Grammy nominated rap artist and modern-day poet Kendrick Lamar accepted the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music today. Lamar won the elusive prize for his 2017 chart-topping album, DAMN.
K-Dot, as Lamar is also known, has been nominated for a Grammy three times, but has never won. This year, DAMN. fell to another monster of an album, Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, in the “Album of the Year” category.
It could be argued that the Pulitzer win for Lamar is far more prestigious than the Grammy due to the fact that he is the first rap artist to ever win the prize. In fact, no other artist has ever won the Pulitzer who wasn’t a Classical or Jazz musician.
“The time was right,” Dana Canady, the administrator of the awards, said in an interview after the winners were announced. “We are very proud of this selection. It means that the jury and the board judging system worked as its supposed to – the best work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.”
While the time may have been right, the question that comes to my mind is, “Was the time long overdue?”
Kendrick is well deserving of this award. His lyrics are clever and insightful and his music has certainly cleverly weaves between politics, religion. However, he isn’t the first rap artist deserving of this award. The Pulitzer for Music, has traditionally been an elusive and exclusive award for classical and jazz music; two genres that are worthy of recognition, but are no longer influencing the larger society as they once did. Hip-hop has been influencing society and culture for nearly four decades.
How the Pulitzer for music is awarded is kind of ambiguous. The category, as defined on the Pulitzer website, simply states, “For distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.” Let’s examine the first part of this statement, as broad as it may be.
“For distinguished musical composition by an American…”
There have been many American artists, both known and unknown, who have met this standard. The word “distinguished” is subjective, so allow me a bit of liberty here. Hip-hop artists such as Eric B. and Rakim in the 1980’s and their classic album Follow The Leader delivered lyrics and beats that made your head spin in their delivery. Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions elevated the social consciousness of young, black minds, fusing politics, pride, and power into the souls of the oppressed and disenfranchised. They offered hope and strength at a time when killing young, black men was fashionable. Albums such as De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, was called a hip-hop masterpiece. A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory is another watermark album that elevated thought to jazz-centric beats and savvy rhymes that made you think. As dark as Eminem’s music has been at times, there is no question regarding his lyrical dexterity and clever wordplay. Jay-Z’s 4:44 album and, in particular his joint, The Story of O.J., spoke volumes on the state of black America today. Any one of these examples (and several others) would fit the bill of “distinguished” and uniquely”American”.
Other artists in other genres meet this qualification as well, but the poetry and pain of rap and hip-hop speak to the heart of our societal ills and the wounds that we have experienced. The impact is undeniable and Kendrick Lamar is but the most recent example of that impact. The fact that no other genre outside of classical and jazz music has met the Pulitzer’s standard for this award tells me that the standard needs to be changed and redefined. Lamar’s winning of the award is a start, but hip-hop was long overdue.