Arts & culture, Campus news

This fall, you can take an English class on Frank Ocean

The student-led course promises to use the popular artist's lyrics to help develop critical analysis skills

A drawing of singer Frank Ocean with his hand over his eyes
Sophomore's Deborah Chang (left) and Preya Gill were freshman year roommates, where the bonded over a mutual appreciation of Frank Ocean.

Sophomores Deborah Chang (left) and Preya Gill were freshman year roommates, where they bonded over a mutual appreciation of Frank Ocean. They’ll teach a UC Berkeley course on the artist this fall. (Courtesy Deborah Chang)

UC Berkeley’s fans of R&B singer, songwriter and rapper Frank Ocean will get the chance to study the artist’s intricate, symbolic lyrics and musical style in a student-led course this fall.

Rising sophomores Deborah Chang and Preya Gill – both 19 – will teach a two-unit, pass-fail class that promises to “encourage deeper literary exploration of Frank Ocean’s artistry both in lyrics and through visuals and performances.”

UC Berkeley junior Sitara Bellam designed a cover image for the course, which references lyrics from the song "Novacane." (Courtesy The cover image of a DeCal course on Frank Ocean taught at UC Berkeley. (Courtesy Sitara Bellam)

UC Berkeley junior Sitara Bellam designed a cover image for the course, which references lyrics from the song “Novacane.” (Courtesy Sitara Bellam)

Their DeCal course will combine lectures, group discussions, listening sessions and creative projects to give students the chance to better understand Ocean’s critically acclaimed music, which has appeared on bestselling albums like Channel Orange and Blonde.

“We hope that people will gain a greater understanding of Frank Ocean’s artistry and the way he challenges hyper-masculinity and gender politics,” said Gill, an English major minoring in creative writing. “We really want to prove to people that he has a place among so many poets that we study and read about.”

The pair were freshman-year roommates and bonded over their mutual love of Ocean’s music. When they learned that UC Berkeley lets students propose student-led courses, they felt that making Ocean’s work accessible to their fellow students was a no brainer.

“We just saw that UC Berkeley has a very unique and creative culture and we thought that many students would gain new perspectives listening to Frank, because it is not a course you would normally see in an English Department,” Gill said.

As an example of what might be discussed in class, Chang, an intended computer science major, pointed to the song “Godspeed” on the album Blonde, which she studied last semester for an upper-division class on music and memory. The song is a meditation on nostalgia, growing up, masculinity and sexual orientation, and is rich in Biblical allusions.

“He uses minor chords and a lot of strange note pairings that gives this feeling of discomfort, and I think that points to his inner conflict and exploring his inner identity as a homosexual man,” Chang said of “Godspeed.” “So that is one example of what we will do in class to analyze his music.”

The course is sponsored by English professor Lyn Hejinian, who studies contemporary poetry and avant-garde literature. Already a fan of Ocean, Hejinian said she agreed to sponsor the course when Chang and Gill outlined a rigorous academic approach to his music.

“I like to sponsor DeCals because in my experience they all represent ways in which students create communities of thinkers, which is of course what proper classrooms are about too,” Hejinian said. “But the DeCals tend to be about things that you would never see in a regular classroom.”
The critical skills students develop studying the lyrics of a favorite Frank Ocean song are broadly applicable, from close analysis of the poet Wordsworth in a traditional English class or parsing a manipulative billboard or piece of fake news, Hejinian said.

Classes like this DeCal, she said, “vitalize the critical skills that the students are developing and make it seem really pertinent to their real experience.”

Since it was announced last week, the class has attracted attention on Twitter, where Frank Ocean’s mom and brother have mentioned it. (Ocean, notoriously skeptical of celebrity, is not on Twitter and an e-mail to his agent seeking comment was not returned.)

Interested students must apply for the course, and with only 30 available seats, Chang and Gill said they will be picking the cohort with great care.

“We expect that most of the applications will be from people who are pretty dedicated fans,” Chang said. “But we want to fill the class with a wide range of people. There’s that stereotype of people trying to one up each other with what they know about their favorite artist, and that’s exactly what we want to avoid, a competitive atmosphere in the class.”

Contact Will Kane at [email protected]