At this point in his career, Kendrick Lamar does not want to be recognized. The Compton rapper has received dozens of awards, including 12 Grammys, a place on the list of the 100 Most Influential People of Time and a rock-solid position as the greatest rapper of his generation. Now he can add to this list a Pulitzer Prize in music, the very first of a pop musician of all kinds. Undoubtedly, Kendrick's lyrics – especially her focus on the historical tenacity of premature death in black life – are probably as much a source of cultural criticism and journalistic description as all other Pulitzer winners this year. And the award, which comes a few months after being crushed for an album of the year Grammy, will undoubtedly extend K Dot's unique musical heritage. But it also speaks in favor of the complicated, indeed problematic, transition from hip-hop underground black to one of America's most accessible and important artistic resources. In many ways it is still a long way.
Part of the reason this prize is important is that hip-hop does not have legitimate institutions to tell its story and manage its story. Until the proposed Museum of the Hip Hop Hall of Fame is seriously developed, the cultural phenomenon of the black that characterizes today's mainstream sensibility lacks a well-established musical canon; Cultural magazines such as XXL and The Source are no longer gatekeepers in determining what a "timeless" rap album signifies; classical hip-hop stations are largely non-existent even with almost 40 years of classics in the vault. The larger pop music community has not helped Aether much. Each Grammy season invites to another round of talks about the separation of the Recording Academy from youth culture – and especially black culture.
This absence causes institutions like the Pulitzer to go into emptiness and give them a sense of status, and that has its own problems. In the past, the Pulitzer election organ was surprised by racist pitfalls. Duke Ellington was reportedly enraged in 1965 when the jury rejected a specific citation that emphasized the primacy of his work. Ellington would earn this feat posthumously in 1999 – an overdue fate that he would share with other black jazz geniuses like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Louis Armstrong. Between 1965 and 1995 no living black artists have won. When the time came, the award went to Wynton Marsalis for his inconspicuous jazz opera Blood on the Fields . The decision to award a contemporary musician behind closed doors as a result of half a decade of conflict hardly felt like a worthy moment.
Even after a rule change in 2004 that extended the chamber's scope to popular music outside the European tradition, it took another 14 years for mainstream music to be considered as a serious art. A rapper who receives an award that is so respected in elite art circles is certainly a moment of progress. Lamar's music is firmly rooted in the free radicalism provided by Monk and Trane. In this way, as unprecedented as it seems, the jury drew a consistent line from 1965 to 2018, perhaps without wishing.
Still, as is the case with many "premieres", the victory cemented both damnation afterlife as a musical triumph, reminding us of the hollow feeling that comes when black art in Memory remains a white dominated space. It also recalls some criticisms of the divide between races in seemingly all-embracing institutions such as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Library of Congress and other national awards designed to speak with intrinsic Americanism , This was the case in the sparse canonization of artists such as Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Public Enemy and Run-DMC. Lamar has already recorded an album in the Library of Congress and will no doubt be a Hall of Famer in a meaningful conversation. But the life and death of an album that deals with how life itself begins and ends raises the question of where an album will die. And who owns the sky?