Why the controversial song on “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” falls flat.
After a five-year break, rapper and Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar has returned with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, his final album under the Top Dawg Entertainment imprint. The album offers 18 tracks, split in half into an A-side and a B-side. Fans are excited about this project, but it has its shortcomings. While tracks like “Count Me Out” and “Mother I Sober” skillfully discuss topics like spirituality and family trauma, the highly anticipated return from the 14-time Grammy winner is muddied with uneasiness by way of homophobic and transphobic slights on track 15, “Auntie Diaries.”
The song purports to peer into the pages of Lamar’s diary, looking across the years at his relationship with his transgender uncle and cousin. “Auntie Diaries” wants to reconcile two somewhat opposed concepts: the journey he’s been on to understanding his loved ones, and the devotion he still feels to religion and the teachings he grew up learning. It’s a deeply felt tension among many in Black communities, but Lamar isn’t quite able to bring the tension to a place of a proper release. Such heavy subject matter comes at the risk of carelessness, due to the use of microaggressions that are often seen as harmless to those not on the receiving end: cisgender people.
Since the album’s release, it immediately sparked discourse surrounding “Auntie Diaries,” questioning if the art and its intended message outweigh the harm done. There seem to be two prominent sides, either prepared to absolve Lamar or condemn him. But it’s not that black and white. It’s as gray as the world we live in.
Some fans are revering the song as a pro-LGBTQ+ (specifically trans) anthem in hip-hop, a revolutionary development for a genre that has long helped fuel the flames of hate toward queer folks. While it is understandable why listeners might come to this conclusion, it is not entirely the case. Although Lamar may be well-intentioned in aiming to tell a story about learning from his ignorant past, his lyrics have not transcended that past. “Auntie Diaries” falls into harmful tropes, including deadnaming, misgendering, and using a homophobic slur.
For those of us living at the intersection of being Black and queer, good intentions are not enough, especially when active harm comes with them. In Black communities that revere religious teachings, queerness and questions about gender identity are often fraught topics — written off as inherent sins and not up for further debate. There is little space in these communities for the queer Black experience, but there’s also an expectation that queer Black people should be able to understand and forgive religious homophobia. And to some degree, 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 queer people who believe there was a better way to deliver the intended message of “Auntie Diaries.”
At the beginning of “Auntie Diaries,” Lamar repeats, “Heart plays in ways the mind can’t figure out,” followed by spiritual teacher and No. 1 New York Times bestselling author Eckhart Tolle narrating, “This is how we conceptualize human beings.” This intro gives a disclaimer that the track will tell the story of how Lamar grew up and learned how to conceptualize the queer people in his family while in a religious environment that condemned them.
In verse one, the Compton native recalls misunderstanding his uncle’s queerness as a child. Then he shifts to the present day and explains his ideologies and affirms his uncle’s gender, all while describing all the things he looked up to him for and loved about him. Weaving back into his mindset as a kid, Lamar pulls from childhood memories to show his love for his uncle as a person who was always present in his heart.
The verse articulates the “nature versus nurture” that plays out within children who intrinsically love their family members but learn to resent those who don’t conform to the binary. Lamar shares his adolescent confusion fueled by the hate he witnessed his uncle experience from their family, “Asked my momma why my uncles don’t like him that much. And at the parties, why they always wanna fight him that much.”
For many Black queer folks with nieces and nephews, this is the flip side of an experience that rings true. For the past 15 years, I’ve been an unctie (my recent preferred title as a nonbinary person). My niece and nephew, whom I love unconditionally, have witnessed the vitriol from religious family members who saw me as nothing more than an abomination. They have wondered about the same questions young Kendrick did. I have my one-on-one relationships with them, and they know me as someone loving, caring, and respectful. Still, these two conflicting views create an internal battle of binary ideologies — not around gender, but of what is right and what is wrong. It’s a lot for any child to unpack, and it’s a context that is important to understand when considering the intention 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 to be synonymous with joking around. In verse two, Lamar raps:
Back when it was comedic relief to say, “F *****”
F *****, f *****, f *****, we ain’t know no better
Elementary kids with no filter.
