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Decades Late, the Inbred Pulitzer Prize Board Recognizes Hip Hop and Makes Itself Suddenly Relevant

The Pulitzer Prize Board is better late than never in awarding Kendrick Lamar the prize in music for his critically acclaimed album “DAMN.” Lamar’s album is the first non-classical, non-jazz album to win.


According to the Pulitzer Prize Administration, “DAMN.” is a collection of “rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

It’s unlikely that such a glowing review would have come out of one of the previous boards. The 2017-2018 16-member Pulitzer Prize Board is comprised of roughly 44 percent women and about 38 percent people of color.

This is a far cry from just two years ago, when women made up about 28 percent of the board and people of color just 22 percent. Ten years ago, women were just above a quarter of the board, and people of color only 16 percent.

Lamar’s album could not be more relevant to today’s social climate unlike winners of the prize in recent years.

The 2015 award, for instance, went to Julia Wolfe for “Anthracite Fields,” described by the committee as, “A powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal-mining life around the turn of the 20th Century.” In 2012 “Silent Night: Opera in Two Acts” by Kevin Puts took the victory. “A stirring opera that recounts the true story of a spontaneous cease-fire among Scottish, French and Germans during World War I, displaying versatility of style and cutting straight to the heart,” the board quipped.

While Lamar’s win is a groundbreaking accomplishment, it follows a trend of Black music and artists earning the recognition they have not received on for so long.

In January Nielsen (No. 32 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list) announced in its Nielsen Music report that hip hop and R&B for the first time passed rock as the nation’s largest music genre. Lamar’s “DAMN.” played a role.

“Powered by a 72 percent increase in on-demand audio streaming, eight of the top 10 albums came from the world of rap or R&B” including Lamar’s now Pulitzer Prize-winning album, Reuters reported in January.

Lamar’s album explores themes including police brutality and racism. He even samples a Fox News segment on the album that criticized part of Lamar’s earlier album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

And he has not been afraid to express these themes in his performances. Earlier this year at the Grammys he delivered a powerful opening act that included his dancers dressed in hoodies dropping to the ground one by one to the sound of gunshots a tribute to Trayvon Martin.

This has not been without negative responses, though. Geraldo Rivera in 2015 spoke about Lamar on Fox News’ “The Five.” According to Rivera, Lamar and hip hop have “done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” He also said Lamar’s performance at the BET Awards, during which he stood on a police car, was “exactly the wrong message.”

Lamar samples parts of the segment on two songs, “BLOOD.” and “DNA.,” and refers to the incident and Rivera directly on the track “YAH.”:

Interviews wanna know my thoughts and opinions / Fox News wanna use my name for percentage / My latest muse is my niece, she worth livin’ / See me on the TV and scream: ‘That’s Uncle Kendrick!’ / Yeah, that’s the business / Somebody tell Geraldo this n***a got some ambition

Rivera took to Twitter on Monday to give himself a pat on the back for Lamar’s album.

Lamar’s album did not garner him the Grammy for Album of the Year, but it did win the Best Rap Album award for 2018. And it was recognized by Rolling Stone as the No. 1 best album of 2017.

“DAMN. debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart dated May 6, 2017, and spent four nonconsecutive weeks atop the list. It marked his third straight No. 1 effort, following untitled unmastered. (2016) and To Pimp a Butterfly,” Billboard reported.

Lamar’s victory comes just after the first weekend of Coachella, at which Lamar made appearances in a couple of performances. Fellow Black musician Beyonc made history at Coachella as the first Black woman to headline the event, receiving massive amounts of praise for her critically acclaimed performance.

Black artists are making strides in film, too. Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” this month surpassed “Titanic” to become the third highest-grossing film of all time in North America. The movie has a Black director and predominantly Black cast and features music from numerous Black artists, with Lamar appearing on several tracks.

A History of Hip Hop

As Nielsen’s report makes clear, hip hop is becoming more prominent than ever. What is less well-known is its history goes back several decades.

In the 1960s “rapping” was a term used in the Black community that referred to talking or having a conversation. While hip hop sometimes shares characteristics with rap music, which is considered to have African roots, the genre originated in the Bronx in the 1970s. According to “Investigations: Birthplace of Hip Hop” on PBS:

“The story goes that on August 11, 1973 DJ Kool Herc, a building resident, was entertaining at his sister’s back-to-school party, and tried something new on the turntable: he extended an instrumental beat (breaking or scratching) to let people dance longer (break dancing) and began MC’ing (rapping) during the extended breakdancing.

“This, the contributor believes, marked the birth of hip hop. The music led to an entire cultural movement that’s altered generational thinking from politics and race to art and language.”

Rap and hip hop music have both become largely mainstream today, and artists of the genres often use their platforms to address national social issues, making them in fact very traditionally American.

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