While the announcement of Kendrick Lamar’s selection for a Pulitzer Prize came as a surprise to some, it confirmed what many African-American and hip-hop studies scholars have known for years: that hip-hop and rap have had a profound social impact on the Black community and broader society.
Lamar’s critically acclaimed album “DAMN.” won the Pulitzer Prize for music on Monday, making the 30-year-old the first rap artist and non-classical or jazz musician to secure the award since the music category’s creation in 1943.
“For us within that space, it’s a proud moment, it’s a celebratory moment, but it’s also that head nod that everybody’s catching up,” said Jamila S. Lyn, an educational consultant. “When you think about the pioneering history that we have in this particular community of setting the trend, of raising hard questions, of thinking about art as a way to shine a light on social justice, this is what we’ve been doing. This is what hip-hop, in its essence, has been committed to from the very start.”
Lamar’s mainstream success – and the fact that his music did not have to ascribe to the notions of Black respectability politics or White consumption habits to be taken seriously as an art form – makes the recognition even more significant for hip-hop culture, said Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies and the founding director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship at Duke University.
Lyrics describing life growing up in Compton, Calif., the lived experience of being Black in America and hip-hop’s importance, among other topics, fill Lamar’s music and videos.
“When you think about how complicated Kendrick Lamar’s work is around the idea of Black respectability, I think that’s a win, if you will, for Black culture,” Neal said.
Some scholars described Lamar’s selection as “positively disruptive” to not only the existing canon of music that often wins the Pulitzer, but also to White America, highly intellectual spaces and the Black community because some individuals may concede to Black respectability politics, too, Lyn said.
“The fact that Kendrick can be an artist and can absolutely take this authenticity and put it out everywhere and be unapologetically Black is a bold statement,” Lyn added, “because it’s when you’re searching for the affirmation and the validation from other folks that you find yourself having to wiggle around and dumb this down or not say this.”
Dr. Greg Carr also saw the moment as an attempt by the Pulitzer board to remain relevant.
“I don’t know if this award was really about ‘DAMN.’ or if it was more about a gesture towards that demographic,” said Carr, associate professor of Africana Studies and chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University.
Referencing a snub earlier this year when Lamar did not win the Grammy award for Album of the Year, Carr questioned the need to use awards from predominantly White spaces – the Pulitzers, Nobel Prizes, Grammys, Oscars – as a means of validation or recognition over awards Black artists create for themselves.
“If we have those conversations, I think what that reveals is just how much work we have to do to begin to really engage the long arc of Black cultural production in this country,” Carr said. “It is no accident that the people who have generally been ushered into these halls have been increasingly those people who have turned their back on White standards, whether that be Beyoncé or Kendrick.”
Hip-hop and rap have achieved major cultural milestones over the last year. Lamar’s Pulitzer win comes after Beyoncé became the first Black woman to headline the Coachella music festival this past Sunday. It also comes after Jay-Z became the first rapper inducted into the exclusive Songwriters Hall of Fame last June and after LL Cool J, in December, became the first hip-hop artist to be feted at the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors.
The Pulitzer board praised Lamar’s album as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
Following the announcing of the award, Dana Canedy, the administrator for the Pulitzer Prizes, said “the time was right.”
“It shines a light on hip-hop in a completely different way,” Canedy said. “This is a big moment for hip-hop music and a big moment for the Pulitzers.”
Lyn hopes that intellectuals in spaces such as historically Black colleges and universities will pick up on the recognition of rap and hip-hop as scholarship, something she said predominantly White institutions like the University of California System, Rutgers and Duke are already leading in. It will take student demands and professors acknowledging the seriousness of the subject matter to get curriculum heads and deans to center hip-hop studies at HBCUs, she added.
“I hope that we will have professors who are brave enough to push back at the canon in our schools and say, ‘We need more,’ ‘We’ve got to talk about this moment,’ ‘We’ve got to look at Black Lives Matter,’ ‘We’ve got to look at the music and what it’s speaking back to,’” Lyn urged.
For Dr. Treva Lindsey, associate professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University, the mainstream recognition of Hip-Hop’s domination and lyricism, musicality and ingenuity is bittersweet because “those who refuse to recognize Black genius must reckon with Black creativity being lauded in new arenas,” she said by email.
“Taking the mainstream ‘cookies’ while being undeniably rooted in Black cultural expression and aesthetics is a truly powerful moment in this particular era of ubiquitous anti-Blackness,” Lindsey said.
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.