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2nd May 2018

Hip-hop and the Pulitzer

Kendrick Lamar’s win in the Pulitzer Prize music category is a watershed moment for the perception of hip-hop as an art form.
Hip-hop and the Pulitzer
Photo: Wikimedia Commons @ Top Dawg Ent & Interscope Records

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize for music went to none other than Compton, CA’s very own Kendrick Lamar for his enthralling album DAMN.

He may have been beaten out by Bruno Mars for album of the year in the Grammys, but this win is not just a win for Kendrick, but for hip-hop as a whole.

As the genre is blamed for an increase in violence, this award signals to the world that hip-hop is an art form truly worth the attention of your ears and mind.

Often hip-hop is criticised for being a music genre full of braggadocios lyrics, vapid themes, and sexist overtones, and is generally considered a ‘youth genre’ that appeals only to the lowest common denominator of people.

But hip-hop has done something only classical and jazz music has done: win a Pulitzer.

From humble beginnings in the Bronx, hip-hop has grown from the shadows of disco music to not only become a part of the mainstream but arguably the mainstream music genre, influencing popular culture far more than any other single genre of music.

Former President of the United States Barack Obama often made hip-hop references in his speeches. Jay-Z, P Diddy and Dr.Dre are all worth close to $1 billion, and now Kendrick Lamar has a Pulitzer Prize.

But what Kendrick’s win shows isn’t that hip-hop is mainstream, something that hasn’t been in dispute for years, it’s that hip-hop as an art form is getting the respect it finally deserves from the traditional music outlets.

This award has opened up a conversation in which hip-hop, jazz, and classical music are being spoken of together. Hip-hop now parallels two genres that are often considered to be ‘high art’ and ‘cultured’ due to their rich history and heritage, and it’s about time hip-hop was considered the same.

Despite only originating in the 1970s, it has a history as rich as any other. Hip-hop is not only just music, it is a culture that represents the plight of African-Americans and other urban youth in the wake of poverty, gang violence, police brutality, and just about any form of adversity one can face.

What truly makes Kendrick’s win remarkable is not that he is some underground rapper; he was the best selling rapper of 2017 selling over 350,000 copies of his new record in its first week of release.

For the most popular rapper of 2017 to win this award shows that the face of hip-hop is no longer perceived as bling and gangs (not that those are inherently bad things), but as the lyrically and artistically complex genre that it is.

No other genre of music has the storytelling capacity that hip-hop does, and no other modern rapper represents that spirit of storytelling than Kendrick does.His latest album, DAMN, chronicles the human condition from love to lust, from fear to God.

Despite DAMN not being Kendrick’s best album in terms of storytelling or complexity (those accolades, in my opinion, go to good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly respectively), it is very fitting that DAMN is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.

In the second track, DNA, Kendrick samples Fox News host Geraldo Rivera’s tirade against hip-hop in which he claims that “hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.”

This is not too dissimilar of a sentiment being touted on this side of the pond, blaming drill music (a derivative form of hip-hop) for an increase in knife crime in London.

The notion that hip-hop is some violent genre that possesses young men to commit crimes has not fully disappeared, but it is slowly eroding away when artists like Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, and Joey Bada$$ continue to put out conscious work that displays the full potential of what this genre can be.

And when respected institutions such as the Pulitzer Prize also recognise this, it’s only a matter of time before the perception changes.

But ultimately this award (and awards in general) should not be the barometer for how you judge a genre or piece of music. Whether a genre or piece of music is derided by the mainstream or whether it’s the zeitgeist itself shouldn’t influence your opinion on it.

There is certain significance, of course, to this award as mentioned above, but you should listen to music for what it means to you and not what it means to others. And if that’s listening to Lil Pump say ‘Gucci Gang’ 53 times in the space of 2 minutes and 4 seconds, then so be it.

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