If you haven’t heard, Frank Ocean wore a T-shirt onstage over the weekend. It wasn’t just any T-shirt; it was a politically charged T-shirt that nobody can stop talking about. The shirt was printed with these words: “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic when you could just be quiet?” Not long after the pictures circulated, posts began appearing online: “Here’s Where You Can Cop Frank Ocean’s Anti-Discrimination Tee” or “Frank Ocean Wore the Rare Political T-Shirt That Doesn’t Suck.” Hot on the heels of those articles came the controversy surrounding the copyright issues of said slogan. The 18-year-old creator of the shirt, Kayla Robinson, cribbed the words from a 2015 tweet by 18-year-old Brandon Male. This cycle of stories questioned whether or not Robinson violated copyright and intellectual property laws and whether or not these laws apply to social media sharing.
Policing copyright and intellectual property laws is always the right thing to do. But in this case, the sentiment behind the statement seems to have gotten lost in the noise. That’s why I reached out to Male to hear why he actually tweeted it back in 2015. As he explains, “Social media is one of the most influential platforms for young people and things can spread so easily. I saw a lot of hate being spread on Twitter, targeted at marginalized people, but also specifically at me and my friends. I don’t remember exactly why I tweeted it, but it was mainly out of sadness and agitation—bigotry spreads like wildfire and that’s the last thing we need, especially in our political climate.” As an openly gay teenager, Male was receiving a lot of discriminatory messages and out of general anger with people’s ignorance, he responded. Currently, it’s been retweeted from his page nearly 30,000 times.
This is where the focus should be, on a brave young kid who stood up for himself and for others like him. And the fact that Robinson wanted to print his words and promote them, even for a small profit—what’s so wrong with that? We can be quick to judge a T-shirt with a political or controversial statement on it: Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri received some flack for using Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” quote on her Spring 2017 show tees, which resembled those of another no-name line. Prabal Gurung sent out models in slogan tees for his Fall 2017 finale; lauded by fashion editors, they were scrutinized by the larger media pool for their similarities to the original “The Future Is Female” iteration. Political T-shirts are very often only spoken about as stolen property, or they can be called out as “lame,” an appellation, to be honest, that some deserve since they’re blatantly created to profit off of a trending topic. Judging or analyzing these slogan tees can be helpful if they push the conversation forward, not if they sidetrack it.
Ocean, who is one of the only openly gay men in the hip-hop business, is typically reserved and doesn’t speak out much in public, but when he does, through music, clothing, or otherwise, he makes waves. He wore a simple T-shirt to tell the world that discrimination should have no voice. Male sent an innocent but impassioned tweet out into the virtual ether, which, eventually, two years later, landed on a T-shirt, appeared onstage at a music festival, sold out, and sparked a massive debate. Don’t get embroiled in that last bit, though. Ocean, Robinson, and Male ultimately want the idea and not the material thing to circulate. “I essentially tweeted those words out of frustration,” Male says. “I did not expect it to get nearly as much attention as it did.”