Kendrick Lamar recently made history as the first non-jazz, non-classical music artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, for 2017’s DAMN. Immediately it was a polarizing move. Many felt it promptly elevated Lamar’s status to “Greatest Of All Time,” catapulting him into a cohort that includes the likes of Nas and Jay-Z. Some questioned the authenticity of the win; was it a consolation prize of sorts, after Kendrick lost the 2017 album of the year Grammy and also best rap album of the year several times in the past? In a similar vein, was it an attempt to appease the #OscarsSoWhite set by giving the award to a Black hip-hop artist, the first ever. Was it also an appeal to hip-hop loving youth (as hip-hop recently surpassed rock ‘n’ roll – another Black American creation – as the most listened to genre in the United States), many of whom had no idea there even was a Pulitzer Prize for music? Or was it a well-deserved award given to a deserving artist, one of the most critically acclaimed of the last decade (so acclaimed, in fact, that some argue that DAMN. isn’t even Lamar’s best album to date, wondering why the award didn’t go to 2015’sTo Pimp A Butterfly instead)?
I would argue that it doesn’t matter.
The Pulitzer Prize, like all awards, is one that is almost entirely arbitrary and selective. It’s historically mired in the social siblings of racism and classism/elitism, wherein Black innovators and genres are rarely rewarded and are more often than not outright ignored, mocked and derided. Youth is also often seen as a detriment. Works by individuals receive favoritism over those from groups. The reviewing process is described as follows:
‘The music jury, usually made up of three composers, one music critic and one presenter of musical work, meets in New York to listen to recordings and study the scores of pieces, which number more than 150. The category definition states: For distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.”
Fear, from DAMN.
DAMN. is undoubtedly a genius-level work. And, similar to Lemonade by Beyoncé before it, which went on to receive a Peabody Award, it was laughably passed over for the Album of the Year Grammy. Yet Lamar didn’t create damn. for Pulitzer Prize committees, just as Knowles-Carter didn’t create Lemonade for Grammy voters. The current leaders of what has been dubbed a “Black Renaissance“ have made it very clear that they are creating art solely in the name of Black expression, healing, artistic ingenuity, self-love, self-worth, and pride. These are works of honesty and integrity for the times we are currently living in, and there’s something almost distasteful about linking their artistic achievements to these notoriously white supremacist institutions as markers of greatness.
The Pulitzer committee, for example, resisted awarding jazz innovator John Coltrane for years, despite having a clear preference for jazz and classical works; he only received a Special Citation award in 2007, 40 years after his death. Music writer and composer Kyle Gann called out the prevalence of the same white male jurors over and over again in a blistering critique of the prize, wherein he also lamented the elevation of the same “Eurocentric aesthetic” and the refusal to consider “Downtown” music.
XXX, from DAMN.
Some would argue that the awarding of damn. represents a necessary shift in mainstream culture, expanding the consideration of what is deemed genius or exceptional to finally include Black art. But to adopt this mindset is to ignore what created works like DAMN. in the first place: an existence outside of mainstream, i.e. white culture. Once radical revolutionary works become palatable enough for Pulitzer audiences, perhaps the point of the work is being missed. Once people use the imparting of the award as a sudden marker for Black excellence, stating that the work is now “acceptable,”perhaps the point of the work is being missed. Black art is something that has never been and will never be so narrowly defined by any such award. It is made excellent by the invisible experiences suddenly rendered visible for listeners, viewers, readers; for the emotions it evokes and the spirits it conjures. DAMN. is the same body of work that is was before the Pulitzer; it didn’t magically become better or worse because a jury of panelists said so. And only in questioning our blind loyalty and devotion to this mainstream system will be begin to truly honor everything that the album stands for.
“Duckworth,” from DAMN.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, Ms. Sensei creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.