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Will Same-Sex Romance Sink R&B's Ocean?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barber Shop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, with us in our D.C. studio. In New York City, Kai Wright, editorial director of ColorLines.com. Joining us from Boston, he trained as a physician. He's now a health care consultant and a contributor to the venerable conservative magazine, the National Review, Neil Minkoff. And new to the shop this week, we have Fernando Vila. He is the managing editor of Univision News in English. He's with us from Miami.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?


NEIL MINKOFF: Doing great.

FERNANDO VILA: Great. Thanks for having me.

IZRAEL: Oh, Fernando, what's up, dude?

VILA: What's up, man? Thanks for having me.

IZRAEL: Mi casa es su casa, man. Welcome.

VILA: Muchas gracias.

IZRAEL: Hey, Dr. Neil, what's up, man?

MINKOFF: I'm just kicking it up here.

IZRAEL: It's your world, brother.


MINKOFF: You're just visiting. I appreciate you stopping by.

IZRAEL: I totally - totally just visiting. Kai, it's always, it's a pleasure.

WRIGHT: How you doing, Jimi?

IZRAEL: Let's get things started. You know, there was jaw-dropping news this week. Anderson Cooper, journalist and television personality, is gay, apparently, and he announced his sexual orientation in an email to blogger Andrew Sullivan recently. Now, that didn't surprise a lot of people in the media or out, who've been saying for years that Cooper is gay.

But the shock came later from a lot of music fans this week when R&B singer and songwriter Frank Ocean wrote online in his personal Tumblr that his first love was a man.

MARTIN: You know, that, I think - for people who don't know his work, you may have heard his work, even if you didn't know that it was his work, because he's done a lot of writing for other artists like Kanye West, Jay-Z, Justin Bieber and others. But he's 24 years old. He's with this very influential music collective, young, sort of cutting edge, you know, rising star. It's called - what is it? Odd Future?

IZRAEL: Odd Future.

MARTIN: Odd Future. But I'll play a little bit of him performing one of his own songs, "Novacane."


FRANK OCEAN: (Singing) Novacane for the pain, for the pain. Can't you feel it, feel it? Novacane, novacane, cane, cane.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Thanks for that. Yeah. I mean, clearly, that dude has a great voice, and that's good stuff. So Kai, you know what? We might as well get this out of the way, because you and I probably aren't going to agree on this point, because you know what? I've never thought that hip-hop was particularly - the hip-hop community or the hip-hop culture, rap music in specific, was particularly homophobic, number one.

And number two, I'm happy that Frank Ocean's out. I mean, good for him, and it is good for the culture. But, you know, I'll be impressed with the artist that comes in with his identity full and intact. You know, when you get in the door, you got a few writing credits to your resume, you know, you don't have a lot to lose. And it's not like Odd Future is a platinum-selling artist.

You know, he's - it's risky, but it's not so risky. And I don't know if it was a secret. If anybody listened to the lyrics, I don't know if it was a big, huge secret. But Kai, I'm sure you got something. Come on, man.

WRIGHT: Well, but, I mean, the thing is that, actually, it's really quite brave, actually. I mean, he wrote into his songs - that's where this started is, on his - and yes. He's an up-and-coming artist, but he's up-and-coming. I mean, he's not Jay-Z, right? And...

IZRAEL: I mean, he's here. He's a songwriter.

WRIGHT: Right. But he's launching his career as a solo artist. He's not a household name yet. He still has a lot to lose, and he writes into his songs references to his first love being a man. He writes just an - he just writes an honest song. And, actually, I think that's the focus for me, is he's just honest. He's just - you know, all of the rest of it laid to the side, you know, what he did was just honest. He just said: I'm going to write a song about being in love, and that song for me was about being in love with a man. And so I'm just going to write that honestly, and we'll see what happens. And what's happened is that people reacted largely positively and supportively.

And, in his Tumblr, which I think were going to be in his liner notes, he further tells the story of how he got caught in this love and how he looked up - you know, it's actually a beautiful note.

IZRAEL: It is.

