the reverberations of kendrick lamar’s win
Will this help to end the segregation of black artists to certain patronising musical categories?
Photography Craig McDean
The news that Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar -- yes, you read that right -- Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar was the first rap artist to win the award since it was established in 1943 came a day after Beyoncé made history as the first black woman to headline Coachella (‘ain’t that ‘bout a bitch?’). That’s a lot of big firsts in 48 hours. Prize recognition for a rap artist outside of the highly patronising ‘urban’ categories is long overdue. Rap, much like grime, has forever been a genre that speaks, loudly and boldly, to a political climate that has always been, and is now more than ever, testing, brutal, unsettled and unsettling. In 2015, classical musician Julia Wolfe won the Music Pulitzer for Anthracite Fields, a piece evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th century. 2016’s winner In for a Penny, In for a Pound, by Henry Threadgill, was said to have captured the “very expression of modern American life”. Enter Kendrick in 2018, a rapper whose body of work was called by the prize a “rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
Three of the most notable Pulitzer Prize winners of last year in the Letters, Drama and Music category are African American. Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad, a uniquely powerful work of fiction that chronicles the story of a slave escaping from a cotton plantation in Georgia, Lynn Nottage for Sweat, “a nuanced yet powerful drama that reminds audiences of the stacked deck still facing workers searching for the American dream”, and for poetry, Olio, by Tyehimba Jess, “a distinctive work that melds performance art with the deeper art of poetry to explore collective memory and challenge contemporary notions of race and identity”. What do these works have in common, except for the race of their writers? Like DAMN., each explores an all too painful element of the African American experience that white people would rather us leave in the past.
“Finally, in 2018, some recognition that black music and its artists are at the foundation of more genres of music, and have thanklessly influenced more non-black artists, than we can ever know.”
Two years after the release of the critically acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN., Lamar’s fourth studio album was preceded by its lead single, Humble, an anthem whose social media dominating lyrics and video were politically and symbolically charged. It stylishly conveyed the capitalist pull of the African American dream through scenes of Kendrick on a bed of cash shooting dollars through a money gun. Scenes of Lamar in front of a window, red lasers from multiple police guns dancing over his torso as red and blue lights from a cop car flash on the exterior of the house, depicting the African American nightmare.
David Hajdu, one of the music jurors of this year’s prize, said that the group of judges took into consideration more than 100 compositions, including “some pieces of classical music that drew upon hip-hop as a resource… that led us to put on the table the fact that this sphere of work has value on its own terms and not just as a resource for use in a field that is more broadly recognised by the institutional establishment as serious or legitimate”. Finally, in 2018, some recognition that black music and its artists are at the foundation of more genres of music, and have thanklessly influenced more non-black artists, than we can ever know.
“Lamar’s politicism, his upbringing in which he witnessed unrelenting gang violence in an impoverished neighbourhood, and his eloquent criticism of the US political system are forever at the frontline of his musicality.”
There is often, where prizes of any ilk are concerned, not just structural racism that has allowed for the creation and enforcement of ‘urban’ subcategories, but a cultural elitism at play. Kendrick Lamar, in winning the Pulitzer, has broken the long-standing reign of classical or jazz musicians who have historically taken the prize home. Worth noting in itself, jazz, similar to rap, doesn’t rely on rigid and standard musical structures, instead allowing the artist space to freestyle, improvise and convey their message through musicality in their own terms.
Setting aside the BET (Black Entertainment Television) and BET Hip Hop awards, where Lamar has been nominated countless times and won a sweep of awards, the Grammys, the loose musical equivalent of the Pulitzer in that they’re both highly established recognitions of excellence, has seen him nominated multiple times for best general song, video and album of the year, but it is disappointingly only in the rap category where he really thrives. Following the 2016 Grammys, Frank Ocean wrote, in a frustrated and tired Tumblr post, ‘[Taylor Swift’s] 1989 getting album of the year over To Pimp A Butterfly. Hands down one of the most 'faulty’ TV moments I’ve seen’.
At this year’s Grammys DAMN. was nominated for Album of the Year and for Best Rap Album. Of course, it took the latter award home. The year before, after winning Album of the Year, a tear-filled Adele effectively dedicated her entire speeches both onstage and backstage to fellow nominee Beyoncé (whose Lemonade was snubbed, and instead won in the Best Urban Contemporary Album category).
"Hopefully, other prizes will take note, and black artists will not need to sit down, or indeed be humble."
In all of his four studio works and Untitled Unmastered, a compilation album consisting mainly of unreleased demos, Lamar’s politicism, his upbringing in which he witnessed unrelenting gang violence in an impoverished neighbourhood, and his eloquent criticism of the US political system are forever at the frontline of his musicality. His ability to weave the themes of a life lived by many African Americans into his songs is unmatched; all of which showcase a skilled writer’s ability to spin a narrative thread that grips the reader. Duckworth, the final track on DAMN. that has the cadence of a narrative poem, tells the story of how his father, Kenny, narrowly escaped murder. Looking at Kendrick’s previous works, his lyrics promote self-recognition of black excellence, and an inability and refusal to accept the life America has to offer the black body. His defiant anthem Alright fast became the activists theme, chanted throughout the Black Lives Matter movement.
In an interview following the announcement of the prize, Dana Canedy, the first female and black administrator of the Pulitzer, said of the decision to name Kendrick the winner: “The time was right… We 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.” Inarguably, the time for black artists to exceed in categories not restricted to the genres enforced upon them by the archaic, rigid and limiting systems was a long time ago. Hopefully, other prizes will take note, and black artists will not need to sit down, or indeed be humble.