My thoughts on ‘Bad Religion’ by Frank Ocean

Firstly, I’ll go straight to the point of what I think of the song. As a Muslim man, I find a few lyrics of the song distasteful. And I feel so sad about that. Because he has such a beautiful voice, and the song itself is profound and painfully gorgeous and speaks to my heart. So those few lyrics really spoil it for me. I don’t want it to, but this is my diary and if I’m not honest with myself here when I jot down my thoughts, where else?

Specifically, I’m referring to the following lyrics:

He said, Allahuakbar, I told him don’t curse me

But boy you need prayer, I guess it couldn’t hurt me

If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion

As a gay man, I don’t feel anything. What I mean is, I don’t connect to the song in any way. I say this because I came across a comment on Towleroad. The commentor’s interpretation is that the song contains ‘explicitly gay lyrics about love from a mainstream artist’. I think he or she was referring to the lyrics Towleroad chose to feature on their post:

This unrequited love
To me it’s nothing but
A one-man cult
And cyanide in my styrofoam cup
I could never make him love me
Never make him love me

… It’s a, it’s a bad religion
To be in love with someone
Who could never love you
Only bad, only bad religion
Could have me feeling the way I do

I think the interpretation of the commentor (and I’m sure many other people gay or straight) is that the ‘bad religion’ here refers to unrequited love with another man. And I think this is not only reasonable and easy to come to, but a correct one. Unrequited love featured largely in Frank’s open letter on his Tumblr where he bravely came out as gay just last week, a beautifully written letter. Another remarkable thing I learnt is that this incredibly talented young man is only 24! That’s amazing.
The reason why I personally don’t connect to those two stanzas of lyrics as a gay man is because well, I think it’s just as plausible to interpret the term ‘bad religion’ there not as unrequited love but as religion itself, if I choose to. The first stanza could be about loss of faith in God, in religion, about being convinced of not having the love of God. Likewise, the second stanza could refer to God and religion. It’s not much of a stretch. But oh, to be honest I should mention here that this view formed partly after I was already annoyed by the Muslim reference, so that made me really look at the lyrics over and over again. Hah.

Let’s go back to those lines that I didn’t like.

He said, Allahuakbar, I told him don’t curse me

But boy you need prayer, I guess it couldn’t hurt me

If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion

It struck me as distasteful because ‘Allahuakbar‘ (God is great) is something we Muslims use in our prayer. And something many people, whatever your religious faith, know to be associated with Islam. The idea it was perceived as a curse…
‘I guess it couldn’t hurt me’ softens it a bit. It indicates Frank is now indifferent to ‘Allahuakbar’. He doesn’t consider it a curse or insult or anything bad, he just didn’t know what it meant, and after the taxi driver said it was prayer, Frank is ok about it.

But the ‘bring me to my knees’ part that followed immediately after, well that conjured an image to me of one of the positions we do when we Muslims perform our prayer. So to me that’s a bad figure of speech to have right after ‘Allahuakbar’. The association between Islam and ‘bad religion’ in the song is undeniably there to me. Sure, we are not the only ones to adopt a kneeling posture as part of our prayers (I have accompanied a Catholic friend to church several times because he wanted company and I was also curious), but it wasn’t ‘Praise be to Jesus’ or a reference to another religion that was in the lyrics, it was ‘Allahuakbar’. And I just didn’t like it. It’s disrespectful, just as it would be if it was ‘Praise be to Jesus’, or any other reference to any other religion, in the context of that stanza, that song.

I don’t consider myself very religious. I’m sure many other Muslims don’t consider me religious at all. But that’s irrelevant; my faith is a personal and private matter between me and God. I go about my own business; I pray and I fast during Ramadan, etc. But even I feel the song ‘Bad Religion’ is disrespectful. What I feel is, you know, just keep specific religious references out of it altogether. It’s a beautiful song otherwise, with that voice and that melody, so it’s such a pity really.