WRIGHT: And I think, you know, it's - regardless of where he is in his career, I think we can disagree. I think he still has a lot to lose from it, but regardless of where he is in his career, no one's done that. And no one's done that in hip-hop. And it's a big deal, and it was brave. And equally important to me is the support he's received in response to it.

And, you know, and on the question of whether hip-hop is uniquely homophobic, I think, in general, black people get a bad rap for being uniquely homophobic. I think we live in a homophobic world, and like, you know, hip-hop has a lot of issues around sex, period, right, and how it deals with sex.

But then there's a lot of hip-hop artists that deal with it in a great way. So I think the question of whether hip-hop is uniquely homophobic or not really is beside the point. The point is that nobody has done this, and he did it, and it was beautiful.

IZRAEL: All right. I'll take that. All right. Fernando, Anderson Cooper said he didn't come out publicly before because, you know, he just thought it was important to keep his life private as a journalist. As a fellow journalist, what do you think?

VILA: I actually respect him more now in the sense that I think it's more transparent and more honest on his part to come out with his sexuality. You know, when I - if he's reporting on an issue that, you know, deals with homophobia or gay rights, I actually feel closer to him and more identified with him now reporting on that issue now that he's been more honest and open about his own sexuality. So I think it's an unquestionably good thing.

And I also think that for, you know, probably one of the most revered broadcast journalism - journalists in the United States to come out, I think, again, is unquestionably good in the sense that it will further demystify the biases that exist around, you know, gay people and whatnot. So I think it's great and, as a fellow journalist, I respect him greatly.

IZRAEL: Dr. Neil.

MINKOFF: Well, the thing I was thinking about that I hadn't until just now was that you were talking about whether or not hip-hop has an issue with this. But you know, Ray Davies wrote "Lola" back in - what, '64? And pop music has had openly gay superstars like George Michael for a very long time, and we're sitting here - I agree Frank Ocean is brave, and I love Frank Ocean's producing work with Jay-Z and Kanye West.

But I think there is something to be said about the fact that this is considered very brave in 2012, when other parts of pop music have dealt with this for a long time.

IZRAEL: Yeah. I mean, I don't mean to say - I don't mean to suggest it's not brave. If that's how I sounded, I certainly apologize. Kai, you got something to add?

WRIGHT: Well, I also wanted to say - and, you know, both Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean, you know, we talk about their acts as celebrities and it's super important. But really, what it connects for to me - and this is why I focus on how people react to it, is because what's really brave are the 14-year-olds I've met who face violence and refuse to be dishonest about who they are. And, you know, while Anderson Cooper's talking about being in war zones, what's really brave are the people I have met in countries where the state is actively campaigning for violence against gay people who refuse to be dishonest about who they are.

That's shocking bravery. And the more individuals like Frank Ocean, like Anderson Cooper, like me, like whoever else is willing to stand up in public and say, hey, you know what? I'm honest about who I am. I'm honest about who I love. The more it's possible for those people to do it. And that's - I think that's the important story here.

MARTIN: Can I just throw one thing in here, though? As a journalist having known Anderson for years - we were former colleagues, you know, at ABC. I don't think he was ever in in the sense that he never hid or lied about his life if asked. But it does point up for me, you know, as a person of color, how he got to claim the privilege of universality as a white male. You know, whereas a person of color reporting on issues that touch on issues of race seems to me as constantly having to defend their privilege of universality, the privilege of objectivity. And not talking about it doesn't necessarily convey that privilege to you.

And this is - I'm reminded of this sort of time and time again, you know, when I have colleagues - white colleagues who report on race who are given the privilege of universality and objectivity or the assumption of universality and objectivity that reporters of color are not, just when they show up.

And so, you know, I'm not mad at him at all. I feel like people should make whatever choice they feel is appropriate for them, you know, within a professional context. I think, you know, if he felt that he didn't want to convey to people - just like people don't necessarily feel that they discuss their religious commitments or faith commitments because they want other people to feel comfortable in discussing views that they may not share.

