On Friday, Kendrick Lamar released his highly-anticipated album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. That same morning, I woke up and saw tweets discussing “Auntie Diaries,” a song on Lamar’s album that discusses his personal journey toward queer and trans acceptance, embodied in a recurring phrase the rapper uses throughout the track: “My auntie is a man now.” From this moment, I knew that the song would become a topic of discussion on social media.
I’ve learned not to expect too much from hip-hop. Since its inception in the early ’70s, the Black male-centric genre has been fraught with issues around queerphobia, transphobia, and sexism. Rick Ross’ use of the f-word in a 2018 song with Meek Mill and JAY-Z was barely news; Kodak Black — a feature on Lamar’s album — has said horrendous things about queer women. As a Black, queer, trans-masculine person that grew up in hip-hop, I’ve had to learn to take what I can. That is, until recently.
In recent years, hip-hop has seen a slow but continual rise in Black queer and trans representation. There’s Lil Nas X, Frank Ocean, Saucy Santana, and countless other Black queer (mostly cisgender) folks doing work in the genre, despite many of them still facing issues based on their identities (see here, here, and here) while trying to advance their careers. On “Auntie Diaries,” Lamar attempts to present himself as an ally as he details his experience with using a queerphobic slur, acknowledges his trans family members, and calls out bigotry and religious-based queerphobia in the Black community. This seems like a good gesture on the surface, but beneath that the rapper — and his predominantly cisgender and straight fans — still has a lot of work to do before he can fully consider himself an ally.
I couldn’t listen to this song without thinking of J Cole’s “Villuminati.” In this track, Cole attempts allyship by pointing out homophobia — all while saying the f-word multiple times. In “Auntie Diaries,” Lamar follows the same miscalculation by uttering the f-word a whopping 10 times. In both instances the intention of allyship is clear, but the impact is uttering a harmful slur that the rappers themselves have no right to say, much less reclaim. As discussion of “Auntie Diaries” hit Twitter, Kendrick fans came in droves to defend his use of the word and, in the process, talked over queer and trans people’s rightful critiques. Feeling like you have to say a slur in order for people to “get it” gives off the feeling that you don’t trust your audience to comprehend basic LGBTQIA+ stuff.
Where Kendrick also fails on this song is by switching pronouns and ways to address trans people that is very cringy. From the recurring line of “My auntie is a man now” to deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner, the rapper fails to also acknowledge the nuances that come with being trans. It is never, ever OK to deadname or mispronoun a trans person, even if you knew them pre-transition. Whether Kendrick ran this track by his uncle or not, it’s instances like these in “Auntie Diaries” where his intent falls short.
To hear one of my favorite rappers fumble allyship this publicly — and to watch so many straight/cisgender people jump to defend him — was hard. It’s even harder to be told that this is the best that hip-hop — particularly the type of “conscious rap” that Kendrick caters to — can do. Queer and trans people don’t expect perfection, but we do rightfully expect for our feelings and critiques about media that fails us to be listened to and not spoken over. In the age of anti-trans legislation being at a high, it is in the best interest of LGBTQIA+ people to demand more from the media we consume. There are enough anti-trans sentiments, so even misguided allyship needs to be lovingly critiqued. It’s important to remember that all criticism is not canceling, but an invitation — and a starting of a conversation — to do better.
Lamar could’ve introduced this conversation in a way that preserves the dignity of LGBTQIA+ people by being more creative with his raps on “Auntie Diaries.” The actual f-word could’ve easily been replaced with “f-word,” while using the names/sets of pronouns that reflect how a person lives in the world now would’ve been the most appropriate phrasing to use. Another option would’ve been to have his uncle speak on his experience, how societal phobias have impacted him, and how he feels about Kendrick’s progress. (If all else, he could issue some kind of an apology and donate to Black queer and trans-led efforts, considering he gets paid well as a rapper.)
I long to live and participate in a hip-hop culture that changes as times change. When we are resistant to educating ourselves and de-centering our feelings and views in someone else’s story, then we are the opposite of progressing. When Lamar fans see a critique of this song, I implore them to be curious instead of combative, and to try and understand the damage that words like the f-word and misnaming/mispronouning does to the psyche of queer and trans people — even if that’s not their lived experience. Lamar doesn’t need you to defend him, and you could walk away with more knowledge that helps you be a better ally. We have to trust each other more and not hurt a community that’s already been hurt one too many times by hip-hop in the process.
Lamar’s album is his public stumbling toward a better version of himself. I applaud the step he took in “Auntie Diaries,” though it was a misguided one, and hope better ones follow as his new artistic path begins.
KB is a poet, essayist, and cultural worker from Texas. They are the author of How To Identify Yourself with a Wound (Kallisto Gaia Press, 2022) and Freedom House (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2023). Follow them online at @earthtokb.
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