DAMN.,Kendrick Lamar Won A Pulitzer Prize?
Another chapter in the mainstream culture struggle to embrace hip-hop as art.
This week, Kendrick Lamar made history as the first hip-hop artist to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for music with his 2017 album, DAMN., taking home the award.
This prestigious recognition is well-deserved and long overdue. Lamar has been a powerful cultural force since the early days of his career, and he continues to produce compelling, brutally honest work; both through his own music, as well as his work with other artists.
For all its prestige, the Pulitzer Prize in music has a long history of exclusivity — DAMN. is the first nonclassical or jazz piece ever to win in this category. This definitely isn’t the first time an awards show/ceremony/organization has been late to the party, so to speak. Audiences around the world acknowledged and solidified hip-hop as today’s dominant musical form long before any classically trained music critic. Hip-hop has been both a backdrop and a vehicle for some of the most important moments in recent history; telling stories of protest, calling attention to injustice, and taking unparalleled strides toward bringing African-American culture (among others) into a mainstream (read: White) consciousness. It is unclear what else a genre could be expected to accomplish before being acknowledged at every level as an intrinsic part of culture.
The best part is, purveyors of quote-unquote, high culture, can no longer ignore the fact that the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Kendrick Lamar exist in the same cultural tier. Yet, as we arrive at another “better late than never” moment in cultural history, there are a few things worth pointing out.
Before I begin, allow me to say this: Kendrick Lamar deserves this award, and so many more. He deserves it this year for DAMN., he deserved it in 2015 for his album To Pimp A Butterfly, and he deserved every Grammy he was nominated for; regardless of whether he actually won.
That being said, I wish Kendrick had won this award differently.
The Pulitzer site describes DAMN. as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
If you are slightly annoyed with their description, it’s because you’re paying attention. As Jon Pareles of The New York Times points out, “The prize citation praises “DAMN.” for its ‘vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism,’ which to me has a whiff of condescension — there’s all sorts of brainpower and artifice in there, too — but let’s enjoy the win.” The initial emphasis rests on how the album is delivered. Not content, but delivery. Sure, they acknowledge Lamar’s depictions of the “complexity of modern African-American life,” but that feels secondary. This description implies that the deciding factor for DAMN.‘s victory comes from how Lamar tells his stories, rather than the content of the stories he chooses to tell.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. The organization’s website also strives to stay within the old Twitter parameters of 140 characters with their short-winded description of Kendrick’s work, as well as his biography. Copying and pasting his artist bio from Spotify would have been a more significant effort than the single sentence embed used to describe his seasoned career. The webpage basically reads, ‘we respect your work enough to give it the award, but not enough to write a single sentence of original text about your album or your career as a whole.’ The images below offer evidence to this point, and a stark visual contrast between the pages created for previous winners compared to this years:
This is sad. If the music jurors at the Pulitzer Prize weren’t comfortable writing a biography or giving a description of the work, they should have found an outside source to contribute. It verges on insulting to distill Lamar’s dynamic career down to a single sentence, and I hope the Pulitzer Prize organization will move to remedy this unfortunate situation. On the one hand, Mr. Pareles is right when he says in his article that audiences should just “enjoy the win” for Kendrick Lamar. On the other hand, this is another instance of a triumphant, historic moment being bogged down by a poor execution at the hands of the presenters. Not to mention diluting the importance of such a prestigious award.
As disheartening as these missteps have proven to be, one would hope (including the author of this very article) that Kendrick Lamar and audiences at large recognize this historic moment for what it is. It’s not far off to hope that moving forward, all organizations continue to reward culturally important works as they are created, and pay them their hard-earned respect to the fullest extent.