Congratulations to Kendrick Lamar, a Compton, Calif.-born rapper. He has just been awarded one of this country’s most prestigious awards for excellence in musicianship—the 2018 Pulitzer Prize.
Yes, some will say he does not deserve it; some will even say the award does not count. The Pulitzer, some will complain, is just another sugar-coated award White folks give to seduce and neutralize any artistic creator whose work significantly threatens the status quo. If that were the case, however, they have been particularly stingy in what they have previously found to be worth the salt.
The Pulitzer Prizes, just to be clear, are awarded annually in journalism, the arts (theater, music, writing, etc.), and other areas of American creativity. The awards are based on the Plan of Awards originally set up by Hungarian-born Joseph Pulitzer, who was a self-made major mover in early 20th century America. Pulitzer made his name primarily as a newspaper tycoon and publisher. His principal papers were the New York World and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His last will and testament set up what was at first a group of awards for print journalism, and he authorized Columbia University to be in charge of the entire process. He also set up an independent Pulitzer Board of Review to oversee all awards recommended.
Pulitzers for American music (performance, composition, etc.) came late to the party, and were not awarded regularly until after 1943 (Pulitzers started being awarded in 1917). Until the late 1990s, virtually all music Pulitzers were given to classical music performers and composers, without much thought given to other forms of American music (although in 1965, there had been a strong recommendation to honor Duke Ellington as a jazz master, but the Board rejected the recommendation). It was not until 1996-1997 that the Pulitzer Board finally recognized Wynton Marsalis’ greatness and awarded his jazz artistry. Then, in 1999, they finally awarded at least a Pulitzer Special Citation award to Duke Ellington, after previously giving such recognition to George Gershwin in 1998. Later, in 2008, Ornette Coleman received a Pulitzer for best live jazz recording, and in 2006 and 2007, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane were awarded posthumous Special Citations for Jazz Excellence.
That the Pulitzer jury finally recognized these individually great artists was significant in its own right, but much more important was the recognition of jazz as American music of excellence and finery, even though this was long after the world had already made that decision.
This is also the most strategic point in Kendrick Lamar’s win for 2018. Rap music, already world-recognized, was really not considered real music by many music critics in the USA. For reference, one can go back to the number of Grammy awards ever given out for Best Song or Best Album of the Year to rap music. The number is zero. Rap music has for the last 40-plus years had its own musical category, which of courser Black musicians dominated. But there were no accolades for rap just as the best music, period.
Kendrick Lamar’s win this year acknowledges rap music’s ascendance to the “high cotton” of music. By at least next year, we should see rap besting other entries for Best Song and Best Album of the Year.
Whatever else we may think about the brother’s recognition, that larger picture is important to see.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.