By Erin Caine
20 years ago, music critic Kyle Gann, speaking critically of the Pulitzer Prize for Music and its panel of judges, expressed his concern that the white, male panelists are biased in favor of “the same narrow Eurocentric aesthetic” and are to blame for the prize’s elitist mentality.
One can easily see where Gann is coming from: Recipients since 1943 (when music was added as a category) have been overwhelmingly male, white, classical composers.
In demographic data collected from 2005 to 2015, 16 of those 20 recipients were white. (And the same number of winners were men.) Also of note is that almost all of them had attended elite schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Juilliard. It is then a truly astounding moment in the prize’s history that rapper Kendrick Lamar won this year’s award for his fourth studio album, “Damn.”
Lamar is the first of his genre to receive a Pulitzer, all the other awards going to established classical and jazz composers, and perhaps the first amongst his fellow prize winners to begin his career at 16-years old for an independent label with only a mixtape to his name. Lamar, a twelve-time Grammy winner, is of course no stranger to formal recognition, but his Pulitzer win marks a surprising and hopeful shift in what kinds of artists are chosen to receive prestigious accolades. The pall of elitism and the resulting narrow pool of contenders made the Pulitzer seem stagnant, even anachronistic (more so than even the Grammys, which has come under fire lately for the same reasons). There’s no question that Lamar has produced a high-quality body of work since the beginning of the millennium, but now it seems what counts as “high-quality” for the Pulitzer judges encompasses more than just “academic music.”
It’s also worth mentioning that last year’s winner was Du Yun, the first Asian-American woman to win. She is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, performance artist, and curator who works eclectically with orchestral music, opera, chamber music, theatre, cabaret, pop music, oral tradition, visual arts, and electronica. Evidence that the judges were starting to look outside of more traditional genres was already emerging, and yet it wasn’t until Lamar’s win that people really started to take notice.
As far as Lamar’s own musical style—one he characterizes as purely “human music”—it draws not just from hip hop and ‘90s rap, but also from jazz, spoken word poetry, funk, and soul. Praised as a master storyteller by the New Yorker, Lamar typically writes songs that deal with racism and black empowerment in a subdued but provocative manner.
The Pulitzer-winning album in question, “Damn,” was released last year in the spring and picked up “Best Rap Album” at the 60th Grammys and went double Platinum. Critics gave it shining reviews across the board. With so much recognition, it seems like no wonder Lamar drew the attention of even the incredibly old-school Pulitzer judges. Hopefully this event will mark a continuing trend of “no wonders” as deserving contemporary artists get the recognition they deserve.