Shayla Lawson has never met Frank Ocean, but that doesn't mean she hasn't had a conversation with him.
She's had several, in fact. In her new book, I Think I'm Ready to See Frank Ocean, the Portland poet expands and rearranges the reclusive R&B star's lyrics, using his words as a jumping-off point to discuss and broaden the ideas contained within them, while also adding her own perspective. It's part poetry, part biography and part cultural critique—and also, in a way, a kind of literary cover album.
"I'm fascinated by covers, and one of the things about covers I think is interesting is, you get these very different renditions, that you can tell an entirely different story using the same source material," Lawson says. "I'm really fascinated by that, and I like to think of it as being a conversation with Frank Ocean."
Ahead of the book's release party—in which Lawson will read the poems backed by her own band, the Oceanographers—WW spoke with the writer about the roots of her fascination with the songwriter, and what she thinks will happen when and if she literally does see Frank Ocean.
WW: Do you remember when you first heard Frank Ocean?
Shayla Lawson: I was living in the Netherlands at the time, and I came across a Tyler the Creator song—I was listening to Odd Future first—and got really interested in Frank Ocean's contribution to that project. I started reading more about him, and got really interested in his narrative, especially when Channel Orange came out and he came out as bisexual in the liner notes. That was a really pivotal moment. Rap itself has a really concrete relationship with misogyny, and then Odd Future is definitely a product of that. So it was really interesting to see the complexity of the conversation. It felt like a very millennial conversation to be having, to be inhabiting a lot of different spaces that seemed counterintuitive in terms of their connections.
Were you obsessed right off the bat?
I was pretty fixated immediately because he's such a strong narrative storyteller. I've always had a weakness for strong narrative musicians, like Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley and even Sia, because they tell such an acute story in their music. When I think of the first time I heard "American Wedding," and I was watching him weave this story about two teenagers getting married—the fact that there's so much nuance in that storytelling, when so much of our pop music is just invested in a very linear progression, I found that really moving and layered.
You started this project during that period when no one was sure when or if another Frank Ocean project was going to happen. Did you buy into that at all, where you thought we might not hear anything from him again?
Absolutely not, but I did like capitalizing on that being a major part of the conversation. What I thought was going to happen with the book is that it was going to be released in that space of time between Channel Orange and Blonde, when people were thinking nothing was coming out, and it was this way to put some kind of energy or conversation around the holding pattern. I also found that really interesting, because people seemed invested in the idea of him producing music, and the idea that he needed to produce something so quickly. I was interested in that as an idea—why do we put this pressure on this one particular person?
In a literal sense, I take the title of the book to mean that you're preparing yourself to see Frank Ocean live. Is that part of it?
The title has a couple different meanings to me. Literally, I've never seen Frank Ocean perform. And also, that conversation of, "Frank Ocean, when you see this, when are you going to put out an album?" And third, I still struggle with the fact that I'm taking on someone else's art and their name, and bringing it into my own. One of the reasons I felt a certain comfort—or a certain distance where I don't feel like I'm taking someone's personal story and exploiting it—is the fact that Frank Ocean is a pseudonym. I'm really interested in the idea of the ocean as a metaphor for the development of this character that became Frank Ocean. He took on the name post-Katrina when he moved to LA, and I think that's the perspective of the title I'm most invested in—I'm actually ready to see this person thrive and flourish and create beautiful work.
Frank Ocean – 'Nikes' from DoBeDo Productions on Vimeo.
A lot of my relationship to doing this book is the idea of watching Trayvon Martin die—hearing Frank Ocean around the same time and thinking of what Trayvon Martin could have been if his life wasn't interrupted. By killing our children, we lose the opportunity to see what they could create. Thinking about the life of this person who is young and creating things, and did we lose a whole catalog of music by losing Trayvon Martin, in the same way Frank Ocean lost a whole catalog of music to Katrina? I think about that a lot, in terms of where we are politically and what's happening with black bodies.
Do you have a perception of what it would be like if you actually do see him in person?
I'm really terrified of meeting him. My fear is that he'll hear about the book and be like, "What is that chick doing? This is unnecessary." At this point, I have kind of a recurring fantasy where I go to visit some of my friends in LA, and we're some kind of chic party, and I spy Frank Ocean, make eye contact with him. But that's as far as my vision goes. I don't have an idea of what would possibly happen. I just hope he's not angry with me.
SEE IT: The I Think I'm Ready to See Frank Ocean launch party is at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., on Wednesday, March 14. 8 pm. $8. 21+.