A Pro-Trans Song by Kendrick Lamar. Explained Here Are the Grounds for The Debate!
Lyrically, Kendrick covers a wide range of topics on his album Section.80, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, To Pimp a Butterfly, and Damn, including urban trauma, survivor guilt, Black resiliency, pan-Africanism, religion, and more. Kendrick, who was raised in this milieu as an urban eyewitness, a hyper-talented mouthpiece, for how white supremacy affects young Black Americans, has much in common with artists such as Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Marvin Gaye, Tupac Shakur, and many more.
My life biography of him is a celebration of all of these things, as well as a critique of the places where he falls short (most notably, his silence on LGBTQ matters). Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Kendrick’s long-awaited new album, was released a few days ago. The double album is a meditation on Black generational trauma, modern spirituality, psychotherapy, and, on “Auntie Diaries,” transphobia.
So, It’s Time for Another Look.
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (as thought-provoking as a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay or a Toni Morrison novel) claims that in the five years following the release of Damn, the author experienced a two-year bout of writer’s block, struggled with a messiah complex, discovered the Oprah-endorsed spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle, and sought professional help.
Recently, he has been fasting, avoiding digital media, and basking in the joys of fatherhood. Whitney Alford, the love of Mr. Morale’s life, appears almost as a narrator. Kendrick makes two references to their son Enoch, and the album’s emotional high point is “Mother I Sober,” which is about their daughter. The pair celebrated the album’s release in faraway Accra, Ghana, rather than in their hometowns or even the United States.
Alicia Garza, the late cultural critic Greg Tate, memoirist-activist Darnell L. Moore, and ten more make brief cameo appearances as the “Kendrick Chorus” in the margins of each chapter of my book. Moore writes, “I was listening for how the works that have been done for the Movement for Black Lives impacted him: the various messages about a type of expansive blackness that also includes safety for girls and women, and understanding that trans and queer folk are also pivotal to the movement.”
This quote comes from a chapter that delves into Kendrick’s politics, including the adoption of his Grammy-winning “Alright” single as an anthem by Black Lives Matter. The “Auntie Diaries” by Mr. Morale fills a glaring gap in Kendrick’s canon because he includes their perspectives.
Many rappers have spoken out against homophobia in interviews, but when I think of hip-elder hop statesmen speaking out on record about these kinds of issues, only Jay-“Smile” Z comes to mind. This song is from his emotionally brave 2017 album 4:44, and it discusses his mother’s coming out as a lesbian.
(Meanwhile, several up-and-coming artists in the genre have come out as gay or bisexual in recent years, including Lil Nas X, Cardi B, and Doja Cat.) Starting with an Eckhart Tolle quotation (“This is how we envision human beings”), “Auntie Diaries” transitions into Kendrick Lamar’s “My auntie is a man now / I guess I’m old enough to understand now.”
The second verse is written from Kendrick’s point of view as a second grader defending his uncle at school. He says, “The first person I witnessed write a rap / That’s when my life changed.” It’s fine with us that my auntie is a male now.
His cousin Mary-Ann goes through a gender transition in the third verse. This story reaches its climax on Easter Sunday when Kendrick confronts a preacher who denounces the LGBTQ+ community as a sin. Kendrick adds, “I picked people over god.” The congregation should all shout amen to that.
Despite Kendrick Lamar‘s best efforts, his music frequently contains negative components. To prevent Spotify from blacklisting R. Kelly and XXXTentacion, Kendrick’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment (Mr. Morale is his final album for the label), once threatened to remove Kendrick’s songs from the service. When voting was discouraged, Kendrick took some heat.
He raps on “Auntie Diaries,” “I said those F-bombs, I ain’t know any better,” but he uses the same homophobic insult 10 times to make his point. He uses their pre-transition names throughout the poem, and he has a hard time, especially in the first few verses, using his relatives’ preferred pronouns while recounting his own childhood confusion about their identities.
A transgender rights activist named Raquel Willis took to Twitter the day of the album’s release to say, “If you believe deadnaming, misgendering, and wielding slurs is the pinnacle of LGBTQ+ allyship, you’ve got a lot of work to do, boo… Why do cishet guys always have to test our limits and then want us to be grateful?
As the song winds down, Kendrick recalls an incident from the 2018 Hangout Music Festival in which a white woman he invited onstage to rap along with “M.A.A.D. City” used the N-word in front of thousands of fans in Alabama. His usage of LGBT slurs in the past was just as offensive, but he claims that time has passed and that he has learned from his mistakes. Mary-Ann advises him, “To genuinely comprehend love, trade position.”
The song’s concept follows one of Kendrick’s tried-and-true methods. He rarely gives a kind, authoritative lecture, but rather uses himself as an extreme case of what not to do. In “The Blacker the Berry” from To Pimp a Butterfly, he goes to great lengths to convince the listener that he is “the biggest hypocrite of 2015” by rapping about anti-Black bigotry and then asking, “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?”
And when gangbanging makes me kill an n—a darker than me, you call me a hypocrite! In other words, even when he intended to record a song condemning violence against Black people, he did so while implicating himself as part of the problem. In “Auntie Diaries,” he employs the same strategy to combat homophobia and transphobia.
He doesn’t try to sound superior to the listener by glossing over his own immature growth from naivete (including a recreation of his use of improper language in the first few verses) to maturity (in the final verse, at least, he uses the pronouns his cousin prefers). However, as Willis and others have noted, the problem with using such language again in this setting is that doing so merely serves to perpetuate the problem. Although well-meaning, assessing the full effects is difficult.
Like all of Kendrick’s works, “Auntie Diaries” is bold, naive, innovative, and divisive. On “Crown,” he repeatedly repeats, “I can’t please everybody.” The traditional label for him is “Prophetic.”