Frank Ocean has emerged and graced us with his presence twice this month. After a long absence in the public eye, he decided it was time to return. This is not surprising or unexpected behavior on the part of Blonded’s ever-enigmatic artist. It is this reluctance to always remain at the center of the omnipresent audience that sets him apart from other artists of this generation.
He is the voice of a generation that takes breaks. Whenever he finally sits down to the table to speak, a pin drops and his message reverberates enough to send a plethora of shockwaves afterwards. It is only when Ocean has completely filled his creativity to produce music that reflects an outpouring of his mind and spirit that he is ready to appear before us. The outlook on life and love that he mixes into his songs always runs counter to the standardized aggressive and toxic tracks that are heavily rotated on many radio stations.
Over the past decade, his blunt attitude toward pop culture fears of letting go and genuine expression hasn’t changed him. Deep down, Ocean is a romantic. He’s an empath. He is a musician who produces timeless music and answers questions through experience or observation. These are the main messages expressed in his music and this authenticity sets him apart from other artists who have appeared over the past 10 years.
Exploration and curiosity are the realms he stays in while mixing different genres creating his unique sound. Ocean is a unique artist who has developed his own mainstream instead of just following the rules set by the industry. This is why his work is highly ranked in the lists which summarize the best artists and albums of the last 10 years.
The spirit of Ocean never seems to be extinguished. His last questions led him to wonder: what if the AIDS epidemic had not happened? What if the stigma associated with the disease, previously labeled as an automatic death sentence, evaporated before it started? How do sexuality, gender and disease intersect? What is the impact of a diagnosis on identity?
Inspired by the New York club culture of the 70s and 80s, he wanted to reinvent the club scene as a safer environment for the LGBTQIA + community. It was a time when the gay community was thriving, propelling it into the headlines in the early 90s in Madonna’s “Vogue” music video. Eventually, it intensified by performing for the Blond Ambition World Tour. Meanwhile, this same group of people was quickly clearing up.
This led to Ocean’s PrEP +, a series of queer club nights each held within a week’s time frame, the name inspired by the drug that is revolutionizing the likelihood of surviving HIV. Until now, it has worked by invitation only. In other words, if you know, you know.
Announced earlier in mid-October, the first PrEP + night hinted at an entertaining experience without any detail. The invitations were sent out without any specific criteria as to who could participate. There has been only one advertisement for PrEP +, describing it as “a series of nights; a safe and permanent space designed to bring people together and dance ”and“ a tribute to what could have been the New York club scene of the 1980s if the drug PrEP, which can be taken daily to prevent HIV / AIDS in those who are not infected but are at high risk – had been invented at that time. The location of the event was only revealed hours before it began.
HIV / AIDS currently affects the lives of more than 37 million people around the world. Innovations and medical advancements have led society to believe that HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was. And, more so in this decade than in previous decades, people with the disease hope that they can continue to live good quality lives.
The most significant advance in medical journals in the fight against this virus is recognized as pre-exposure prophylaxis. Prescribed for daily use, the pill is able to prevent the spread of HIV throughout the body and reduces the risk to between 92% and 99%. However, the cost is at the center of the drug’s controversy. While the drug didn’t follow Daraprim’s sickening example of skyrocketing from $ 13.50 to $ 750 a pill, an entire bottle of PrEP was still $ 1,400 for a bottle.
If you are lucky enough to have a high quality healthcare provider, then this number only seems overwhelming from a distant perspective. Still, there are many who can only dream of wrapping their hands around a bottle of this drug – one that is said to be the magic elixir for people who engage in high-risk sexual activity. As a reminder, the drug is not intended to replace condoms. A few anecdotes about brushing or the experience of people diagnosed with HIV remind the public of this fact.
This is why it is intriguing to imagine if this drug existed at the onset of HIV / AIDS. According to the CDC, more than 448,000 people have died of AIDS during the 20-year epidemic that has ravaged the queer community. Specifically, the majority of those diagnosed and deceased were predominantly queer men of color. The level of intersectionality present in this topic makes Ocean an even better candidate for exploring these questions.
However, the first PrEP + night did not receive the same amount of love and praise as expected. Twitter has had its fair share of opinions and comments, and other social media critics have called the event hypocritical. Mainly because it promotes the concept of rapprochement while remaining very exclusive. Another question was whether Gilead Sciences, the drug makers of the PrEP pill brands, was sponsoring the event.
Other complaints include the lack of any real publicity about PrEP and HIV awareness at the event. Many have cited that the staff for the night were extremely ignorant. An article in The Atlantic also quotes that “no organization working in the field of HIV / AIDS has been identified as having been involved”.
Ocean has not been silent amid all the criticism. He took to Tumblr and posted a response dismissing the claim that the events were funded by Gilead Sciences. Ocean also said, “I recognize that NY was not all lasers and disco lights and simultaneously… the gay community at that time was being wiped out by HIV + AIDS. Now in 2019 there is a pill you can take every day that with over 90% chances will prevent you from getting HIV. The pricing strategy behind it is malicious in my opinion and therefore public perception is tainted and rightly so. “
Although his intentions and ideas were in the right place, the execution of those ideas did not best tie the meaning behind them. With no obvious portrayals of gay people of color running the event, sponsors of anti-HIV organizations, brochures providing more information about the pill, or even free samples, it is understandable that the event can become fanciful. People were obviously up for some fun, but if you’re talking about a topic that affects the lives of many people, another range of knowledge is plausibly appreciated as well.
The second PrEP + club night seemed to have taken notes. Headlines from the October 24 event indicated that there was an all-gay set list. These announcements followed Ocean’s advertisement that new music was in the works. In an interview with Pitchfork, he says his recent inspirations include “Detroit, Chicago, techno, house, French electronics” and other “nightlife iterations”. Almost a month after the announcement, he released his latest single, “DHL”.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion on different subjects. While Ocean may have dropped the ball in some ways, his voice and message still carry tremendous weight. The number of LGBTQIA + youth of color who have been made aware of the drug through his actions has far exceeded the impact any group of white HIV activists would have had. Everything is learned through trial and error, and if it hasn’t done its best this week and last week, that doesn’t mean every program is meant to be disappointing.