Iconic Compton rapper proves the artistic validity of rap music
The Santa Clara
May 3, 2018
Kendrick Lamar shook the world of arts and entertainment yet again when he was awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize for his fourth studio album, “DAMN.” Released in April 2017, “DAMN.” received massive critical and popular acclaim.
The Pulitzer is usually reserved for orchestral compositions and other such “literati” music. The first technically “popular” winner was jazz musician Gunther Schuller in 1994.
“DAMN.” is the first hiphop album to win a Pulitzer. “This win is really big for Kendrick, but this is also a huge win for hip-hop,” said NPR hip-hop journalist Rodney Carmichael. “Over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of really major institutions that haven’t traditionally recognized hip-hop bestowing, like, these groundbreaking honors.”
“You know, there’s Jay-Z, for instance, who—he became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame last year,” Carmichael continued. “LL Cool J became the first rapper to receive Kennedy Center Honors. But in a lot of ways, this Pulitzer win feels bigger than both of those.”
If you’re not already familiar with his name and work, Lamar is an American rapper and songwriter from Compton, California. His major label debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” was released in 2012 by Top Dawg Entertainment. Before 2012, Lamar had also independently released a number of recordings, including a full length album entitled “Section.80.” In 2015, Lamar released “To Pimp a Butterfly,” a massively successful album that featured heavy jazz influences. In 2016, he was was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine.
Lamar has won 12 Grammy Awards for his music and videos, as well as nearly 20 additional nominations.
The popularity of his music was the foundation for some of the critiques the Pulitzer jury received after nominating Lamar.
One such critique came from The New York Times classical music editor, Zachary Woolfe, who voiced discomfort with “music that has achieved blockbuster commercial success,” winning an award that is usually reserved for less mainstream music.
“This is now officially one fewer guaranteed platform—which, yes, should be open to many genres—for noncommercial work, which scrapes by on grants, fellowships, commissions and, yes, awards,” he said.
Professor Christina Zanfagna, who teaches the history of hip hop among other courses related to race, music and culture at Santa Clara, has mixed feelings about the award. “On the one hand, [Lamar’s Pulitzer] is bringing a spotlight and legitimacy to hip-hop,” she said. However, she feels frustrated because of the continued attitude some in the music industry show towards rap as a new genre trying to establish itself. “I’m tired of it having to be legitimized,” Zanfagna said.
She believes that the debate over whether rap (or other popular music, for that matter) should be considered for the Pulitzer is a symptom of wider fears about the loss of what some consider Western high culture—opera or orchestra music, for example. She thinks those fears are somewhat unfounded. “You look at every university across the country: They have an orchestra, they have a jazz ensemble. They don’t have a hip-hop ensemble,” she said.
Regina Carter, a renowned jazz violinist and member of the Pulitzer jury, also feels some frustration at the attitude of some critics towards the inclusion of Lamar’s album in the consideration for the Pulitzer.
“Sometimes you can get folks from certain genres that can be—it’s kind of a high-brow attitude that hiphop isn’t music. But it’s an American art form. It needed to be included,” she said in an interview with the Atlantic.
“I felt really proud of us, the jurors, being able to realize that there’s other great American music and great American art forms besides what we’ve always been told is great.”
Professor Zanfagna also pointed out that, historically, black artists and black music were left out of awards in favor of white artists, many of whom were playing musical styles that came from black culture.
In 2013, the Grammys created a subcategory called “urban contemporary” in a supposed effort to include a wider range of musical genres and artists in the awards.
The urban contemporary category hasn’t been televised since its inaugural year—a fact that arguably could signal the intent to sideline music by people of color.
Zanfagna considers Kendrick’s Pulitzer, which—though not televised—was widely reported on by the press, a bit of “sweet redemption” after past manifestations of white musicians winning awards for historically black musical styles, such as Macklemore’s 2014 Best Rap Song Grammy for “Thrift Shop.”
Perhaps the recognition of Kendrick Lamar by the world of high-brow art will be the final step in the establishment of rap as a true American art form.
Contact Ethan Beberness at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.