Pushing the Pulitzer

Kendrick Lamar has made history by becoming the first hip-hop artist to win the prestigious Pulitzer prize. In receiving this accolade, the album ‘DAMN’ has broken a long-standing dam within the music industry, for until now the Pulitzer prize has only ever been awarded to jazz and classical musicians.

Released in April 2017, Lamar’s album explores the artist’s fears, values, and oscillatory self-perception.  It scrutinises racial and political issues, leading to a number of its songs being used in Black Lives Matter marches. The album has been celebrated for diversity and broadening the genre of rap music, incorporating elements of trap, R&B and pop.  Lamar’s historic victory indicates changing mainstream attitudes toward rap music and, significantly, shows that the Pulitzer prize committee is accepting rap music as high art, on equal terms with classical music and jazz.

Listening to the album, it is easy to see why it has attained the prize. The lyrics are turbulent and contradictory, with powerful social commentary interwoven with deep self-search. The tone makes sudden shifts between tracks, with euphoric pride switching to self-loathing, cockiness degenerating into uncertainty, and anger fading to despair. There is a permeating sense of guilt present throughout the album; Lamar escaped a childhood of poverty and affiliation with gang violence, and his success brings with it a moral responsibility. In the track ‘FEEL.’ the single line, ‘the feeling of an apocalypse happening, but nothing is awkward’ encapsulates the prevalent issues of the year 2017 and criticizes the responses they have yielded. While global temperatures continue to increase and sea levels rise further, the president of the United States dismisses the science of climate change. While the prejudice and oppression faced by black American citizens continues to exist, life continues as normal for white citizens. While gun violence continues to tear families apart, it is hard to see any meaningful reformations being made to prevent further incidents. Lamar criticizes the general apathy and pluralistic ignorance of the world’s issues as life in the West continues as normal. The track’s fast-paced, consistent drum rhythm is reminiscent of a ticking clock; when is change going to happen?

Lamar’s Pulitzer win is by no means the first that has stirred controversy and sparked conversation. Previous artists whose victories made waves in their time include Jazz musician Wynston Marsalis in 1997. The significance of his victory lay in the fact that he was the first non-classical artist to attain the prize. The Jazz genre is inseparable from the social, cultural and racial history of the country, with Marsalis’ three hour long vocal-orchestral Jazz suite ‘Blood on the Fields’ confronting the tragedy of slavery. Prior to Marsalis, another significant victory was that attained by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich who became the first woman to receive the prize in 1983 for her ‘Three Movements for Orchestra’, four decades after the first Pulitzer Prize for Music was awarded. Zwilich is one of only seven women to have been given the award, highlighting the progress that still needs to be made by Pulitzer committee.

There is a degree of irony in the fact that the first ‘rap’ artist to gain recognition from the prize is known for deconstructing rap, rather than celebrating it outright as a genre. The prize being given to Lamar perhaps indicates progressive attitudes within these powerful decision-making circles, and recognition of the huge cultural influence of such music. In acknowledging a broader range of genres and artists, the prize is beginning to move away from its historically narrow breadth of musical genres, however it is yet to be seen whether this will manifest into wider solutions to the problems Lamar’s own music highlights and critiques.