This week, Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize in their music category. This came as a shock for two reasons. First, Lamar is the first nonclassical or jazz performer to win the music prize. Second, a lot of people on social media had no idea that there was a Pulitzer category for music (myself included). Lamar’s Pulitzer win signifies a sea change for the award committee that elevates popular music, but specifically hip-hop, on the same level as classical and jazz music; two genres associated with snobbery and elitism. However, Lamar’s win represents a lot more than impacting the award committee of a particular organization.
Lamar’s Pulitzer win is for his 2017 album DAMN. That release, critically praised by critics and a commercial success, was snubbed at this year’s Grammy awards with the top prize going to Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic. For years, the Recording Academy has been criticized for neglecting to recognize critically-acclaimed albums in favor of albums that have sold very well. That isn’t always the case, but there are more examples of this scenario playing out than there are examples where it doesn’t happen.
The Pulitzer Prizes, established in 1917, praised DAMN. as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” Lamar is an ambitious artist who started life as a black kid in the ghetto and has since struggled with this as he uses music as a platform to address key social and racial issues systemic in our society. While the Pulitzers have honored black artists and artists with similar messages in the past, honoring a dynamic hip-hop artist that continues to redefine the genre with complexity and commercial appeal is long overdue.
While the Pulitzers deserve praise and kudos for this decision, a lot of work still must be done to fairly recognize and honor artists of color that put out magnificent work. Artists that are disruptive in their genres are only recognized much later and long after their commercial and creative appeal has since waned. There are active artists of color working today and struggling to get attention because of a lack of access to resources that would make them commercially viable and profitable. Additionally, Lamar’s win isn’t just a win for hip-hop. It is also a win for people are actively working as pop artists who are in demand and profitable.
However, relevance can be a quality that is detrimental to one’s recognition as a genius in their craft. The Pulitzers have been praised for recognizing an artist as relevant as Lamar, but just boxing Lamar into a category based on their relevancy diminishes his accomplishments and mastery of his craft. Merely honoring someone based on their relevancy ignores artists with less pop and commercial appeal. This is why the Grammys have been criticized for as long as they have. A winner-take-all culture is a by product of a society that values the democratization of culture and information where only the most popular or accessible figures are lauded. This comment is not meant to diminish Lamar’s work on DAMN. because it is a rich piece of art. However, the virtue of him being a popular artist and winning such an award puts him at the center of this discussion.
While many praise the Pulitzers for this decision, there is also some healthy criticism as well. Primarily, critics of this decision feel that this award serves as a platform that can boost the career of someone less commercially viable and accessible. The purpose of awards like this are meant to be based on merit as opposed to sales and popularity. Though, you can have artists that fit into both categories of crafting something worthy of merit that also sells well. The notion that we only award less commercially established artists is almost as absurd as only awarding artists that have sold a ton of albums.
Much of the debate surrounding Lamar’s win is very similar to the debate surrounding Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. In Dylan’s case, many critics felt that Dylan’s work was misunderstood or mischaracterized as being literature. The question of whether or not song lyrics, outside a musical context, could be considered literature was hotly debated by critics and supporters of Dylan’s Nobel win.
However, Dylan’s win was also criticized for the same reason as Lamar’s Pulitzer win. Should Dylan’s Nobel Prize have gone to someone not as established as Dylan thus providing them a platform to be recognized and see a boost in their appeal and sales? Again, this doesn’t serve the notion that awards are supposed to be based on merit. However, do people conflate the concepts of commercial appeal and artistic merit? Are sales a metric of an artist that is a master of their craft? Is something critically praised relevant if it doesn’t sell well? These questions are objective and open to discussion and debate. However, the idea that a commercially successful artist cannot also be a genius is false and without merit. And the concept of “relevancy” is an intellectually limiting term designed to fit a complex figure into a small categorical box which can be dismissive of established artists.
The first single from DAMN., “Humble” (stylized as “HUMBLE.”) became Lamar’s first as a lead artist and one three Grammy awards; “Best Rap Performance,” “Best Rap Song,” and “Best Music Video”). Not the strongest track on DAMN., it is a catchy song that is a statement about Lamar’s inner conflicts between his past life and current success. The music video is brilliant and highly stylized as Lamar is dressed like the pope and plays out scenes resembling Leonard da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The video represents irony and is deeply symbolic reinforcing the powerful lyrics of the track.
DAMN. is a hip-hop milestone worthy of praise. Lamar is a genius and master of his craft who has continued to create stunning music (his latest work for the soundtrack for Black Panther illustrates his continued success). While his Pulitzer win is well-deserved, it also represents the idea that we still have a long way to go in recognizing artists of color. Healthy debate regarding the merit of Lamar’s win is fine, but let’s get distracted with vague concepts of relevancy or the democratization of our culture. Regardless if an artist is popular and commercially successfully, we should be honoring works on their own merit. Blindly awarding people based on lack of popularity diminishes the work of artists who have worked hard to achieve they success they have. And exclusively relying on relevancy to determine value also diminishes the ongoing work many established artists continue to create.
Whether an artist is successful or popular should be wholly unimportant when breaking down a work of art. We have a long way to go regarding this inclusivity in our awards, but democratizing the process does no one any good. I know it can appear that we tend to only award a handful artists and when someone wins something then they win everything else. The solution, however, is not to exclusively adhere to the antithesis of that and ignore established artists in favor of those with less commercial appeal. It is quite reactionary. Good art is good art is good art. Regardless of where it comes from.