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17 thoughts on “My thoughts on ‘Bad Religion’ by Frank Ocean

  1. I’m a straight guy who heard this song today for the first time. (I’m just that hip.) It hit me upon first listening, which is a rare thing to my jaded ears.
    I see the lyrics as a swirling mish-mash of emotions and feelings, with contradictions — some consciously intended, some not. All from one conversation, artistically vague in presentation.
    One interpretation that can’t be overlooked is that many religions — Islam included but certainly not alone — have a vocal contingent of followers who look upon gays with disdain. That is an understatement, of course. This song certainly expresses pain, among other things; having so many supposedly pious people telling you that you are a sinner has to wear you down over time.
    The imagery cleverly combines religious subjugation, prayer, and even a more profane interpretation. Powerful stuff.
    That’s not the only way to interpret it — since your interpretations also ring true — but it’s in the mix.

    • Hi Billy,

      You put across your thoughts so clearly and eloquently! It has made me listen to the song once again, and read my post again. I still have the same opinion as before, but I now have a deeper appreciation for the song than I did before.

      I agree that many religions have some members who look down on and do far worse things to gays, although to be honest I say this based only on what I have read on the news and the net. I’m lucky that personally I have never been treated badly just because I’m gay. I’m aware that’s because I’m not out; I’m open only to close family and friends. However I have been living with my partner for many years in Singapore, and the past few years in our rental weekend house in Malaysia as well. We do regular stuff together like groceries and the cinema, and because I’m Asian and he’s Caucasian, (plus the age difference), I think somehow that makes it even more glaring that we’re a gay couple. But thankfully, so far no problems.

      And probably because I’m not out to most straight acquaintances, the most cutting and shabbiest I’ve been treated were actually by some of my fellow gays hahaha…. we can be bitchy to one another. I think it’s like when it’s said that women can be too critical of one another sometimes. *shrugs*

      Sorry for the ramble! I enjoyed reading your comment. It’s the kind of review and thought that Frank Ocean’s poetry deserves. Thank you for sharing it here.

  2. Hey there!

    I’m a Muslim and I adore Frank Ocean, and this song (to me) is actually so hauntingly beautiful. It expresses so much pain in one song, it gives me chills haha. But I got what you meant, we’re Muslims and I don’t like thinking that Frank Ocean used this song to ‘diss’ Muslims cause I legit love his music, plus, I’m sure that wasn’t his intention anyway *wishful thinking*.

    Just wanted to be positive for us Frank Ocean Fans, when he says ‘don’t curse me’ I was kinda hoping that he said that to show how he was shocked and hadn’t known what ‘Allahuakhbar’ meant. Or it might’ve been used because Frank Ocean is openly gay, (and since most religions if not all don’t exactly allow homosexuality) and to use a God-phrase on him, he might’ve seen it as some sort of ‘curse’. But then again, he dials it down with ‘I guess it couldn’t hurt me’.

    Also, with the ‘if it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion’ I was thinking about metaphorically ‘bringing him to his knees’ where he’s in so much pain and hurt that he ‘falls to his knees’ so he’s almost saying, if it’s making him so upset and causing him so much pain, it’s a bad religion, and I’m sure he felt stuck, because he doesn’t want to rebel from religions or God, yet this is something he can’t really help. (But then again, so many religions do prayer positions with them on their knees right?)

    Any who, I love this song. I really do. I honestly don’t care if people are straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, if they’ve got a good heart then i’m sold haha, and I know as Muslims, we’re meant to follow the rules and all, but some people just can’t help it, and it sure as hell isn’t our job to discriminate, even if it breaks the rules. We’re not here to put people in a position they don’t wanna be in. And finally, I love Frank Ocean, this song out of all his songs gives me chills, he’s just too good.

    And you’re Muslim and gay right? was everyone ok with your coming out or is that too much to ask? (haha sorry if it is)

    Thank you for letting me ramble! If i’ve upset anyone or offended anyone in any way, I’m truly sorry, I never meant to and I’ll make sure that I won’t in the future.

    • Hi Azemah,

      Thanks so much for reading my post and taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. No of course I’m not offended by anything your wrote. If anything I appreciate the time and effort you put it. Thank you.

      When I first heard ‘if it brings me to my knees’ yeah like you I too guessed/interpreted that Frank didn’t mean it literally in the song.

      With regards to your feelings towards straight/gay/lesbian/bisexual people, that’s wonderful that you are open-minded and have such a good heart. I wish more people are like you.

      Yes I’m Muslim and I am also gay. Referring to my ‘coming out’, it was/is a gradual thing. It’s not something straightforward and frankly even until today at almost 40 years old, it is not something I had really thought of or reflected upon, and never really put in words before, so I don’t quite know how to explain to you without getting all rambly and long-winded haha… I guess it’s just something that’s not particularly important or life-affirming to me.

