Celebrated rapper Kendrick Lamar just won a Pulitzer Prize. And while, in a sentence, his award win is all well and good, there's actually a lot more to take away from what has become a historic, boundary-crossing achievement.
At a ceremony held at Columbia University in New York on Wednesday, Kendrick accepted the Pulitzer award for music making it the first time that the prestigious music award was given to a hip-hop album. In doing so, he also became the first non-classical or jazz musician to win the accolade.
Kendrick won the award for his fourth album, DAMN., which featured the pro-stretch mark lyric that attracted attention for a hot, mainstream media second last year. And while the album is a dramatic detour away from the music Pulitzer usually acknowledges - the criteria being a 'distinguished musical composition by an American' - in it's wider cultural context, it's a poignant moment too.
In a nod to the excitement around Kendrick's award, there was a committee waiting to greet him at the entrance to the ceremony hall. Vulture captured his arrival on Instragram as he met Pulitzer Administrator Dana Canedy, her excited son who was particularly keen to get a picture with the rapper. 'We're both making history' she told him.
When presenting the award, Columbia President Lee Bollinger described DAMN. as a 'virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African American life'. You can't disagree. The album is unanimously regarded by critics, fans and artists alike as a masterful piece of work. But it's also a pointedly complex commentary on the black experience told through a collection of songs that defined rap in 2017.
Cementing an album with this narrative in Pulitzer Prize history (intentionally or inadvertently, it's not exactly straight forward to say) invites these lesser acknowledged aspects of the African American story to be better acknowledged as a significant part of the American narrative as a whole. A struggle that any of us with half an eye on the news will be at least in some part very familiar with.
Hip hop has been synonymous with radio-friendly chart music for a while now, but its new alignment with an award like the Pulitzer affords it, thanks to Kendrick, it's long overdue recognition as a type of music that holds the same legitimacy as some of it's more readily celebrated genres.
While Pulitzer Prize winners don't typically give acceptance speeches, in the live stream on the Prize's Facebook page Kendrick did comment on his win: 'It’s an honor. Been writing my whole life, so to get this type of recognition, it’s beautiful.'
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