (No, I don’t like you, I just thought you were cool enough to kick it) and my insecurity (You know you were my first time, a new feel) in three minutes. For the first time, I knew without a doubt Black masculinity was queer. And I don’t mean that in the “emasculating Black men” way (though, I think anyone who says this is silly). I mean that there was no place for my Black, fat, femme, masc, queer, trans self to be me in this world. I mean that my Black, fat, queer, trans self can’t be who I am in much of this world, though there are many folks—Ocean included—like me.
My kings made it clear that it was “gay” to do something that Frank was doing—being tender with a nameless, bodyless beloved. Even if the beloved was a woman (fellas, is it gay to love a woman?), it wasn’t okay for me to be me. Though everyone around us invalidated the existence of Black queer womanhood, we invalidated each other with our limited, man-influenced masculinity.
Both then and now, there is no world where Black masculinity is treated like something expansive and real. There is no world that exists where Black masculinity is “normal.” In a lineup of me, my kings, and every Black boy I grew up with, you’ll find some kind of desire, and wounds—many of which can be attributed to performing masculinity. We are queer by design, and in Channel Orange, it felt like Frank got that. In all my anger, disappointment, and sadness about not getting drum major, I teleported to a place where Black masculinity was layered with complex tenderness.
“Pink Matter” reminded me of the times in Julian’s pickup with many, many pink skies. The lack of 808s, his vocals moving from octave to octave—all of it felt like the softest thing, and it held me closer than any record had before.
There’s something about this track—joined by André 3000’s rapping, on the surface, about pussy—that crystalized our queerness. Here, he recalls the body of the Southern Black woman, and how he, a Southern Black man, can handle all of her curves with ease. Black women and femmes have bodies that intimidate the non-Black gaze (as do Black men and masculine people), so to say that he can love, and feel no qualms about a Black woman that would “intimidate” others, feels, well, queer.
Until my first listen of “Forrest Gump,” the second-to-last track on Channel Orange, I had never heard a man sing a love song to and toward another man. I didn’t know that it was possible for men to embrace loving more than one gender at a time—and in the same album, no less. Imagine me, a Black boi with no examples of queerness that didn’t need to be hypermasculine, hearing that song. Imagine me finding myself in between the heartache of being rejected and the imagery of Frank’s queer admiration.
Around the time his album dropped, Frank published an open letter on Tumblr saying his first love had been another man. And because we didn’t have Lil Nas X or Kehlani the way we do in the mainstream now (and they even still catch heat), this beautifully crafted letter got ridiculously homophobic responses. The opening sentence was “whoever you are… wherever you are… I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike.” Yet Black people came from every nook and cranny to say that they were not like him.
“I’m not bumping him no more bro. I can’t do that gay shit,” one of my kings said as if we weren’t also queer. It’s as if this album didn’t transcend harmful ideas of what they thought Black gay manhood was. I remember the response being terrible. Many headlines said his coming out was career suicide, and at my high school, many Black boys refused to listen to him again. Queer-antagonism took over my peers’—and the world’s—better judgment.
In Channel Orange, Ocean declined simplifications—of his sexuality, and of what r&b as a genre could say or do. Despite the negative messages around me, I was dialed in to his message.
When I first listened to this beautiful album, its songs started formulating questions I’m still finding answers to. The entire album was so healing, and it came to me at the best possible time. I was able to make more sense of myself, and of how I wanted to continue to queer the idea of what Black masculinity could be. I started the years-long process of shedding the shame I felt for not being masc enough, or straight enough, and found language for my multiple-gendered desire. Even if there was no one “like me” at my high school, there were folks like me in music. Ocean was one of them.
I wish you could see what I see spoke to me, and now, I finally think I do.
After that summer, I went on to stay in band as a section leader until I graduated. Then I went to undergrad and gained more language that contextualized my experiences. Ten summers later, I’m wearing what I wanna wear and sleeping with who treats me well. My life’s work as a writer, workshop facilitator, and cultural worker is to make Black people, queer people, and masculine people fall in love with who they are and shed the daily violence of betraying themselves and others. Though I’m lucky to have found some of me in Channel Orange, there is still work to be done, so I organize, teach, and create art that aims to move toward a world where marginalized people find themselves sooner, and under better circumstances.
Kids like me were tasked with concealing so much; Ocean taught me to sit with those unspeakable feelings, and to speak them. Now I put Channel Orange on when I need a reminder of my inherently Black, inherently queer personhood. I’m transported to a remote soundscape with sultry vocals, airy instrumentals, and colorful harmonies— where expansive, untemplated masculinity for Black men and masculine people resides. Freedom for Black masculine folks sounds like polyphonic interludes, every gender getting the love that they need, and an album that needs no “coming out” statements. Just a full embrace for the moment of genius that it is.
Maybe that’ll exist one day in the land outside of Channel Orange. Until it does, I’ll be visiting there, one spin at a time.