At the end of her ten minute presentation for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners, administrator Dana Canedy begin to lead in to her final award. “And last, but certainly not least, for music” she said, her eyebrows raising a bit before pausing. “The prize is awarded to DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar—a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
The announcement, given in the World Room at Columbia University, the same university where now-Louis Vuitton creative director Virgil Abloh patted himself on the back for playing Migos just over a year prior, was history-making. It marked the first time that hip-hop had been honored by the organization. In fact, it was the first time that popular music had ever taken home the prize—Bob Dylan had gotten a “special award” in 2008. And for those reasons and more, the Pulitzer Prize in music represented a hell of a lot more than the $15,000 award that came with it.
When Canedy spoke to The New York Times about the announcement, which was her first as the organization’s administrator (also being the first woman and African-American to hold the position), she said: “The time was right.” It was later revealed that the vote was unanimous. “We are very proud of this selection. It means that the jury and the board judging system worked as it’s supposed to—the best work was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.”
It’s a curious choice of words—the “timing being right.” Maybe Canedy was referring to the Nielsen report that showed that hip-hop and R&B had become the biggest music genre in the U.S. in 2017, with DAMN. topping the charts as the number two album overall. Though the report categorizes them as one genre, hip-hop and R&B account for a full quarter of the music consumed in the country. Maybe these numbers required recognition—except that doesn’t quite add up.
Rock had previously been the most consumed music genre in America, yet the award regularly awarded classical music with the occasional jazz offering. This was mostly “high-brow” work; none of it would ever be described as chart-topping or commercially successful. But harkening back to Bob Dylan’s special award provides explanation for how popular tastes come into play. According to the administrator then, the Prize had been trying since 2004 (four years earlier) to reach beyond classical music, going so far as amending its music criteria. Dylan’s award was given for “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” Likewise, Lamar’s album has had impact.
The current zeitgeist prizes the experience of the individual. After decades of assimilation in mainstream pop music, the pendulum has swung to exalt differences; finding beauty in individuality. Marginalized people stand strong in what separates them from everyone else, knowing that it develops tighter bonds within their community and can still be appreciated by others. And this is why “the time was right” for DAMN. to get its Pulitzer.
While there are arguments about the golden area of hip-hop and rap by scholars and critics alike, few can argue that the genre has ever held so much widespread recognition. Some believe that the community has suffered from that influx of attention, money and players, spurring fads like “mumble rap” and often nonsensical lyrics which seem a direct departure from the culture’s origins.
And while that may be true, it has also provided black people with a platform from which to speak about their experiences. It functioned as “CNN for black people” as Public Enemy’s Chuck D once said. And that is what Kendrick has used it for for years, notably on his albums To Pimp A Butterfly and DAMN.
“The time was right” to honor the contributions and conflicted experiences of black creatives in the way that they choose to relay those experiences. To honor those contributions as just as important as any other contribution, not in an “urban” category or otherwise marginalized, but with the same prestige as any other. To recognize that though expressed differently, hip hop and rap require the same penmanship and skill as any other genre and can be considered just as beautiful.
“It shines a light on hip-hop in a completely different way,” Canedy said of the award. “This is a big moment for hip-hop music and a big moment for the Pulitzers.”
But from where we sit, it seems to be much more of an accomplishment for the Pulitzer Prize to begin to recognize the skill and level of craft that’s been present since the genre’s beginnings, than an achievement for the genre to finally convince Pulitzer to stop ignoring it.
For more of our in-depth features, read about how Nicki Minaj’s latest song tell us a lot about rap music’s treatment of women right here.