By Robyn Wilson
There are those who will never reconcile themselves with the fact that a West Coast rapper called Kendrick Lamar has just won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
They’re right to be shocked – the Pulitzers haven’t exactly been forthcoming in responding to musical trends. The first time it awarded the prize for Music to a non-classical piece was in 1997, to Wynton Marsalis for the glorious jazz concept album ‘Blood on the Fields’. Jazz. In 1997. They’ve got a real treat in store when they discover The Beatles…
But I’m not here to make fun of the Pulitzers. In fact, the board deserves to be commended on its historic decision. With Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Drama prize for ‘Hamilton’ in 2016 and the New York press’s victory in this year’s Public Service category for its earth-shaking exposure of the Weinstein scandal, the Pulitzers are finally responding to our historic moment, joining the rest of us on this rollercoaster ride through the 21st Century.
Hip-hop is an inevitable and integral part of that. It is the new language of literature, the new language of politics, and Kendrick Lamar is its trailblazing talisman. If anyone was going to be the first rapper to walk away with a Pulitzer Prize, it was always going to be, always deserved to be, him.
Superstardom hasn’t made Kendrick any less angry. The hurricane-esque urgency that tore through the breathless bars of early tracks like ‘A.D.H.D’ (the first I ever heard) is implicit from the very title of the Pulitzer Prize winning ‘DAMN.’. Donald Trump is called out by name. Fox News criticism to some of Lamar’s more testing lyrics from ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ (‘we hate PoPo, wanna kill us dead in the street, for sure’) is addressed directly.
As always, in ‘DAMN.’, rap’s poetic provocateur holds a mirror up to America’s cracked complexion and drags its hands away from its eyes. Kendrick Lamar tells the story of now with unflinching honesty and inimitable artisan skill.
Inevitable though it may be, it is nonetheless admirably daring of the Pulitzer board to publicly pour all the plaudits of high-culture on something so openly challenging, to dip its delicate fingers in the political inkpot. More daring than, say, The Grammys, whose repeated snubbing of Lamar for Best Album is starting to look a little silly.
This is incredibly important music, and the Pulitzer board recognises that. His victory won’t make Lamar any more important (he couldn’t get any more important) but it will make it harder for his critics – they of the ‘rap is just noise’, ‘hip-hop isn’t art’, ‘why is he trying to start a race war?’ breed – to dismiss him.
At a time when these glittering nuggets of ignorance are in greater demand than ever, stashed en-masse in Donald Trump’s bottomless sack of stupidity, a direct destabilisation of them cannot be a bad thing. The reliable arguments not only lack grounding in light of the Pulitzer board’s decisions, but are actively undermined by it.
Experts who know about this kind of thing have deemed ‘DAMN.’ a prize-winning piece of art. It is excellent, it is the best. It is not just noise, it is not just rage, it is art. And no accusation that Donald Trump, Fox News, or anyone else can level at Lamar will change that. Their desperate, baseless attempts to dilute his influence will continue, I have no doubt, but they will be more desperate, more baseless, and more impossible to take seriously.
Now, I don’t italicise lightly. I love Kendrick precisely for his noise and his rage. Innumerate political debates are implied by his very existence. I, for example, would prefer that Kendrick ease off the ‘bitch’ button when he comes to craft his next album.
But let’s go back to that italicised phrase for a second: piece of art. People are often surprised when I tell them I’m a hip-hop disciple. Perhaps its because I’m a five foot one ginger girl from rural Warwickshire who can recite entire Shakespearean soliloquys by heart. Or perhaps that’s precisely why they shouldn’t be surprised.
I appreciate genius, be it the Bard of Avon or the King of Compton. That’s all. And the Pulitzer Board appreciates genius too. They awarded ‘DAMN.’ as a piece of art and a work of, yes, genius. That’s all. Not as a political statement, though it certainly is one. Not even as a flip-off to Donald Trump, though I’m sure they were tempted.
Objectively and, according to Pulitzer music juror, David Hadju, with ‘zero dissent’, the board chose ‘DAMN.’ because it was the best.
The significance of this is political, sure – the Pulitzer board is refusing to be intimidated by fearmongering politicians and recognising the duty of art to be socially relevant – but it’s also artistic.
Kendrick Lamar’s win is as enriching to the artistic community as to the hip-hop community – probably more so. Art needs hip-hop. The Pulitzers have peeled back the narrow squint of the artistic community and showed it how much it needs hip-hop. Art has a responsibility to break silences, to tell the stories of those without the voice to tell their own, to challenge convention and perpetuate progress.
Hip-hop does this relentlessly, with all the necessary urgency and integrity of a world in constant flux. And nobody does it better than Kendrick Lamar: rapper, artist, icon, Pulitzer Prize winner. As Kendrick himself wrote in 2011: ‘The ability to move people through words is a gift like nothing else. Add the right backdrop to that gift and you’ve got a winner’. Hey, Mr Nobel, are you listening?