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Kendrick Lamar wins a Pulitzer for ‘DAMN’

KENDRICK LAMAR, MUSIC PULITZER OR JOURNALISM?

By Jose Bermudez | jbermudezlenis@radford.edu

On April 16, 30-year old American rapper Kendrick Lamar made history for being the first rapper to ever win a Pulitzer in music for his 2017 hit-album “DAMN,” as well as becoming the first non-jazz or classical artist to collect that honor in its 75 year existence, along with Bob Dylan, who reached the award in 2008.

The Pulitzer Prize Board called his album, “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

Kendrick’s 55-minute album introduced a raw and darker view of the life of African-Americans in the U.S and the world. The conceptual conflicts he dissects throughout the album — pride vs. humility, love vs. lust, fear vs. trust (mostly in God), individuality vs. conformity, and, as Lamar explores in the album’s conclusion, “me vs. me” — are easily recognizable.

It’s easy for the black folks to relate to the issues the album discussed about, in which many African-Americans found a voice of protest against police brutality and racial stereotypes, as Kendrick expressed his pride for his African ancestry, his faith issues, the fear of returning to poverty and violence, and his anger against racial inequality.

What makes “DAMN” Pulitzer-worthy is the way in which Kendrick expressed the struggle among blacks in real-time, the album’s profound verses, mixed-beats, and its overall content may have similar social impact as the words of Ida B. Wells or W.E.B Du Bois, which makes “DAMN” an efficient expression of journalism.

The board also chose to award a musician working in a popular, essential language, and not just any language, but hip-hop, a genre that has been unapologetic if not criticized about its own roots and social impact. Politically incorrect genres are often only retroactively acknowledged, usually decades after their commercial and creative boom. However, Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize in an era in which rap music is as alive and as pervasive as it has ever been.

According to The New Yorker, many detractors came into scene, calling Lamar’s achievement a “Marketing-biased award glorifying pop culture,” causing the same repercussions as when Bob Dylan won the same prize in 2016, but in this case, for literature, many critics expressed their disagreement towards the board’s decision, debating Dylan’s literature credentials, as well as considering his award to be Marketing-biased; just like Kendrick.

However, both artists have won and lost many big awards. At the 1965 Grammys, Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was defeated, in the Best Folk Recording category, by Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,”; more recently, Lamar lost the Grammy for Album of the Year to Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic,” a more approachable and infinitely less criticized piece of work.

What makes Lamar a Pulitzer-worthy musician is the way he incorporates social critique into a hip-hop album, which it is believed to be the genre’s main objective, however, for many music critics hip-hop is a medium-tier genre that cannot compete with the traditional Classical and Jazz artist that have won the prize before.

But people seem to forget the times in which Jazz was a newly-born genre coming from Memphis, TN; Jazz, like hip-hop, was once the trending genre among younger audiences, as it presented a new content and lyrics, often openly criticizing the social struggles among African-Americans. Just like “DAMN” did.

Photo credit: (KendrickLamar.com)

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