Considering what Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer means

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Kendrick Lamar has won the Pulitzer prize for music. That a hip-hop album has won is startling to some. But the idea of the Pulitzer might mean different things to different people. It does seem as though the win acknowledges that the album (“DAMN”) does accomplish the larger goals that a number of albums attempt to. This doesn’t mean that only “good” albums win Pulitzer prizes. It does mean that finally after four decades as part of American culture, hip-hop has achieved a place, and set a standard in its potential as commentary on contemporary Black American life.

What is a Pulitzer Prize?

Pulitzer Prizes were established in 1917 by Joseph Pulitzer. The Hungarian immigrant made a fortune as the publisher of newspapers. The prizes recognize superior efforts in literary and performing arts. There are almost two dozen categories. They include drama, general nonfiction, national reporting, local reporting, feature writing, fiction, and of course, music.

The prize includes a certificate and a cash prize. This year’s cash prize was $15,000. Winners of the Public Service category in journalism receive a gold medal. The award is administered by Columbia University in New York City.

Pulitzer Prize and music

A brief look through the list of past winners in music reveal one thing: No one has won for hip-hop before. Jazz and classical music have dominated the Pulitzer prize in terms of performing arts. In fact, popular music seems little represented among the array of Pulitzer prize winners.

What is constant among the winners is the works’ ability, or even willingness to address larger world concerns. And while Lamar’s perspective is used to create most of the songs- – the first person is not uncommon in rap or hip-hop, the songs still have a broader application. It does address the concerns social, religious, political of contemporary Black Americans.

Past winners have addressed the environment and the lives of Americans in general. Lamar’s work is different because there is a tendency sometimes to keep Black American lives in the shadow of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement while failing to consider that people who were born 40 or 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement might have different perspectives. So what has also been accomplished with this award is that Lamar speaks for a generation that needed its own voice.

Perhaps it is appropriate now for larger audiences to acknowledge that while racism, police brutality and political unrest still exist, those narratives might need an update. That is perhaps the void that Lamar’s work fills.

However, during discussions about the win, someone posed the question: “Will Kendrick Lamar’s fans care that he has a Pulitzer?”

The question drew a few chuckles, not because it was silly, but because it was relevant. No, it doesn’t imply that his audiences don’t know what Pulitzer prizes are, but it does question the stock they put in them. So the answer is, “Probably not.”

That doesn’t stop “DAMN” from being relevant to a listening public. In addition, it also points out hip-hop’s analogous nature as this century’s jazz. There are experimental sounds and performance approaches (spoken word) included on the album that make it interesting and encourages those who are outside the realm of hip-hop to respect the form’s storytelling abilities, which is sometimes lost in the topics and ways of performing done by other artists.

There are “big” ideas on “DAMN” that listeners can’t ignore. Naively, I wondered if there would be profanity on the album, but that doesn’t make sense. There are books that have won the Pulitzer and they have arguably profane ideas and words. My query was indicative of a larger question: “What does a hip-hop album have to do to win a Pulitzer?” One listen to “DAMN” answers the question. This- – exactly what the album does it what an album has to accomplish to win a Pulitzer.

With a Pulitzer win, Lamar is established as a trendsetter, and a voice for a demographic that has always been at-risk for becoming voiceless.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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