After a five-year hiatus, rapper and Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar is back with Mr Moraal and the great steppers, his last album under the Top Dawg Entertainment imprint. The album offers 18 tracks, split in half into an A side and a B side. Fans rave about this project, but it has its shortcomings. While tracks like “Count Me Out” and “Mother I Sober” expertly discuss topics like spirituality and family trauma, the 14-time Grammy winner’s long-awaited return is clouded with unease by homophobic and transphobic disdain on number 15, “Aunt Diaries.” ”
The song purports to look into the pages of Lamar’s diary and look over the years at his relationship with his transgender uncle and cousin. “Auntie Diaries” aims to reconcile two somewhat opposing concepts: the journey he took to understand his loved ones, and the commitment he still feels to religion and the teachings he grew up in. It is a deeply felt tension among many in black communities, but Lamar is not quite able to release the tension properly. Such heavy subjects run the risk of carelessness, due to the use of micro-aggressions often considered harmless to those who are not on the receiving end: cisgender people.
Since the album’s release, it immediately sparked discussions around “Auntie Diaries,” questioning whether the art and intended message outweighed the damage done. There appear to be two prominent parties, either willing to acquit Lamar or convict him. But it’s not that black and white. It’s as gray as the world we live in.
Some fans are respect the song as a pro-LHBTQ+ (specifically trans) hymn in hip-hop, a revolutionary development for a genre that has long helped fuel hatred of queer people. While it’s understandable why listeners come to this conclusion, it’s not quite the case. While Lamar may well be meant to tell a story about learning from his unwitting past, his lyrics have not transcended that past. “Auntie Diaries” falls into harmful tropes, including deadly names, wrong genders, and the use of homophobic slur.
For those of us who live on the cutting edge of black and queer, good intentions aren’t enough, especially when they involve active evil. In black communities that revere religious teachings, queerness and questions of gender identity are often fraught topics — written off as inherent sins and out of debate. There is little room in these communities for the queer Black experience, but there is also the expectation that queer Black people should be able to understand and forgive religious homophobia. And to a certain extent, we – I – can. I can understand why people cling to a belief system. But then the same grace and understanding must be given to black gay people who believe there was a better way to get the intended message of “Auntie Diaries” across.
At the beginning of “Auntie Diaries,” Lamar reiterates, “The heart plays in ways the mind can’t figure out,” followed by spiritual teacher and New York Times bestselling author. Eckhart Tolle telling, “This is how we conceptualize people.” This intro provides a disclaimer that the track will tell the story of how Lamar grew up learning how to conceptualize the queer people in his family while being in a religious environment that condemned them.
In verse one, the Compton resident recalls that he had misunderstood his uncle’s strangeness as a child. Then he shifts to the present and explains his ideologies and confirms his uncle’s gender while describing all the things he looked up to and loved him for. Lamar returns to his childhood mindset and reminisces about his childhood to show his love for his uncle as a person who was always in his heart.
The verse articulates the “nature versus nurture” that unfolds in children who intrinsically love their family members but learn to dislike those who do not adhere to the binary. Lamar shares his teenage confusion, fueled by his uncle’s hatred for their family: ‘Asked my mother why my uncles don’t like him like that. And at the parties, why they are always so eager to fight him.”
For many black gay men with nieces and nephews, this is the flip side of an experience that sounds true. For the past 15 years I have been an unction (my recent favorite title as a non-binary). My niece and nephew, whom I love unconditionally, have witnessed the vitriol of religious relatives who saw me as nothing more than an abomination. They’ve been asking the same questions as young Kendrick. I have my one-on-one relationships with them and they know me as someone who is loving, caring and respectful. Yet these two conflicting views create an internal battle of binary ideologies – not around gender, but about what is right and what is wrong. It’s a lot for any kid to unpack, and it’s context that’s important to understand when considering the intent of “Auntie Diaries.”
