Kendrick Lamar's historic Pulitzer Prize win further proves that rap is a valid art form
On April 16th, it was announced that rapper Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2017 album, DAMN. This is not only great news, but a historic moment — it is the first non-classical or non-jazz piece to win the prize.
DAMN. was a polished piece of fine art that tackled one’s own role in spiritual soundness, explored the building blocks of the human experience, and chronicled Black life. It differed from Lamar’s previous work in sound and mood, but maintained the poetic essence that the Compton-born lyricist is known and loved for. The album went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album in late January.
The Pulitzer Prize is reserved for the year’s most excellent offerings in literature, magazine and digital journalism, newspaper, and music. It was created in 1917 after the death of Joseph Pulitzer (his will included a benefaction to Columbia University to fund the awards). The music category was introduced in 1943, and has been given to artists including Morton Gould (1995) and Wynton Marsalis (1997).
Since its creation in the late 1970s, rap has been dismissed as an art form for various reasons.
At first, it was thought of as a fad, then it was considered unjustifiably violent, and now the excuse is that rap’s language is too difficult to understand. Young Black people have long had faith in the validity of rap as an art form and its staying power, but others haven’t accepted the genre as serious art.
When you think of white opposition to rap music specifically, it is nearly impossible to ignore racist attitudes as a reason for why rap is considered “illegitimate” or why its creators are “out of line” for their artistic expression and behavior.
Look at the FBI’s attack on the group N.W.A. for their song “Fuck Tha Police.” An official letter stating that “[a]dvocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action,” was sent to the group in 1989. Instead of trying to understand the Black community’s outrage regarding poor relations between them and police officers, the FBI tried to intimidate and silence the rap collective. Incidents like these are what make Black people believe that one of our most raw modes of emotional communication is not respected.
Kendrick Lamar (who through his musical relationship with Dr. Dre, has direct ties to N.W.A.), continues the legacy of sharing honest, well written, reflective opinions through Black music. He is just as bold as his predecessors, but has taken it a step further by capitalizing off of his white critics and settling for nothing less than high honors. His uniqueness has made him a champion of rap and has forced the world to take our music more seriously than it ever has.
Lamar being honored with the Pulitzer Prize is proof that rap is not only here to stay, but that it is a radical and valid artistic outlet. It also signifies the beginning of a time when our less than 50 years old brainchild is finally deemed fit to compete with all kinds of glorified, socially relevant (yet often colorless) work. And not only compete against it, but beat it — fair and square.