There’s truth to these bars. To this day, homophobia and transphobia are justified by comedians. Take, for example, the 2021 high-profile critique of comedian Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special The Closer, which included transphobic jokes. The defense for many is that as long as it’s meant to be a joke, it doesn’t qualify as harm. This ideology is especially present in Black religious communities like the one Lamar grew up in. It’s an ideology that he tries to critique honestly by stating his complacency. But his delivery is clunky at best.
Lamar is as familiar as anyone with the way that words can hurt, especially bigoted words spewed by an outsider.
Kendrick, ain’t no room for contradiction
To truly understand love, switch position
“F*****, f *****, f *****,” we can say it together
But only if you let 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 instead of bleeping it out. “You gotta bleep one single word” doesn’t register here for him. This ultimately outweighs what is a well-intentioned raw reflection and makes it fall flat.
Another harmful misstep is the song’s consistent misgendering, which casts a pall over his attempts to unlearn his ignorance toward queer and trans people. In the song, Lamar raps, “My auntie is a man now. I think I’m old enough to understand now. Drinking Paul Masson with her hat turned backwards.” While acknowledging his uncle is a man, Lamar still refers to him as “auntie” and “her,” invalidating their gender identity. He does this again in verse three, but this time also deadnaming his cousin Mary-Ann. Lamar raps:
Demetrius is Mary-Ann now
He’s more confident to live his plan now.
In verse four, Lamar raps about Mary-Ann, who was more religious and subservient than he was to the spiritual teachings they grew up with. When their preacher singles out Mary-Ann, Lamar begins to question those teachings. He stopped misgendering her, acknowledging that she was exactly who she’s always been: the cousin he had loved since childhood.
The juxtaposition of religion and being queer is one of reality. It’s often assumed queer people aren’t spiritual or cannot hold 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 my whole life turned its back on me. The gossip got so bad that I would fake being sick to miss service and bargain internally that all would be fine if I did not act on my supposed sin. But that suppression ate at me from the inside until I realized that if God truly made no mistakes, then I was precisely who I was meant to be.
Seeing such hate led even my own Southern Baptist mother to question her beliefs. We stopped attending church. Something similar clicks for Lamar when his cousin Mary-Ann is singled out by their congregation, as he raps, “The day I chose humanity over religion, the family got closer, it was all forgiven.”
Lamar’s realization — that leading with the heart and loving thy neighbor is the way — is a testament to his attempt to grow more open-minded. He is tying back to the intro of “Auntie Diaries,” about the battle between heart and mind. It shows that while still ignorant, he is willing to start seeing things differently than what he’s known. That sliver of understanding is why I believe the intent behind the song was genuine and not in bad faith. But because of this, it can also be a place for him to receive critique and listen to queer and trans folks so that he can become a true ally.
The subject matter of “Auntie Diaries” should have been handled with more care. True allyship requires nuance, and with more actionable methods, his intentions would be clearer-cut. Perhaps a feature from a queer rapper who could directly speak to the experience of receiving such hate from family would’ve helped the case here. There are many queer rappers who could have fulfilled this gap, including Santana, Lil Nas X, Isaiah Rashad, and others who have the background to discuss these issues. In moments like this, it’s important to amplify and listen to the critiques of queer and trans people who want to be respected as the human beings we are. For many cisgender heterosexual people, doing the bare minimum is seen as full acceptance, despite ignorantly misgendering, deadnaming, and using the F-slur the way Lamar did.
Many of us understand that breaking the binary one was taught is a process. But are we not deserving of that same grace and understanding, to be heard, loved, and shown humanity? I believe we are, and it starts with hearing us out about our firsthand experiences. When we call out the harm done to our community, give us the grace to listen.