By Elizabeth Willis
These last three years as a Recording Academy voting member has certainly been a rollercoaster. Thinking back to my short professional career in music as an independent artist, coming out as a musician at the time was a personal decision. When I recorded my album and released it in fall of 2008, prior to that I had not thought about nor was I prepared for the intense amount of scrutiny of my sexuality as a musician. The album was a memoir of my first relationship with a woman with whom I attended Smith. Having to extend even further by revealing my sexual identity felt intrusive at the time and the decision was ultimately made for me to come out on After Ellen.
This year – prior to attending the Grammy Award ceremony – I noticed the media attention aimed towards not only artists who came out publicly, but those artists we nominated that have shown a clear support for the LGBTQ community – with the band Fun. being one of the strongest supporters that have emerged this past year. Prior to the awards, voting members of the academy are now allowed to reveal their votes to others, but I did have an aspiration to be part of a cadre of voting members supporting a particular artist’s win: Frank Ocean.
While there are certainly now more out artists than before with more slowly revealing their story, I found Ocean’s to be very telling of our times. As a voter, we are required to put the quality of the music first when considering our nominations in all three rounds of voting. However, along with my love of Frank stretching the boundary of R&B music, I was particularly touched by the way he revealed his story this year.
In an open letter online, he wrote, “4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence…until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love, it changed my life.”
For me, I felt the overwhelming sense of emotion as Frank walked across the stage at the Hollywood Palladium, thinking back to the intense scrutiny of those on social media who were adamantly against his coming out. Hip-hop mogul Jay-Z’s support of Ocean, along with others, is a testament to the degree that increase media around LGBTQ issues has impacted popular culture in the last year. As someone who works nearly exclusively and very closely with LGBTQ clients – including those in music, arts and entertainment – there is a sense of overwhelming pride in seeing other’s support those in our community coming out as a performer.
Beyond the achievement of winning a coveted award like a Grammy, I believe the true achievement this year was how much additional exposure the media gave to artists like Ocean coming out and the exposure of important allies to our community as we move forward. Or as he sang that night, “I remember you. If this is love, I know it’s true. I won’t forget you.”
Elizabeth Willis is an active member of the LGBT community in Philadelphia, the founder of Mypride.me and a Recording Academy voter.