By Madeleine Cater
Kendrick Lamar has won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his latest album DAMN. Awarded for his “virtuosic song collection” that “offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life”, this is a landmark win. Lamar is the first rapper to ever win the Prize for Music. In fact, his is the first genre outside of classical music (and occasionally jazz) to ever have won the prize. So, then, also the first musician to ever have won for any form of mainstream, popular music. As a result, everybody is talking about it.
The significance of Lamar’s win is twofold: by awarding rap music in a category which has been dominated by niche classical music, the Pulitzer is acknowledging rap’s dominance and its influence on much of the American population. And, more importantly, Lamar’s award does much to acknowledge the significance of specifically black American experience. In a climate in which many young black people feel their lives don’t matter to America’s political and historical institutions, Lamar’s award could offer some welcome respite.
The debate Lamar’s victory has provoked has been widespread. Some have applauded the Pulitzer for acknowledging rap music; others have suggested that it was a tactical decision by the board to attempt to reconnect with a new generation of musicians. Some have argued that Lamar should have been awarded the Prize for Literature, as rap is a modern progression of poetry; even more have stated that the award has just come too late.
Lamar’s music, and rap music more generally, has been dominating the music scene since long before DAMN.’s release in 2017. In fact, many have suggested that, if anything, the Pulitzer should have actually given the Prize to Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. It is important to remember that black rap music, and black artists more generally, have been excelling in America for far longer than critical recognition would suggest. Just because Lamar has been awarded the Pulitzer now, doesn’t mean he hasn’t been an incredibly talented artist for a long time.
The award acknowledges the significance of the black American experience
I think this is where the problem for many people lies. His win now is almost galling – now that the ‘powers that be’ have deemed a rap artist eligible for their prize, he can get it. The rhetoric surrounding his win is representative of a wider endemic problem, both in America and globally. People have expressed frustration that it is only now, in 2018, that black artists are being recognised on the stages that have been hitherto dominated by white men.
That people have had to fight for their right to be judged alongside white artists, and that their wins are then undermined by those who argue them to be an ideological promotion of multiculturalism. Kendrick Lamar deserved to win because his music satisfies all the criteria stipulated by the Pulitzer board and, most importantly, was the best. “Distinguished musical composition” is how the Pulitzer describes the Music category, which certainly describes Lamar’s album.
DAMN. is a testament to the variety of life, and illustrates the complexities young black Americans face in a world of prejudice and police brutality. It is also important, however, to remember that Lamar’s work is not representative of every black American reality. Though his music at points deals with the life of a black American man, it is largely informed by his own unique experience, his personal feelings. To hold up one individual as representative of an entire demographic is regressive, and only serves to remove individuality.
However, what we must take away from this award is the visibility that black rap will gain as a result. It has come far too late, but its direct competition with classical music will help to continue its legitimisation in the upper echelons of the music world. Lamar winning, and in particular winning a prize that has historically excluded black musical forms (the first black musician to win the Prize was in 1996), will help to instil a confidence in young black musicians that their experiences and the way that they represent them in music are respected.
Visibility is important. The more that black musicians, artists, authors and playwrights finally gain the acknowledgment and credence for their work that they deserve, the wider the audience their work will receive, and the stigmatisation of black forms of art will be eliminated. While it is far too late for rap to be finally winning this type of recognition, the winning itself can only be a good thing.
Photograph: Kenny Sun via Flikr and Creative Commons.