How Frank Ocean Became One Portland Poet's Muse

Shayla Lawson reflects on the mixtape, the message, the man.

By Shayla Lawson February 27, 2018 Published in the March 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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Shayla Lawson poses like Frank Ocean.

Portland poet Shayla Lawson’s obsession with singer Frank Ocean is at the core of her latest book, I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean, published by Saturnalia Books this month. The book launch, sponsored by a RACC project grant, takes place at Holocene on March 14. We asked Lawson how the virtuosic hip-hop artist became her muse.

Like all good love stories, this one started with a song by Tyler, The Creator. In the video for “She,” a kid in a do-rag raps the first verse. He plays the father and the bad-boy love interest. He belts the song’s hook. He was Frank Ocean. It was 2011 and, from Hollywood to high schools, Ocean’s mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA was on everybody’s playlist. A response to the singer’s migration from New Orleans to LA after he and his family survived Hurricane Katrina, nostalgia, ULTRA was wide-eyed and cynical, deferential and bombastic.

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I Think I'm Ready to See Frank Ocean

It always appears to be “and” when we’re talking about Frank Ocean. Preacher, lover, bad boy, book nerd, crooner: the transformative nature of the personae Ocean builds through his music reads like the cliché cast of a matinee musical, and an ability to house this multitude of truths under one immaculate voice makes him incomparable. Even with nostalgia, ULTRA lifting heavily from tracks by the Eagles, Mr. Hudson, MGMT, and Coldplay, Ocean makes the mimesis feel new. You’re on a road trip, and a song comes on. It’s catchy, so you want to sing, but you and your friends don’t know the words. You make up your own; by the time you hit the chorus, it isn’t “a song” anymore, it’s yours.

I listened to Frank Ocean’s “Hotel California” cover, “American Wedding,” as I washed my beat-down hunter green Mazda—which needed soap less than it needed new paint—and watched the dirty suds ensconce new diamonds on the ring I wore before each glittered and popped away. That was Frank Ocean. The self-awareness he brought to a song’s narrative recast my reflection into my own everyday, stitching the world I felt too scared to be too honest about to a soundtrack.

February 26, 2012. America turned to a place we’d been holding our breath and hoping it wouldn’t choose to, but it did. Five months later, channel ORANGE arrives, to a world filled with hatred. Frank Ocean announces in the liner notes his first love was a boy. He sings R&B ballads to girls, boys, aunties, and would-be father-figures. While mourning the loss of Trayvon Martin, a little boy I did not know, and loved—who was very much every little boy I knew and loved—there was everybody we had ever loved in the form of a mixtape. That was Frank Ocean to me: honest and brave, both humbled and terrified by the fact we’re still here. That we still have love. That we still need desperately hard to protect it.

The mixtape I didn’t know the words to turned into a full album. Volumes. A catalog of love I wrote down for myself, for the unbearable, but recognizable, possibility of a future in which their existence—or mine— might be snuffed out by a nation’s implacable hatred. In this journey, The Ocean became the destination, but I was the road map. We chorused in the eulogy of our deep, impossible lives. 

Book Launch and Frank Ocean Tribute

8 p.m. Wed, Mar 14, Holocene, $8

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