By Jada Grisson
On April 16, hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar won the esteemed Pulitzer Prize for music, making him the first artist not belonging to either the jazz or classical genre to do so. Lamar’s album “DAMN.” received the prize almost exactly one year after the album’s widespread commercial success and two Grammy nominations.
The unprecedented nature of the album’s critical success calls into question the limited critical success of hip-hop and rap by some of music’s most reputable institutions.
Of the two genres which the Pulitzer academy has historically favored, classical and jazz, the latter is heavily cited as one of hip-hop’s most heavy-handed influencers. Lamar’s previous album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” was noted by critics at the time for its pairing of jazz samplings with his trademark unapologetically confrontational lyricism. In spite of the album being released to similar widespread critical acclaim, “DAMN.” is Lamar’s only work nominated for a Pulitzer and the only rap album to ever receive a nomination.
There are many factors that could account for this discrepancy. Some critics have noticed that Pulitzer Prizes are often awarded to artists of only marginal commercial success –– perhaps since the award is accompanied by a $15,000 cash prize. With rap currently being one of the most lucrative genres in music, this could make a committee hesitant in its nomination process.
Another factor in considering an apparent lapse in a nuanced consideration process is factoring in the members of the board who determine the prize winners. In contrast to the more homogenous line-up of years past, this year marked a break from traditional participants in the process. Members of this year’s committee included David Hadju, a contributing critic for The Nation, and Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia professor of English and African American Studies.
These additions to an institution whose makeup was comprised on a monolithic perspective (the first Pulitzer Prize was given in 1917) undoubtedly affected the perception of the committee and its ideals regarding what it defines as prestigious or noteworthy.
The role of hip-hop in American society has historically been one of controversy. Major players in the early popularization of the genre include icons like N.W.A. and Tupac Shakur. Artists used dynamic approaches to traditional forms of music and innovative lyricism to convey the real-world problems of the demographic they belonged to.
Arising in periods of distinct racial tensions, the music of these artists helped to construct songs rooted in controversial social movements. Over 20 years after the dissolution of N.W.A. and the untimely death of Shakur, rap has become a nuanced and incredibly lucrative genre in the music business and its mark on American society is still being defined.
The Pulitzer Prize for music is reserved “for distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.”
The revolutionary nature of the genre seemingly aligns with the Pulitzer’s predefined context for what makes American music noteworthy, but perhaps the genre’s historical placement on the margins of what’s considered societal propriety didn’t. What people associate with prestige doesn’t fit with the artistic and historical nature of rap, but perhaps a change in perspective was all that was necessary.
Students share opinions around campus
“Does Kendrick Lamar deserve his Pulitzer Prize?”
“I think he’s more than a rapper; he does enough for the community.”
“It’s a different form of literature. It’s kind of cool that they’re expanding the category in a way.”