Yesterday, Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize in Music, becoming the first artist working in a genre that isn’t classical or jazz to receive the coveted honor. He also may be the youngest winner of the prize, at 30; I don’t know when Caroline Shaw’s birthday is, but there’s a chance he’s some days or months younger than she was when she won for “Partita for 8 Voices.”
Dana Canedy, who with this awards cycle marks her first as Pulitzer administrator, said this about the selection:
I don’t know specifically what the piece was, but in this case they were considering a piece of music they felt had hip-hop influences and said, “Well if we’re considering a piece of music that has hip-hop influences, why aren’t we considering hip-hop?” And someone said, “That’s exactly what we should do.” And then someone said, “We should be considering Kendrick Lamar” and the group said “absolutely.” So then, right then, they decided to listen to the entire album and decided “This is it.”
For my first year at the Boston Globe, I only wrote about classical music. Now it’s about a sixty-forty balance of classical and non-classical. I’d never ask to review a Kendrick Lamar show or album because as a. a white woman and b. a very casual hip-hop listener, much of the commentary on black life in America would be lost on me, and I wouldn’t be comfortable critiquing it. But I do know this: If I had an hour, I’d probably rather listen to “DAMN.” than about 75% of the recordings I get sent as a classical music critic.
This win has quite unpredictably sent shockwaves through the conservatory-music corner of the internet. On the cliché side, there’s the old white men (why is it always all old white men?) lamenting the death of art, culture, music, etc. On a more nuanced note, some called attention to the fact that the Pulitzer Prize was one of the last remaining awards in the mainstream cultural consciousness that went to a work of new conservatory-music until yesterday. In 2004, then-administrator Sig Gissler announced that a score submission would no longer be necessary to win the prize, but the award kept going to operas, concertos, and in 2007 and 2016, jazz compositions.
In the world of such music, where success rides on reputation, commissions, and awards, this feels like hearing the gold medal for figure skating was just awarded to a snowboarder, and an amazing technical and artistic show of snowboarding will now and forever be eligible for the gold medal in figure skating.
But, as Dana Canedy pointed out, there’s no rule that says the Pulitzer must go to a work of classical or jazz music. The criteria for the award is: “For a distinguished musical composition of significant dimension by an American that has had its first performance in the United States during the year.” So “DAMN.” qualifies, and in my opinion, it deserves it and then some. It’s an astounding, touching, relevant work of art from a genre that has been disparaged as lowbrow, misogynistic, unworthy of serious consideration, and “not music” since its first stirrings. (When the classical music establishment calls ANYTHING misogynistic: pot, meet kettle.)
We’re living in a time of churn and change in music, and my overwhelming hope is that this shattered barrier will encourage young creators to create art that reflects their truth, academic constraints be damned.