• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Auntie Diaries’ and LGBTQ+ conversations in hip hop

ByElla Manoff

Feb 28, 2023
A black and white image of Kendrick Lamar on stage

Rap aside, Kendrick Lamar and Macklemore don’t have much in common. The only time they’ve come together have the Grammys to thank, where a record with ‘Thrift Shop’ as its lead single won Best Rap album over To Pimp a Butterfly. But Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar have also produced two of hip hop’s most famous conscious hip hop songs about LGBTQ+ rights.  

In the 1990s, conscious hip hop raised the stakes for the social impact of hip hop music, turning the genre into a medium for powerful political protest. It first came from the streets of inner city New York and Compton, under unifying desire to  highlight the systemic oppression against African Americans. The most common themes are police brutality, poverty, gun violence, mass incarceration and income inequality. Crucially, conscious hip hop critiques these issues from a distinctly Black and American point of view. 

2Pac’s ‘Keep Your Head Up’ in 1993 was groundbreaking for critiquing the oppression of a group the artist did not belong to; women.  It followed the fatal shooting by a store-owner of Latasha Harlin, a fifteen year old black girl. Still, the song’s inception as a response to racialized crime, and its early line ‘‘the darker the flesh, the deeper the roots’, frames his concern for ‘our women’ as a concern for predominantly Black women and the hardship they face as shaped by their race. 

Conscious Hip Hop, like all much of Black American music, is deeply rooted in slavery; ‘It was our art that defended us against the oppression’ says Public Enemy’s Chuck D in BBC documentary Fight the Power. Hence, in the absence of such an embedded history, it’s natural that the hip hop’s relationship to lgbtq+ advocacy will be clumsy at best.  

It doesn’t help that hip hop is famously inhospitable to queer people. The 2000s hedonist era of hip hop coincided with Eminem using the f-slur like a tic, and spitting out lines like ‘’Hate f**s? / The answer’s yes.”-  suggesting a reactionary push-back to the whole idea of being ‘conscious’. Eighteen years later, Migos rapper Offset failed to take accountability for the line ‘I don’t vibe with queers’. 

This all makes hip hop a promising but unlikely birthplace for productive or useful discourse on queer issues. A CNS data set of every song that reached number one on Billboards ‘Hot Rap Songs’ showed that 12% had political references but none regarded LGBTQ+ issues. 

In 2012, Macklemore was a lovable but slightly gimmicky white rapper who nobody knew what to make of. Then he became the first hip hop artist to get a song about homophobia to the top 40. ‘Same Love’ spouts the vaguely inspiring logos of tamer protest signs; ‘’America the brave still fears what we don’t know’’. In it’s most and only radical moment, he alludes to something timely and genuinely inflammatory- the campaign to legalise same-sex marriage. This gives insight to the versatility of the conscious hip hop template. 

Then in 2022,  ‘Auntie Diaries’ , surfaced as a surprising enigma on Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers. The song’s subjects were transgender members of Lamar’s family and community.  The song aims to dissect the complex dynamics surrounding their coming out, transition and the shaky acceptance they do or do not receive. 

Unlike ‘Same Love’ the song’s message wasn’t obvious; neither a protest or acceptance anthem but something with slightly different intentions, as if Lamar had started a microgenre in itself. He acknowledges that he has been an ally and a perpetrator, pushing the limits of employing controversy as currency to make that point.  He misgenders his own family members, (‘my Auntie is a man now’) and repeats the f-slur on beat. A reading that gives him credit would say this is supposed to reflect his own former ignorance. But does the conversation this generates make up for the hurt of normalising slurs – and who gets to make that decision? ‘’What’s groundbreaking about misgendering a trans person?’’ asked one TikTok creator. Another replied ‘These are conversations black men don’t tend to have out loud in public spaces. And that alone is groundbreaking’. Both are right. Lamar brought up nuanced themes almost unheard of in rap- like how black culture idealises certain models of masculinity, changing perceptions of black transgender men versus women . But did an artist as creative as Lamar need to stoop to these levels to do it? 

Image “Kendrick Lamar Live Concert @ Festivals Les Ardentes Liège-9860” by Kmeron is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.