      Thanks to your question though, I’m thinking that it’s something I do want to reflect upon and record into words. So I will in a future post.

      Thank you again for writing!

  3. I thought this was helpful! I personally knew he was gay from just this song alone awhile before he came “out of the closet” as most people puffer to say it, my mom and I are big fans of Frank Ocean and we were discussing what this song truly meant. My mother only thought it was about actually religion, but I thought deeper and really listen to the song, when he says “make him love me” the word him didn’t actually mean anything until I truly listen to it. Being only 13 my mom didn’t really believe me but until I told her fully that its mainly about Frank Ocean being attracted to the opposite sex and being confused and scared to come out to the word, did my mom understand the song like I did. The sing “Bad Religion” By artist Frank Ocean is a brilliant song that has a “secret” tone to it! I love this song!

    • That’s amazing you’re only 13 and already so mature and that you figured out the song! I don’t have kids but if I do I hope they would turn out to be wise and kind like you. (But with a dad like me, fat chance though… hahaha just kidding.) Your mum sounds cool too, I’m just blown over by how wonderful it is that the two of you sat down and discussed this song by a great singer, about what it really meant. The world all over would be so much better with more open-minded people like you and your mum.

      I’m so happy to read your comment! Thank you so much Taylor for taking the time to write me your beautiful thoughts. So much appreciated!

  4. hi! i’m 15 and I’ve known about his sexuality from the beginning (Forrest Gump) when I first heard the song I thought it was about him not being able to be Muslim because of his sexuality so I Googled it just in case and this really helped. I love him so much. He is very good at making sad music without making it depressing. He is just so amazing than what people give him credit for. I also think you’re amazing for being Muslim and gay because I know how hard that can be.

    • Thanks, Tania!

      I love the melody of that song by the way (Forrest Gump), and his voice as always. I also came across some theories about what the lyrics meant here at this link. Of course as any other artist, only he knows the real story or meaning behind his work, but the theories were interesting and fun to read!

  5. Halim,

    Peace!

    First, I’ve never heard of Frank Ocean or this song. I just listened to it. It’s not my kind of music, so I won’t give any opinion or criticism. The poetry of the lyrics, though, I do appreciate.

    I see things in his lyrics that no one else has mentioned here. “bad religion” for him seems to have two principal components: (1) it represents unrequited love, and (2) it forces the writer to his knees. I agree that, as others here (and you) have written, these components could be referring to an unrequited love for another man (or woman, for that matter, but he does say “him”). But I wonder if he isn’t talking about something else.

    Maybe, as a gay man, Frank Ocean has been told, or has heard, that God can’t or won’t love him because he is gay. This is the classic dilemma for spiritual gay people: how do I relate to a God whose representatives, and whose Word, all seem to condemn and reject me? Must I choose between the God I love and my gay self? Can it be that God made me, and made me gay, only to hate me for being, and acting, just as God made me? So. . .

    “Bad religion” is the my (the gay person’s) deep love of God. It’s “bad” because it brings me to my knees in love and adoration before God, who hates and rejects me. My love of God can never be requited because, as the Bible/Koran/Islam/Christianity/Judaism tell me, I am an abomination and not worthy of God’s love.

    Similarly, in this view of the lyrics, the reference to the sacred prayer of Islam, ” Allahuakbar” is a curse because it calls upon God who I believe hates me.

    One of the reasons that I love poetry and art in general is that good art speaks to each of us in a way that is unique to the individual. We bring all our experience, sensitivity, prejudice, and longing to reading/seeing/hearing/touching a work of art. No two people ever can agree 100% on the meaning of a piece of art, in my opinion.

    I wrote in my blog today essentially about unrequited gay love. Please believe me: I wrote it at about 9 am this morning, and I didn’t see this post in your blog until about 4 pm this afternoon. Pure coincidence!

    Pax et bonum,

    Ed

    • Hi Ed, Assalamu Alaikum!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. I so much appreciate it. Your interpretation of the song touches me, it’s something I really enjoyed reading, and I just had to play the song yet again, to listen from your perspective.

      I’m certainly looking forward to read your post.