I think he was perfectly within his rights as a professional to decide that that was not the right role for him as a host or as an anchor. But I just want to point out that he still has a privilege that other people don't have, and I just would - I would wish that people would just be mindful and humble about that when talking about it. I'm not saying he's not. I'm just asking my other - my colleagues, when they think about the world that other people have to live in and doing their job. That's my only point. I hope that...

IZRAEL: I'm glad you said that.

WRIGHT: And he had a bit of a Rock Hudson - he had a bit of a Rock Hudson thing going, too, I have to say. I mean, you know...

MARTIN: So what's so - but what does - what...

WRIGHT: Everybody who needed to know knew, and everybody who didn't need to know, didn't know, you know. And I think...

MARTIN: But what's wrong with that? I mean, why aren't you allowed to sort of say, I want to slip into a role? I mean, a lot of people who are - Rock Hudson, character actors, whatever. They don't want to talk about their lives because they want to be seen as whatever role they're playing. And I don't know that that's - is that so...

WRIGHT: Well, but - OK. Fine. But it's a little rich to then do that in the name of integrity. Right?

MARTIN: I feel you. I feel you.

VILA: I think that a reporter's personal experience undoubtedly has to inform his coverage, and his commitment has to be as honest as possible. And, again, I think that - speaking to what Michel was talking about, that him being open and transparent about his own personal experience only makes his reporting, I think, more authentic.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're having our weekly visit to the Barber Shop. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, ColorLines.com's editorial director Kai Wright, health care consultant, National Review contributor Neil Minkoff and the managing editor of Univision News in English, Fernando Vila.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: All right, guys. Well, I know everybody had a good 4th of July. Right?

WRIGHT: Indeed.


MINKOFF: Absolutely.

IZRAEL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: It was hot.

VILA: A lot of sun in Miami.

IZRAEL: Yeah. I hear you, man. There were fireworks at my house, but none that I can talk about on the radio.

But comedian Chris Rock tweeted a holiday salutation to his followers. It read, quote, "happy white people's" - I'm trying to do Chris Rock. I'll just read it straight.

MARTIN: Yeah. No. Yeah. Don't bother.

IZRAEL: Yeah, right. "Happy white people's independence day. The slaves weren't free, but I'm sure they enjoyed the fireworks," unquote. Now, Chris Rock got some pushback. Angry conservatives flooded the Twitter-verse. Some other folks spoke up defending Rock.

Fernando, was it offensive, or was it funny?

VILA: I think it was true, above all things. I mean, I think comedians often are able to point out hard truths that us in the media are sometimes too scared to comment on. I mean, I think it's undoubtedly true that, you know, slaves during this nation's independence were not free. And I think this nation, at times, has trouble coming to terms with its own history and speaking openly about the hard truths and the sort of the darker side of our culture and history. And I think part of the backlash is a result of that frustration.

IZRAEL: You know what, man? I don't think that's what it is at all.

VILA: Yeah.

IZRAEL: I'm about to put you up on game.

VILA: Do it.

IZRAEL: And all you listeners out there, sit back. Black men in media need to stop using Twitter, because - let me just - no, seriously.

WRIGHT: What are you talking about, Jimi?

IZRAEL: No, listen. No. OK. All right, Kai. All right. Check this out. Check this out. From Charles Blow to Toure to Joe Williams to Roland Martin to Chris Rock, it seems as if no matter what you say out there, there are people out there monitoring your tweets, waiting to be offended by something you've tweeted. Then you end up in a space where you have to defend yourself.

Now, people that follow my Twitter will tell you I don't tweet anymore, you know, because I'm a grown man and I'm not going to defend myself to a bunch of pseudonym-having hipsters in 140 characters or less. So it's not going down like that.

WRIGHT: That sounds very personal to me, Jimi. I don't know.

IZRAEL: No. It's not personal.

VILA: Yeah. I think you had a bad experience.

IZRAEL: It's personal to me because I'm black and male, and I've watched it in the media, how it just seems as if black men, when they say hello, there's somebody ready to be - they tweet hello. Good morning. Somebody's ready to be offended. Kai, you want a piece of that?

WRIGHT: No. I mean, you know what? I think, actually, I'd universalize that a bit. That's, to some degree, the medium and its relationship with news and popular media is somebody says something crazy, we all react to it. But - and I...

