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The New Jazz Age: What Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Means for Black Art

Black culture has been having a great couple of days. Last week, Black Panther surpassed Titanic to become the third all-time highest grossing film domestically. This weekend, Beyoncé made history as the first black woman to headline Coachella, and in her performance paid homage to historically black colleges, black Greek letter organizations, the African continent, and black dance and musical influences. Then on Monday, Kendrick Lamar became a Pulitzer winner. The lyrical genius was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the category of Music for his album DAMN.—making him not only the first rapper awardee, but also the first artist outside of the classical and jazz genres to receive this honor in the category’s history.

There have been an abundance of questions since Lamar’s victory ranging from “there’s a Pulitzer Prize for music?” to “does he deserve this honor?” However, the most significant inquiry of all is: What does this mean for rap music?

Though hip-hop is a form of journalism, poetry and political commentary that greatly influences culture, fashion and other musical genres, it is seldom viewed as sophisticated—especially in the music industry itself. Of the 421 nominations for the Grammy categories of Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Record of the Year since 1989 (the year that rap received its own category), only 34 of these nominees have been rap/hip-hop artists. As for actual winners of the aforementioned Grammy categories, only one was for hip-hop: OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/Love Below, which was Album of the Year in 2004, according to The Washington Post. Sadly, other music awards illustrate similar statistics.

Kendrick himself had three straight albums nominated for Album of the Year. Yet, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, To Pimp a Butterfly, and DAMN. lost to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, Taylor Swift’s 1989, and Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, respectively. Therefore, it is especially riveting that the Pulitzer judges saw merit where the Recording Academy did not.

Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy told The New York Times that DAMN. is “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
Though hip-hop is a form of journalism, poetry and political commentary that greatly influences culture, it is seldom viewed as sophisticated.
Ultimately, the Pulitzer panel realized what most entities have failed to: “that [rap music] has value on its own terms and not just as a resource for use in a field that is more broadly recognized by the institutional establishment as serious or legitimate,” as explained by Pulitzer judge David Hajdu. “The work that’s on that album is every bit as sophisticated and experimental as any music,” he said in a telephone interview. “The idea that that’s not classical music, or that’s not experimental music, or that’s not art music is completely unfounded,” he continued.

At the end of Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly album, he reads the excerpt of a friend’s writing that inspired his album title: “The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it…The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness and the beauty within the caterpillar…One thing it notices is how much the world shuns him but praises the butterfly…Although the caterpillar and the butterfly are completely different, they are one in the same.”

Society, pop culture and the music industry pimp the butterfly, or rap and hip-hop. They admire it for its swag, mine it for its resources, and use it to inspire their own endeavors. However, they undermine its legitimacy, significance and intelligence because of the caterpillar, or the community it comes from—the black community.

However, as Chris Richards posits, “rap music is the most significant pop idiom of our time. It’s the sound of 21st century American life—a black art form with a black-and-white-and-everyone-else audience. The music is an implicit conversation about the conjoined legacies of slavery, segregation, police brutality and other hideous injustices that our society doesn’t care to solve. In that sense, rap music is the sound of a broken nation struggling to understand itself.

The Pulitzer board recognized rap for what it is: academic, intellectual, classic, and most of all, legitimate. Kendrick’s Pulitzer acknowledges and embraces both the caterpillar and butterfly, and all I can say is, it’s about DAMN time.

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