In late May of 2018, popular rapper Kendrick Lamar accepted the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Music awarded to a hip-hop artist. Lamar’s well-deserved Pulitzer is the first of its kind, a break from tradition, and a signal of change. The prize is specifically for Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed hip-hop album DAMN, released in April of 2017. The board’s decision to award Lamar this prestigious award was unanimous, describing the album 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.” This significant prize awarded to DAMN illustrates an important shift.
Since the first Pulitzer Prize for music was awarded in 1943, solely jazz and classical composers have been recipients of the prize, and with Lamar’s win, the acknowledgement both critically and culturally of popular music as a legitimate art form is historic.
For so long, the Pulitzer board awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music to classical composers and occasionally jazz artists, but it was in no way an intentional exclusion of other genres; they simply awarded the most deserving, legitimate artist (in their eyes), and that was that. Previous winners include Du Yun’s classical opera Angel’s Bone in 2017, and Henry Threadgill,’s Jazz album In for a Penny, In for a Pound in 2016. Other finalists who didn’t make it in the final pick this past year for this category were Michael Gilbertson’s Quartet and singer/composer Ted Hearne’s Sound From the Bench.
DAMN poetically captures modern life as an African-American male, dealing with vast commercial success, highlighting politics, faith, and race. Questioning the motivations of his own culture, the complexity, clarity, and honesty of his lyrics are beautiful. From a literary and musical standpoint, many consider this album a masterpiece (which is reflected in album sales). Just because Kendrick Lamar won this year’s award, does not mean the jury suddenly changed or shifted their vision in any way, and it does not mean they were ever specifically excluding other genres. Over the past few years, the jury has decided to open their eyes more and broaden their musical horizons, to determine the greatest pieces of modern American music on a wider, more accurate scale. They simply aim to choose the best music, and this year, that “best music” was Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Dana Canedy, Pulitzer administrator, states that “We (the Pulitzer board) are very proud of this selection. It means that the jury and the board judging system worked as it’s supposed to — the best work was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.”
The recent more significant recognition of hip-hop has come with Jay Z being the first rapper to ever be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017, LL Cool J as the first rapper to ever be recognized by Kennedy Center Honors in 2017, and Hamilton the musical winning a Pulitzer for Drama in 2016.
The awards jury, consisting of David Hajdu, critic for The Nation; violinist Regina Carter; Paul Cremo, director of the Met Opera commissioning program; Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia professor of English and African-American studies; and composer David Lang, closely listened, carefully deliberated, and ultimately unanimously agreed that DAMN was the most deserving album.
In an interview with Vanity Fair about his groundbreaking win, Kendrick Lamar talks about how this success and recognition for hip hop was a long time coming:
It’s one of those things that should have happened with hip-hop a long time ago. It took a long time for people to embrace us—people outside of our community, our culture—to see this not just as vocal lyrics, but to see that this is really pain, this is really hurt, this is really true stories of our lives on wax. And now, for it to get the recognition that it deserves as a true art form, that’s not only great for myself, but it makes me feel good about hip-hop in general. Writers like Tupac, Jay Z, Rakim, Eminem, Q-Tip, Big Daddy Kane, Snoop…It lets me know that people are actually listening further than I expected.
Lamar’s Pulitzer is rightfully being celebrated as a vindication of hip-hop.
Now, DAMN will forever be alongside, equal to, some of the greatest, most intricate compositions created in the modern era, all awarded Pulitzer Prizes. This is literally one for the history books.