Black Queers Look For Accountability in Kendrick Lamar’s “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers”

Feature image by George Lemon via Unsplash

shea and Amari discuss Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. The conversation touches on their love of hip-hop, accountability and growth on that side of the industry, and what to do when queer themes arise on the albums of cishet hip-hop artists.


shea: Hi Amari!

Amari: Hello shea!!

shea: So just jumping in – I’ve been a Kdot fan since Section.80, I think that’s when my younger sister introduced me to his music. I saw him live in 2014/2015(?) surrounded by a ton of white kids in the DC suburbs. That experience def shifted my perspective of his art a bit, but for the most part, I fuck with Kendrick’s art. I don’t always agree with his stuff or think I’m his intended audience but I like his stuff and vision (most of the time).

He’s definitely in that middle-aged Black man/new father phase of his conscious rap stuff. Like the new album definitely screams “I got young kids and a therapist”. Also, I just looked it up and Kendrick and I are so close in age and I’m like “Damn is this how I sound after therapy?” I sure hope not.

Amari: Similarly, I’ve been a fan of Kendrick since I was a kid. I’m from Los Angeles, CA and my dad’s side of the family is based in South Central, so I’ve always felt an allegiance/connection to Kendrick. To Pimp a Butterfly was the first album that really spoke to me, and in general, I love how he leans into his lyricism — the way he expresses himself, his thoughts, etc — in such a poetic way.

shea: I definitely think that his lyricism makes him stand out right? Especially in this era of mumble rap and pop stuff. Although sometimes, I’m just like “The world is too heavy for me to have Kendrick in rotation.” He’s like that friend that always wants to talk about deep shit at happy hour. I just want to send him a gift subscription to the Calm app or something and be like “Breath, fam”.

Amari: Definitely agree about the middle-aged dad phase. It’s so interesting because I feel like with this new album in particular, we can see how he’s grappling with a lot/in deep reflection about Black life, trauma, sexuality, gender, and more. But the “Dad Phase” aspect comes out in the failed execution of how he goes about discussing these things. Like, he reminds me of that one well-intentioned uncle that’s so close to getting it but says everything so offensively.

shea: I agree. I also think he’s trying too hard. It’s interesting because in “The Crown” he sings “Wait, You can’t please everybody, No, I can’t please everybody”. So I think unlike many dad figures, he’s innately aware that he’s going to miss the mark. But I wonder when maybe you just gotta say “Maybe I shouldn’t release this track” because it not only won’t please everybody but will be traumatizing and problematic AF. Something I really appreciate about Kendrick is that he always forces us to hold multiple truths at once. Like yeah – he’s doing and making stuff that other folks ain’t, he’s broaching topics and asking questions that others ain’t AND also I can want better.

Amari: Also — I don’t think the awareness excuses things at all. If anything, the awareness should push Kendrick, especially knowing his proximity to wealth and access to information. To dive into these issues more and do the best he can in his approach.

shea: I hate to get on my soapbox in this convo, but how long are we gonna applaud Black cishet men for doing the bare minimum? Like cool bro, you love your trans relatives but I’m not going to clap for you. He’s got all of the resources at his disposal and is still deadnaming folks in his raps? You couldn’t hire a sensitivity reader, my nigga?

But nah, because the people around him are like “Ah shit yeah he’s so progressive”. Like sure Kendrick isn’t Dave Chapelle, but also you ain’t showing up at the Black Trans marches either

Amari: Something in particular that I think is related to it, is how throughout the album he constantly discusses this idea of turning inward in response to these harsh experiences, reflections, and realities. He talks about choosing himself, etc., but if anything, I believe it’s important for him to move outwards, engage with the community, learn and grow. Like, that’s the only way the Black community will ever be able to come together and deconstruct/overcome the trauma, the homophobia, and more.

shea: I totally agree. So much of his album is focused on his own healing and stopping generational trauma, but what about the friends of his fans? What about folks outside of his family? But, is that too much to ask of artists?

Amari: Fr!!! and it’s also like, where’s the consistency? Even if you are trying to acknowledge trans community members and explore these topics, what does it mean if you’re still doing things like using The “F” slur and including artists with a history of sexual violence on your album.

shea: I’ve moved away from asking more of celebrities and “heroes,” but they will always disappoint us. Like, Beyonce being at the Chapelle show last week, or them aligning with other folks/politics I don’t agree with. Kendrick kinda addresses this too in “Savior” where he says “…he is not your savior”.

Amari: It definitely makes it harder to understand what Kendrick is trying to communicate and the message he’s sending out. The too much to ask of artists question is super interesting though and I definitely agree about the saviorism aspect.

shea: Like he’s anticipating our critiques. Just because you anticipate them, don’t mean they ain’t valid thooooo. Also, can we go back and talk about his use of The “F” word in “Auntie Diaries”?

Amari: Yes pleeassse! It’s like a huge contradictory cycle, on the one hand, Kendrick is not our savior and we know he doesn’t have all the answers nor should we expect him to. But then the flip side is that Kendrick still has a huge platform and therefore does hold some responsibility for the things he cosigns.

shea: There’s a ton of misogyny and celebrating of hypermasculinity of the auntie which seems to be why Kendrick is okay with auntie being a man. It’s just exhausting. Also, his auntie being like “You can say this when you let a white girl say nigga”….yo auntie does not have that authority, Kendrick.