Throughout the song the homophobic slur appears, first in verse two. Lamar uses it to admit his adolescent ignorance of the word’s harm and how it was commonly understood as synonymous with joking. In verse two, Lamar raps:
When It Was Comedy Relief To Say “F*****”
F *****, f *****, f *****, we don’t know any better
Elementary children without a filter.
There is truth in these bars. To this day, homophobia and transphobia are justified by comedians. Take, for example, the high-profile 2021 critique of comedian Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special The closer, including transphobic jokes. The defense for many is that as long as it’s meant to be a joke, it doesn’t qualify as evil. This ideology is especially present in black religious communities such as the one in which Lamar grew up. It is an ideology that he honestly tries to criticize by expressing his complacency. But his delivery is clunky at best.
Lamar is as familiar as anyone with the way words can hurt, especially bigoted words spat out by an outsider.
Kendrick, there’s no room for contradiction
Change position to really understand love
“F*****, f *****, f *****,” we can say together
But only if you make a white girl say “N****”
But while well-intentioned, Lamar still contradicts himself by choosing to say the F slur on the song in the name of art rather than peeping it out. “You have to peep a single word” doesn’t make sense to him here. This ultimately outweighs a well-intentioned raw reflection and makes it fall flat.
Another damaging misstep is the song’s consistent misgeneracy, which puts a damper on his efforts to unlearn his ignorance of queer and transgender people. In the song, Lamar raps: “My aunt is a man now. I think I’m old enough to understand now. Drinking Paul Masson with her hat backwards.” While acknowledging that his uncle is male, Lamar still refers to him as “aunt” and “her”, invalidating their gender identity. He does this again in verse three, but this time also mentions his Cousin Mary-Ann Lamar raps:
Demetrius is now Mary-Ann
He is now more confident in carrying out his plan.
In verse four, Lamar raps about Mary-Ann, who was more religious and submissive to the spiritual teachings they grew up with. When their preacher chooses Mary-Ann, Lamar begins to question those teachings. He stopped misjudging her and recognized that she was exactly who she always was: the cousin he’d loved since childhood.
The juxtaposition of religion and being queer is one of reality. It is often assumed that gays are not spiritual or cannot adhere to certain religious beliefs because many organized religions see us as sinful. The same thing happened to me when I came out at 17. The church I grew up in all my life turned its back on me. The gossip got so bad that I pretended to be sick to miss duty and negotiated internally that everything would be fine if I didn’t act on my supposed sin. But that oppression eats away at me until I realized that if God really wasn’t making mistakes, then I was exactly who I was supposed to be.
Seeing such hatred led even my own Southern Baptist mother to question her beliefs. We stopped going to church. Something similar clicks for Lamar when his cousin Mary-Ann is chosen by their congregation, as he raps, “The day I chose humanity over religion, the family came closer, it was all forgiven.”
Lamar’s realization—that leading with the heart and loving one’s neighbor is the way—is a testament to his effort to become more open-minded. He harks back to the intro of “Auntie Diaries”, about the battle between heart and mind. It shows that while he is still ignorant, he is willing to start seeing things differently than he knows. That bit of understanding is why I believe the intent behind the song was sincere and not in bad faith. But this can also make it a place for him to receive criticism and listen to queer and transgender people so that he can become a true ally.
The subject of “Auntie Diaries” should have been treated with more care. True alliance requires nuance, and with more useful methods his intentions would be clearer. Perhaps an article by a queer rapper who could speak directly about the experience of receiving such hatred from family would have helped the case here. There are many queer rappers who could have filled this gap, including Santana, Lil Nas X, Isaiah Rashad, and others who have the background to discuss these issues. In moments like these, it’s important to amplify and listen to the criticism of queer and transgender people who want to be respected as the people we are. For many cisgender heterosexual people, the bare minimum is seen as full acceptance, despite unknowingly wrong genders, deadly names, and using the F slur like Lamar did.
Many of us understand that breaking the binary code is a process. But don’t we deserve that same grace and understanding, to be heard, loved, and shown as humanity? I believe so, and it starts with hearing about our experiences first hand. Give us the grace to listen as we address the damage to our community.