Kendrick Lamar’s unprecedented Pulitzer Prize win for his fourth studio album “DAMN.” marks another rung on the ladder of hip-hop’s ascent. With artists like Drake, Cardi B and SZA redefining what is mainstream, hip-hop dominated 2017. They overtook the quintessential American favorite — rock — for the very first time. Despite hip-hop’s exceptional rise, Lamar’s victory has since been discounted and met with wariness, primarily because of the album’s genre and commercial success. The resistance to accept “DAMN.” as an album worthy of a Pulitzer Prize exemplifies the continuous dismissal of artists of color, especially black rappers.
Historically, the Pulitzer Prize for Music has exclusively recognized classical music and jazz, making “DAMN.” the first rap album to ever receive this award. The backlash that Lamar has been facing demonstrates how hip-hop particularly struggles to be seen as valid, distinguished art even the zenith of its popularity.
Questlove, a member of The Roots, referred to hip-hop as “an entire cultural movement, packed into one hyphenated adjective.” He emphasized the danger of having hip-hop be the sole representative of black music — it would only take the dismissal of hip-hop, one aspect of black culture, to then silence all of black culture.
Regrettably, it is as Questlove said. The social concerns surrounding hip-hop overshadow the artistry and innovation of the genre. As hip-hop becomes mainstream, there is a recurring concern about its effects on the youth due to the genre’s themes of misogyny, violence and drugs. Though hip-hop is not the only genre of music that references these themes, it seems to be the one that is defined by them. It’s a gross oversimplification to consider the entirety of hip-hop as intentionally championing these problematic concepts — a significant reason rap largely embodies visceral expression and vulgarity to that extent is that ever since its inception, it has served as a response to the black experience that teems with injustice. African-Americans continue to be victims of harmful racism through things like police brutality, and rap, as an outlet, reflects that oppression in its content.
Rap has undeniably suffered in its commodification and branding over the years, but we have also witnessed the revolutionary ways it draws from strife and continuously pushes lyric, production and relevance. “DAMN.” is a commendable album with its incredible thematic density. Each track retains its singularity by focusing on a specific concept like DNA or pride, while the album as a whole exhibits cohesion in how every instance relates to Lamar’s own experience as a black male. “DAMN.” is driven by both immersive storytelling and straightforward confession to navigate duality, such as wickedness and weakness or the political and personal, within identity. With candor, Lamar grapples with the cruelty of being black in America. To him, misunderstanding is ubiquitous and fear is an inescapable aspect of the black condition. There’s masterful complexity and painful authenticity in Lamar’s approach, which was highlighted in the prize citation.
To invalidate Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize is to willfully ignore “DAMN.’s” influence. “DAMN.” doesn’t need a Pulitzer Prize nor any other distinction to be a remarkable collection of music, but in a country that falls short of adequate representation of minorities in the media, Lamar’s win reinforces the validity of art by people of color and of hip-hop as a praiseworthy genre of music. As the rising generation, we can feel empowered that artists like Lamar are challenging the status quo. Now, we can testify that institutional precedent crumbles at the cusp of necessary growth, and it’s our effort that ultimately catalyzes the evolution.
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A version of this appeared in the Monday, April 23 print edition. Email Janice at [email protected].