Reprint Special – Bad Religion: One Man’s Stand in the Face of Homophobia in Hip-Hop

You’re probably wondering when I’m going to run out of these stupid reprints.  The answer is never.

This one comes from an odd spot as well – in the spring of 2013, I took the course “Cultural Study of Pop Music” at USF.  It was a fine course – early on, I learned quite a bit about the roots of popular music, but after spring break we reached a point in history where I knew almost everything our professor would drone on and on about, so I ended up maybe attending three of the main lecture classes for the last two months of the semester.  And I still got an A.  Because I know what I’m talking about.

Anyway.

This essay, about the track “Bad Religion” from Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGEdiscusses the cultural importance of the song, and the context of its lyrics and music.  I always thought that I did well with this essay, so I’m sharing it for this weekend’s special.  Hopefully I don’t look like an asshole in the process.

iTunes, A to Z will update on Tuesday and Friday this week, most likely.  See you then.

“Bad Religion” is a song by Frank Ocean, appearing on his 2012 debut album Channel Orange. The song, roughly three minutes in length, describes the narrator (presumably Ocean) sitting in a cab with a taxi driver that doesn’t understand English, lamenting about his unrequited love for another man, a love that causes him pain due to his faith, referring to said faith as a “bad religion” and referring to his unrequited love as a “one-man cult.” The song, while deeply personal and autobiographical for Ocean (who revealed his sexuality in an open letter on Tumblr in June 2012, prior to the album’s release), also serves as a subtle critique of traditional Christianity’s general stance on homosexuality, as well as a dare of sorts for the R&B and hip-hop genres, which Ocean is deeply associated with, in regards to their traditionally less-than-welcoming stances on homosexuality.

The primary focus of the song is the narrator’s apparent unrequited love for another man, feeling cursed by that love, both because it is unrequited and supposedly because it goes against his religion (causing that religion to be seen by him as the titular “bad religion”). The song’s significance to Ocean was put into context by a letter he wrote in June 2012, intended for the liner notes of his then-unreleased album Channel Orange. In it, he wrote of his first love, who happened to be male: “4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too.” Ocean goes on to describe how he was led to believe that his feelings were unrequited, mirroring and providing inspiration for the situation presented in “Bad Religion.” He speaks in the letter of screaming at his “Creator,” for an “explanation. Mercy maybe. Peace of mind to rain like Manna somehow,” providing context for the mentions of his religion bringing him to his knees, and subsequently labeling it a “bad religion.”

Frank Ocean, from a  September 2012 photoshoot.

Frank Ocean, from a September 2012 photoshoot.

“Bad Religion”, when put in the context of Channel Orange, provides the first overt mentions of same-sex relations, one of just two songs to do so (the other being “Forrest Gump,” which is two songs after “Bad Religion” in the album’s tracklist). As such, the song was the first one that hinted at Ocean’s sexuality, as he had not previously written any songs containing same-sex relations. In retrospect, the song “Oldie,” from The OF Tape, Vol. 2 contained hints at Ocean’s sexuality using clever wordplay; during Ocean’s verse, he raps the line “I’m hi and I’m bye / wait, I mean I’m straight”, drawing on the dual meanings of hi/high (the greeting, and the state of being after smoking pot), bye/bi (the greeting, and the sexuality, which matches Ocean’s), and straight (straight as in “okay”, and straight as in the sexuality).

Aside from the personal connotations of the song, “Bad Religion” also contains references and subtle critiques of Christianity, which Ocean had been a casual practitioner of as a teenager, though he has not mentioned his current beliefs in recent interviews. The song opens with organ chords, immediately evoking imagery of church and services, dovetailing with the song’s title. The references become more overt in Ocean’s lyrics, where he sings “if it brings me to my knees / it’s a bad religion”, perhaps in direct reference to Christianity and its stance on homosexuality. Futhermore, the cab driver mentioned in the song says to Ocean “Allahu akbar”, an Arabic phrase meaning “God is Great”, perhaps trying to send a message to Ocean, or perhaps reassure him. Ocean responds with “don’t curse me”, perhaps misunderstanding the cab driver, or believing that religion isn’t the answer he’s looking for, reinforced with the above refrain, which come after this exchange.

However, at the end of the song, Ocean instead points to his unrequited love as the “bad religion” mentioned before, instead conveying a completely different meaning than what could be inferred from the lyrics prior to this. This set of lyrics (“Only bad religion / could have me feeling the way I do”) could also be referring to the lack of tolerance in Christianity for LGBTQ+ individuals, which would put this section in line with the interpretation of the rest of the song. Either interpretation fits well, as they both have support in the lyrics.

On another note, Ocean’s use of the term “religion” could instead be metaphorical rather than literal, both lamenting and criticizing the callous, unwelcoming nature of R&B and hip-hop in regards to homosexuality. This reading has significant weight, evidenced by the enormous waves Ocean’s confessional letter made in the hip-hop community, with many citing it as a sign of a paradigm shift in hip-hop, away from homophobic lyricism. Claims of homophobia have been leveled at members of Odd Future – in particular, Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt – ever since the collective began releasing music; this is notable because Ocean himself is a member of Odd Future, and is a close friend of both Tyler and Earl (Tyler even tweeted his support for Ocean following the posting of the letter in June).

Frank Ocean during his performance of "Bad Religion" on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on July 10, 2012, just hours after the release of Channel Orange.  This was his debut television performance.

Frank Ocean during his performance of “Bad Religion” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on July 10, 2012, just hours after the release of Channel Orange. This was his debut television performance.

Ocean’s sexuality and increasing stature in the hip-hop community make “Bad Religion” an incredibly important, poignant song in our culture, representing a step forward in LGBTQ+ relations both in the hip-hop community and in our culture in general. Ocean considered this song important enough to perform it in his television debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in July 2012 – the song was received with a standing ovation at its conclusion, and furthermore received glowing reviews from dozens of music publications in the days following the performance, showing the song’s impact and importance, as well as the progress made in the hip-hop community in regards to tolerance and acceptance of same-sex relations.

Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion”, aside from being a moment of personal release in tandem with the confessional letter (Ocean stated that after posting the letter, his depression had been “cured”), serves as a moment of reckoning for the hip-hop community; in the words of Russell Simmons, “Today is a big day for hip-hop. It is a day that will define who we really are. How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are we?”  The song also stands as a subtle but meaningful critique of both the hip-hop community and of Christianity as a whole. Ocean himself represents a new generation of musicians in the hip-hop and R&B communities, becoming a role model for young people who are afraid to be themselves, particularly in those two genres, where the critiques of homophobia have been increasingly strong in recent years. By releasing “Bad Religion”, Ocean has made a profound statement: one can still be a highly credible and influential hip-hopper without having to conform to the stereotypes associated with the genre, without the stigma of homophobia; indeed, without pandering to the idea that to be a credible musician in hip-hop, one must be a stereotypical, heterosexual “gangbanger”; instead, one must simply be true to themselves, regardless of the potential consequences. And this has paid off hugely for Ocean.

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