Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for Music yesterday for his album DAMN. I have been fortunate to have worked in the arts, particularly the black arts for the past 20 + years and have had a close direct and indirect relationship with former black Pulitzer Prize winners. I was VP and Producer at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC where I worked alongside Wynton Marsalis, who won the prize for music in 1997 for his jazz oratorio on slavery, Blood on the Fields. I was also CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. August was nominated for 6 awards in drama and won the prize twice for Fences and The Piano Lesson in 1987 and 1990 respectively.
By bestowing the award on Brother Lamar, the Pulitzer Board is virtue signaling to the country that they are not tone deaf regarding the place that hip-hop holds in the cultural marketplace. This premature coronation of a rapper as just the third black to win the prize reeks of an institution doing its best to stay relevant in an ever evolving culture that is becoming less influenced by individual arbiters of excellence and increasingly shaped by the populism of social media.
Classical composer, George Walker was the first black to win the prize in 1996 at 74 years old for his work Lilac, an orchestral piece for soprano soloist. Marsalis followed a year later with Blood, a piece for jazz big band and vocalists. After 21 years, now they pick Kendrick for DAMN. Damn, thats a long time and a big leap for a music award like the Pulitzer. Did the Pulitzer Board all of a sudden wake up, or are they simply trying to be woke.
Don’t get me wrong, I really like Kendrick Lamar, but before we all lose our collective minds, we need to, ”pump [the] brakes, pump [the] brakes,” as Kendrick himself said on BJ The Chicago Kid’s Cupid.
Awards like these used to showcase the separation between the commercial marketplace and art. It was once thought that artists and their art should be allowed to develop away from market pressures in order to give them a chance to give birth to their truest artistic statement.
Those days are long gone and now with the torrent of information and media that washes over us every day, the removal of barriers of entry into the marketplace with the Internet, and the intense competition for eyeballs and likes, it’s becoming harder for artists to have the luxury to take the time to develop a body of work that may be worthy of such a distinction as the Pulitzer.
I actually don’t think that Kendrick is a prototypical commercial artist that creates a product strictly for consumption. He doesn’t seem to be as influenced by the marketplace as most. Although it could be argued that DAMN. is the most commercial of Lamar’s three major releases. Even so, I do hear an aesthetic statement and a worldview that comes through in his music.However, this doesn’t mean that this work at this time is truly indicative of the highest levels of excellence of music in America, particularly black music.
The Pulitzer Board says that DAMN. “[is] a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
In my humble opinion, the songs and the music are not virtuosic. Kendrick’s lyrics and rhythmic dynamism can be characterized as such, but not the songs. Musically speaking hip-hop is a very creative art form, but it not necessarily virtuosic compared to the continuum of black music that it is a part of, and to elevate it and characterize it as such by the Pulitzer Board is disingenuous and can even be seen as disrespectful to the continuum of black music. Hip-hop is an art form that relies heavily on rhythm which is just one-part of the four key ingredients of what makes up all music – rhythm, melody, harmony and texture. And, on top of that, the rhythm in hip-hop for the most part is artificially generated. To Kendrick’s credit there are virtuosic elements to the music in his album To Pimp a Butterly, due in large part to his unique synthesis of a live band with the production and how he navigated the tension between the two.
With that being said, I like DAMN. and it does indeed capture some aspects of the complexity of modern African-American life, but it is just a slice of that life. The problem is that the slice that Kendrick and many in the hip-hop and popular music genres choose to highlight have become indicative for many of the entire pie mostly because it serves a narrative of black life that the marketplace is comfortable with.
As a 51-year old husband of nearly 30 years and father of four grown children, I often wonder where is the art that captures part of the complexity or even the simplicity of the life that I lead as a black man in America. I know the real reason that there is a such a dearth of this type of art – it simply doesn’t serve the modern marketplace or the prevailing narrative of the black male.
My chief concern for the culture in general and for Lamar in particular is that his premature coronation into the annals of black excellence alongside Pulitzer Prize winners like Wynton Marsalis and George Walker (music), Alice Walker and Toni Morrison (fiction) and August Wilson and Suzan Lori-Parks (drama) to name a few, may not incentivize him or others to perfect their art for the sake of the art and for the ultimate benefit of the culture. If we start coronating artists too early we run the risk of arresting their artistic development.
You may ask if it is even fair to compare Kendrick to that laundry list of greats who he is now forever associated with. If he sticks out or looks strange along that continuum then what does that say about the history of the award, especially to black folks. Which begs a different question. Who benefits the most at this point by him joining that esteemed list of black genius – the Pulitzer Board or Kendrick?
Kendrick already has what almost all artist want and most who’ve won the Pulitzer will never have – money, fame and adulation. While this award will certainly add to his profile, many of his fans either don’t know what the award is about or even really care that he won it.
But the Pulitzer Prize Board – in one fell swoop they have garnered more attention in the mainstream popular media over the past 24 hours then they have over the past 20 years combined.
Like so much else in our culture, it seems like a simple transaction – premature coronation in exchange for relevance, street credibility and Twitter followers. Is the butterfly being pimped?