Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize changes American music history

Kendrick Lamar
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DAMN., released last April, was a milestone in Kendrick Lamar’s career. Combining his gift of poetic rhythm and his ear for masterfully produced tracks, Lamar released a body of work that spoke to his politicized experience as a Black rapper, artist and citizen in the modern day. Just more than a year later, the Pulitzer Prize jury awarded Lamar’s DAMN. with its prestigious award for music.

In the past, the Pulitzer Prize had only gone to classical and jazz musicians — with the first award for jazz going to Wynton Marsalis in 1997, more than half a century after the Pulitzer had added music to its categories for awards. The bestowal of Lamar’s Pulitzer has brought into conversation many important questions about the positionality of hip-hop in this world of high culture. Nevertheless, this award will hopefully change how mainstream culture sees and interprets the art of rap music.

While journalists and scholars have been rightfully critical about the award, other musicians have been quite vocal about their support and pride for Lamar. Rihanna said in a post on her Instagram story: “Congrats to my boy KungFuKenny on making history and winning such a prestigious award like a Pulitzer! Keep showing the kids that anything is possible man.”

The following tweets from hip-hop artist Common and rapper-producer Punch also speak to this landmark moment:

The recognition of Lamar’s work marks a new era for what is considered academic. Hip-hop artists have been known for taking other songs, cutting them up, looping them and sampling other artists’ tracks in their compositions. Lamar’s most notable example of this is his previous album, To Pimp a Butterfly.

In this album, he took jazz — an art form whose conception is interwoven with Black communities of the South — and he melded it with rap to critique the politicization of the Black body against the American landscape. In this work and many of his other releases, Lamar has blurred the lines that have existed between high art and rap and has created an amalgamation of music that stands as a turning point for what Americans, and the world, see as exemplary works of art.

As Doreen St. Félix argued in her piece “What Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Means for Hip-Hop,” Lamar and his listeners didn’t need this award to corroborate the significance of his work — it really enhances the ethos of the Pulitzer jury more than it does the artist himself. By making his music in this way, Lamar refuses to be contained by one label, genre or characterization.

Listeners and critics must take Lamar in his entirety or not at all — for him and his work, there are no lyrics without beat and no rhythm without rhyme. He takes his position as an artist to reveal and record his life as a Black performer who’s made an odyssey from Compton to chart-topper. In doing so, he’s made the experiences and truths of thousands of Americans more visible, forcing consumers of media to re-evaluate the way in which they approach their society and history.

Annalise Kamegawa covers music. Contact her at [email protected].

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  • Nunya Beeswax

    Rap has been mainstream since before Ms Kamegawa was born.

    The significance of Lamar’s Pulitzer isn’t that it makes rap mainstream, but that it shows that the prize committee considers rap music to be high art and equal to Western art music and jazz. This is significant because it is an effacing (however small, however temporary) of high-culture/low-culture distinctions.

    Jazz-rap fusion is nothing new, and Lamar did not originate it; the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron and the Watts Prophets were already doing it in the 1970s, and groups like Gang Starr, the Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest took the style to the top of the charts in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    As far as all the cultural-theory gobbledygook goes, I am always amused by the efforts of journalists who can’t write intelligently about music to address its social implications. Lamar is by no means the first rap artist to “speak to his politicized experience as a Black rapper, artist and citizen in the modern day.”