IZRAEL: But only black men get fired, though.

WRIGHT: Well, and I will - you know, there's a separate conversation aside from Twitter about how much of a break people get for various things, and the fact that there are - that black people, in general, are held to a higher standard in media and in everything else.

On the subject of this tweet, it is absurd that this is controversial. I mean, it was just a statement of fact. And, you know, I often - I like to start my July 4th always by reading Frederick Douglas' 1852 independence address, "What, to the Slave, is the 4th of July?" And Chris Rock managed to turn, you know, a several-thousand word address into 140 characters that was equally poignant.

But it's - I would encourage all of our listeners to look up that speech to get a full understanding of what Chris Rock meant.

IZRAEL: Well, wait a second. Wait. Chris...

MARTIN: Yeah. But...

IZRAEL: Nobody takes Chris Rock serious. He's like Americans...

MARTIN: Yes, they do.

IZRAEL: America's mail room guy. I mean, you know, he's funny, but nobody takes him seriously.

MARTIN: But I think the point is, though, that Chris Rock is living in a nice house in New Jersey, and he's not Frederick Douglas. I mean, that's the - I mean, the point is that...

VILA: So that means he can't have a cultural commentary?

MARTIN: No. I mean he can. He can.

MINKOFF: Guys, I'm probably the furthest to the right of anybody in the Barber Shop, and I saw this tweet on Drudge on the 4th of July, and I laughed out loud. It's hysterical. It is an incredibly funny tweet. It's very pithy. Chris Rock is a very funny guy. I just think it's good for all of us that I'm not the one on the Barber Shop who said black men shouldn't tweet anymore.

IZRAEL: Well, I'll go over - I'm that dude.

VILA: I say tweet on, Jimi. Tweet on.

IZRAEL: I'm that dude.

MARTIN: Tweet on, tweet on. So I guess we shouldn't be looking for news about what you're going to have for lunch.

IZRAEL: No, no. Forget about it.

MARTIN: That's going to disappoint us greatly. That's going to disappoint us greatly. All right. All right. Before we go - before we go, I must - I must - I must - I must alert the world to important news from sports. Here it is.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (unintelligible) scores in consecutive finals.

MARTIN: You know, Fernando, this is for you. Sunday's Euro 2012 Soccer Championship match, Spain beat Italy four-to-zero.

VILA: I can listen to that over and over and over again.

MARTIN: Well, you know...

VILA: One of the happiest days of my life.

MARTIN: Because?

VILA: Because - oh, my parents are originally from Spain. I've been obsessed with soccer my whole life, especially the Spanish national team and Spanish soccer. And, you know, to see my country, you know, going through tough times - you know, 25 percent unemployment, 50 percent youth unemployment - and get that little kernel of happiness through sport, I was just - I was really touched, and I thought it was a historic win, one of the best teams of all time.

MARTIN: Totally objective on that, of course.

VILA: Yes.


MARTIN: On that note, that was our little welcome to the Barber Shop gift to you.

VILA: Right. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: So nice of Spain to arrange that for you. The question was: Was anybody else watching? Tell the truth. Those of you who had electricity. Anybody else? Come on, now. Come on, now. You all ain't right. You all ain't right.

MINKOFF: Not me.

MARTIN: OK. Next time, they'll be watching.

VILA: You don't know what you're missing out on.

MARTIN: That's right. Well, thank you all. Thank you all for coming. Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's also adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He was with us in Washington, D.C.

Neil Minkoff is a - trained as a physician. He's a health care consultant. He's a contributor to the National Review, with us from NPR member station WGBH in Boston.

Kai Wright is editorial director of ColorLines.com, a daily news site covering race, politics and culture, with us from our bureau in New York.

Fernando Vila is the managing editor of Univision News in English. He joined us from member station WLRN in Miami.

Thanks, everybody.

VILA: Thank you so much.

MINKOFF: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

WRIGHT: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm actually going to be off next week, but public radio's Maria Hinojosa will be hosting. Tune in for more talk on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.