      Thanks as well for introducing ‘Pax et bonum‘ to me! A quick check led me to this page and website. I can’t wait to use it to respond to my Catholic partner when he greets me with ‘Assalamu Alaikum‘, as he sometimes does when he comes home. The next time he does that, I shall surprise him with ‘Pax et bonum‘.

      Pax et bonum!
      Halim

  6. Thanks so much for writing this. I’m gay and Muslim and I feel irked whenever this song plays in a store or restaurant. Very often in gay friendly Northampton am where I love. But I also love ocean in general so it hurts a bit. You expressed Exactly my thoughts

    • It’s so gratifying to read comments like yours. I think it’s definitely one of the major reasons why I’m happy and grateful to have come across this blogging thing. Finding voices I can relate to and vice versa. Thank you so much, Mo, for taking the time to read my post and writing your thoughtful comment! Cheers.

  7. Hello there,

    I came accross this article as i was doing some research on the song. I felt the same way as you, so i had to figure out if it was an opinion on Islam he was communicating through it.

    I love how you wrote your toughts. Moreover,i feel the same confusion listening to it, specially becausei love islam and frank. Frankly,I still don’t know how to feel about the song.
    What hightened my confusion was the fact that this was not the first time Frank mentionned islam in his songs. On “American wedding” featured on his previous album: nostalgic ultra, he breifly mentionned some other sides of Islam. It did not bother me as much then, because, i sort of agreed with him on that specific subject. You should check that out. Anyway fast-forward to this. I understand the dilemma he exposes (being a muslim gay man myself), but i don’t agree with the wording. I wish it was less hardcore. But, hey, it is about Frank expressing “himself” about Islam, so i guess, my advice to muslim fans like me would be : “don’t take it personal”

    • Hi Djibril,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I appreciate it. And for introducing me to ‘American Wedding‘. That was an interesting song I enjoyed. My personal interpretation of it is that it is a lament of the state of marriage, of how some may not see it as something revered and treat it as seriously as it deserves to be. The line about the ‘poor un-American girls’, it immediately struck me that he was taking a dig at his fellow countrymen (using the example of the female student in the song) looking down on Muslim foreigners who practise ‘arranged marriage, virgin brides’, etc, when marriage in the U.S. can be pretty lamentable and disposable, what with things like divorce and annulments that were mentioned in the lyrics as well.

      This is the second song from Frank I’ve heard with lyrics involving Islam/Muslims. Whether he likes or dislikes the religion, or whether he’s just interested in making observations in how other people treat or react to this religion…who knows? Only he and God know. As for the rest of us Muslims, I totally agree with you that we shouldn’t take it personally.

      Cheers! And thanks again.

  8. When Frank Ocean says “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion”. He is not taking a go at Muslims, he is stating that whatever religion that requires people to bend the knee and repent for his homosexuality is a “bad” religion, such as Christianity… But it is important to realise he does not mean any offence to any religion, he is simply stating his distaste of the general scorn associated with homosexuality.

    • Hi Sugene,

      I do not think he is taking a go at Muslims, either. Did you read my entire post? My personal opinion is just that it is distasteful, and yes, even if he was refering to any other religion such as Christianity. Please note I had written in the post, “I just didn’t like it. It’s disrespectful, just as it would be if it was ‘Praise be to Jesus’, or any other reference to any other religion, in the context of that stanza, that song.

      In this case of the song he specifically used “Allahuakbar” (as opposed to just vaguely and generally referenced any whatever religion). And if you have read my post you would note that I wrote, “But the ‘bring me to my knees’ part that followed immediately after, well that conjured an image to me of one of the positions we do when we Muslims perform our prayer. So to me that’s a bad figure of speech to have right after ‘Allahuakbar’. The association between Islam and ‘bad religion’ in the song is undeniably there to me.”

      So my personal opinion in the post is that it’s just about a bad and unfortunate figure of speech. In my heart I do not believe that he meant any offence whatsoever to any religion including Islam. So in essence I agree with you.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and expressing your opinion, Sugene. Cheers.

  9. The line “if it brings me to my knees” refers to three things, all of which contradict each other: worship, physical/emotional pain, and blow jobs. He evokes religious zealousness, pain, and sexual imagery in one sentence to represent the constant struggle of queer people to reconcile who they are with the idea of faith, whether it’s theirs or others.

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