The Unsung Words of Frank Ocean's "Bad Religion"

All that we know of Frank Ocean today is that he’s human. He reveals bits of these overlapping details to us as an artist who wears his heart and his beliefs on his sleeve. nostalgia, ULTRA was groundbreaking. But his album debut, channel ORANGE, was glass-shattering. For him. It shattered the walls of his invisible home and gave us all a guidebook to check the foundation of our own, too.

Since his early disclosure of his album’s “Thank You” note that detailed his first love as a man, he’s been up for speculation:

“WHOEVER YOU ARE, WHEREVER YOU ARE..I’M STARTING TO THINK WE’RE A LOT ALIKE. HUMAN BEINGS SPINNING ON BLACKNESS. ALL WANTING TO BE SEEN, TOUCHED, HEARD, PAID ATTENTION TO. MY LOVED ONES ARE EVERYTHING TO ME HERE. IN THE LAST YEAR OR 3 I’VE SCREAMED AT MY CREATOR. SCREAMTED AT CLOUDS IN THE SKY. FOR SOME EXPLANATION. MERCY MAYBE. FOR PEACE OF MIND TO RAIN LIKE MANNA SOMEHOW. 4 SUMMER AGO, I MET SOMEBODY. I WAS 18 YEARS OLD. HE WAS TOO…”

Is he bi or gay? Will his sexuality affect his sales? How will the hip-hop world react?

None of that truly matters. Ocean initially wrote the above address to liberate the caged bird whose song was trapped in the lining of his Nissan Maxima; it turned out to be the same words that would confront rumors of the very thing he had already planned to release in the first place.

“Forrest Gump” is not Frank Ocean’s coming out story, but his personal truth. “Bad Religion” is his candid grappling with this truth… plus some.

“Bad Religion” takes place as the conversation between Ocean and an assumed Arabic taxi driver, but is actually two conversations in one; both relative to each other. Words that once went unspoken are now revealed. And words that are revealed may have been better off unsaid.

The most obvious is the conversation on the surface:

taxi driver
Be my shrink for the hour
leave the meter running
it’s rush hour
so take the streets if you wanna
just outrun the demons could you
“ he said “allah hu akbar”
i told him don’t curse me
“bo bo you need prayer”
i guess it couldn’t hurt me

Ocean sets up the scene with his emotional state. He feels as if a man of sin. He needs someone to talk to, to spill out the emotions he’s allowed to stay burdened inside.

The taxi driver responds to his anti-demonic plea that “God is the greatest,” advising Ocean to seek refuge in Him to solve his problems. But a scorned Ocean finds it disheartening. The taxi driver, (after calling him “bobo” or “foolish” in Spanish) suggests prayer to the reluctant Ocean. He desperately agrees.

if it brings me to my knees
it’s a bad religion
this unrequited love
to me its nothing but a one man cult
& cyanide in my styrofoam cup
i could never make him love me
never make him love me
love me love me love me love me
love me love me
love me love me love me love

At first glance, this could be taken as a “diss” or denouncement of Islam, but it appears to be more of a critique of all religions. Ocean scrapples with the fact that he is expected to beg to God for forgiveness for his sin, when his sin is what is tearing him apart from God in the first place.

In Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and more—homosexuality is forbidden in text and in belief. What is the point in praising a God who—with all the good he may do in his life—will not acknowledge his devotion because he fell in love with another man?

I, too, have asked myself this question. But as a heterosexual woman, it presented itself to me in the form of modernity versus tradition. Me, you, and Ocean are all products of a sinful world. What then are we to do with ourselves when the conformity we experience as a product of our modern society conflicts with the traditions of time?

Since President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality, it’s been reported that over 53% of African-Americans are also in support, religious beliefs aside. But Nation of Islam leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan, recently sparked news when he announced his opposing beliefs on the matter. Blatantly denouncing homophobia, (“I’m not your enemy. I’m your brother, and I do love you,”) he made it clear that he believed “sin is sin according to the standard of God.” He continued though, “I’m not afraid of my brothers and sisters or others who may be practicing what God condemned in the days of Lot. That’s not our job to be hateful of our people. Our job is to call us to sanity.”

The question then becomes: do you denounce yourself or do you denounce your reality? Do you denounce the text or do you denounce the messenger? Do you denounce religion or do you denounce God? All unfair questions to any being of the human race.

What is a God to a non-believer? But, who’s really considered a non-believer when you have to believe in something? These are both questions we’ve been asked to consider from Ocean in the recent past on two separate occasions. This song is just another mapped destination on his journey. Dealing with the pains of possibly losing the greatest love he found in faith, he also battles with losing the greatest love he’s ever found in another:

i could never make him love me
never make him love me
no no
it’s a it’s a bad religion
to be in love with
someone who could never love you
only bad only bad religion
could have me feeling the way i do

Ocean grapples with his truth. How many people will his truth hurt? How will it affect them? How will it affect him? He feels comfortable behind his mask because trusting in another with his secret means coming to terms with his reality.

The man he loves is not in a place to love him back. The love he felt for him was more like a cult, a one-sided love. He was thankful for the way this love made him feel, allowed him to grow, and forced him to reckon with his truths. But in the end, it made him resentful of this feeling, realizing that it was never to be reciprocated. A bad religion: having love for a man who is unable or unwilling to love you back. A bad religion: having love for He who is unable or unwilling to love you back.

Ocean met criticism about his open declaration of sexuality because some found it unnecessary for public knowledge or a ploy for media attraction. But in the artistic world, where your creations are literally the products of your life, how does one escape this fate? To keep it to himself would equal denying him the space to freely express his emotions to complete his art true to his experiences.

Ocean isn’t an LGBT spokesman. He’s not the leading man in front of the rainbow flag for your Pride Parade. He isn’t the R&B Gaga. Maybe he will be a variation of some sort, some day, if he so chooses. All we know of him today is that he’s human; artistically, unapologetically human.

What has defined him—and continues to propel him—is not only that his notes melt in your ear drums and birth revelations; it’s more than the fact that his lyrics hydrate the soul like water, and become a necessity of routine. But much owing to the way he uses these gifts—how he sings his notes, how he uses lyrics to convey his message, how he relates his experiences to the world.

Throughout Channel Orange, Ocean presents many sides of life. From depressed and over-compensated children in “Super Rich Kids” to the menial value of Black life expressed in “Crack Rock,” the contemplation of a woman’s womb in “Pink Matter” to the happiness of everyday living in “Sweet Life.” It’s a body of work that encompasses his world as is. It is, in essence, a reflection of our society as is as well. Bad religion or not— it’s his truth, his religion. On a silver platter.

—Jazzi Johnson, @bubbleMAMI