Posted on April 18, 2018

Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Win Is Worth Celebrating, But There’s Still a Long Way to Go

Tirkanah Love, RollingStone, April 17, 2018

At this point in his career, Kendrick Lamar isn’t exactly wanting for recognition. The Compton rapper has won dozens of awards, including 12 Grammys, a spot on Time‘s 100 Most Influential People list and a rock-solid position as his generation’s greatest rapper. Now he can add a Pulitzer Prize in Music to that list, the first ever by a pop musician of any kind. Without a doubt, Kendrick’s lyrics – especially their focus on the historical persistence of premature death in Black life – are arguably as potent a source of cultural criticism and journalistic description as any of this year’s other Pulitzer winners. {snip} Black expression to one of America’s most accessible and important artistic resources. In many ways, there’s still a long way to go.

Part of the reason this award matters is that hip-hop lacks legitimating institutions to tell its story and manage its history. Until the Hip Hop Hall of Fame’s proposed museum is developed in earnest, the Black cultural phenomenon shaping today’s mainstream sensibilities lacks an established musical canon; {snip}. Every Grammy season invites another round of circular conversations on the Recording Academy’s disconnect with youth culture – and specifically Black culture.

This absence leaves institutions like the Pulitzer to step into the void and confer a sense of status, and that comes with its own cluster of problems. In the past, the Pulitzer voting body has been tripped up by racist pitfalls. Duke Ellington was reportedly livid in 1965 when the jury rejected a special citation highlighting the preeminence of his work. Ellington would earn that achievement posthumously in 1999 – an overdue fate he’d share with other Black jazz geniuses like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Louis Armstrong. Between 1965 and 1995, no living Black artists won at all. {snip}

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Still, as is the case with many “firsts,” the win both further cements Damn.‘s afterlife as a musical triumph and reminds us of the hollow feeling that comes when Black art is memorialized in a white-dominated space. It also brings to mind some criticisms of the racial gap in seemingly all-encompassing institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Library of Congress and other national awards meant to speak to an intrinsic Americanness. {snip}

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