Amari: That ending part was so difficult to understand. Because I do think at the end of the day (after rereading the lyrics over and over again) he is expressing disappointment and disapproval about the white girl saying nigga, and therefore I think he’s also trying to say that the use of The “F” slur isn’t okay either? But then it’s still like bruh, you still said the word at least 7 times so again, what should I be taking away from this?

shea: Also the misgendering. WHY? So much of this is just like “WHY?” WHYYYYYYYY.

Amari: Literally just why?

shea: Pick up the phone and call Autostraddle, Kendrick. We were right there.

Amari: FR!!!

shea: You mentioned him giving off Eminem vibes and I was like “Oh definitely”.

Amari: Literally I think yesterday Eminem tweeted saying the album was fire and I couldn’t help but laugh. Like not the homophobic rapper twitter link up LMFAOOO!

shea: LMAO! Not Eminem being on Twitter! I’ve also seen some queer folks celebrating this album, and I’m like, okay, but are we just so starved for truth that we celebrate scraps? It’s a cool album, but there’s better out there.

Amari: I really understand where they’re coming from. Like honestly, going back to the first stuff we talked about, I hear my dad in the way Kendrick tries to talk about gender and sexuality. They both are Black men from the hood who’ve experienced class jumps (my dad ain’t a millionaire though lmao), and even though I appreciate seeing and hearing my dad try to understand my queerness as well as my queer and trans friends, I still expect him to do better as a cishet man with the ability to educate himself. I feel the same way about Kendrick, especially because he is WAYYYY richer and more connected. I think so much also connects back to that idea of Kendrick needing to go outwards instead of only turning inwards. So much of this could’ve been avoided.

shea: The weird thing is that people will position Kendrick as the ideal Black man ally, and if this is the best we can do, we are in trouble as far as liberation goes. Yeah, it’s cool that he’s talking to and loving his aunt, but I go back to what you said earlier—what is the trans cousin of one of his fans going to think when their cousin keeps fucking up pronouns and doesn’t fully see them? Like Kendrick’s aunt might be cool with it, but the youth these days want AND DESERVE more. They deserve it all.

And although I’m older (and elder according to some of my students), I also deserve more as a nonbinary/trans person. Loving me fiercely means getting my fucking pronouns right. I’m not saying that I don’t want Kendrick to make albums until he’s processed all of his shit but I do wish that we could have more nuanced conversations about his art, like this one we’re having right now.

Amari: Period! I agree. We deserve more! It is not hard to listen to Black queer and trans folks and get this shit correct.

shea: There’s so much there – heaviness, chaos, trauma – that needs to be dealt with. We didn’t even tap into the perceived infidelity or sexual abuse. I just think it’s easy for folks to applaud Kendrick for going to therapy and talking about the hard stuff, but it’s not as easy for them to hold their heroes accountable. We ain’t never getting free without accountability and that goes for our favorite lyricists too.

Amari: At the end of the day, I really appreciate Kendrick’s vulnerability and poetic discussions of his own disillusionment and trauma. I just hope in his journey to healing and understanding, he doesn’t keep moving toward individualism and conservatism in his approach.

shea: With all of the chaos going on in this world, I can’t promise I’ll return to Kendrick’s new joint anytime soon, but I do appreciate his art if it serves for nothing else than to give us more to grapple with as a community. I appreciate you too. Thanks for this conversation, fam.

Amari: Cheers to accountability and growth for the community! Thank you so much for this wonderful conversation!!!! I really enjoyed being able to break down and discuss the album with you!


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Amari Gaiter

Amari Gaiter is a writer, aspiring community organizer, educator, facilitator and a lover of music based in New York and Los Angeles.

Amari has written 11 articles for us.

shea wesley martin

shea martin (they/them/theirs) is a brilliant, queer, gender-expansive writer raised at the intersection of gospel and go-go (shout out to the DMV). With southern roots and Black queer magic, shea writes nonfiction, fiction, and poetry that smells like your grandmama’s kitchen and sounds like a deep blues moan. Find them dreaming on Twitter.

shea has written 21 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. Where is there room for growth and healing if people want to suffocate real experiences that are being exposed. This was more like ripping off a bandaid. I can’t debate if he was right or wrong but I can appreciate the dialogue that came from it. Clearly not everyone sees his message the same way so it makes for great conversation and growth

    • Sometimes you gotta meet people where they’re at. Kendrick knows how to meet black men who are poor and growing up in toxic environments where they are at. They don’t necessarily have the luxury of a liberal college education with all the gender studies and psychology terms and if you think the internet or their peers will educate them that’s a joke. He is highlighting behavior and ideas from people who never have a platform to ask questions about transgender people and asking them to stretch their thinking beyond the usual. Call your black male friend from the hood (if you have any) and ask them what they thought and I guarantee you’ll see growth for trans acceptance.

  2. thank you! this convo was really helpful for me in articulating 2 points: 1)we can have both- he can be amazing at some things and miss the mark in others in disappointing, important ways; 2)he can do better.

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