The Pulitzer Prize, an award for excellent achievement in journalism, literature and music is, for all recipients, one of the highest acclaims someone could receive in their career. Though it’s less discussed, the music category has recognized many acclaimed artists of classical and jazz genres, but this year, that changed. The 2018 Pulitzer Prize for music was awarded to Kendrick Lamar for his 2017 album, “DAMN.;” and, in an era dominated by racial unrest, it was the best musical work which could’ve received the award.
When the 2018 prizes were announced, people were shocked to hear the award committee had made an exception to what seemed to be its unspoken rule of selecting jazz and classical artists to give Lamar — a Compton-born rapper — the award. This announcement was met with mixed reaction. While some questioned why the committee deviated so much from what’s usually expected of a Pulitzer Prize, others commended this decision. Julia Craven of the Huffington Post went so far as to call the album a “great piece of journalism,” explaining this was exactly the reason “DAMN.” was the perfect choice for the award — and she was right.
Journalists capture the “here and now” every day; from news articles to editorials, journalists are always at the front lines — capturing what they see and hear and reporting it to the public. Lamar managed to do the same through his music by dissecting black life in America, his words honest, real and rooted in the moment. And although other musicians have the ability to do the same through their music, rap is one of the few genres that can authentically encapsulate the lives and struggles of people of color. Rappers have the opportunity speak from the point of view of those who face oppression and, through their music, call out those who are responsible.
In “DAMN.” Lamar focuses on capturing the essence of African American life in the United States today. The acuity with which he captures contemporary racial issues, struggles and happenings in real time is what sets Lamar apart from others, and, in a sense, what makes his music sort of journalistic in and of itself.
But Lamar isn’t the only rap artist to use such techniques in his work, though he does it exceptionally well. Chicago artist Chance the Rapper has been a recent activist voice in the city. Like Lamar, he doesn’t hesitate to shine a light on harsh realities through his music — such as in his song, “Summer Friends,” in which he details the realities of gun violence in the city — as well as using his music to intertwine his faith, commentary of city life and personal struggles. Chance has also used his fame to encourage activism in local issues. Both through his music and his personal life, he’s worked to promote racial justice, improve Chicago Public Schools and fought to combat gun violence in Chicago.
Similarly, Common, a Chicago-bred rapper and hip-hop artist, has used his music to talk about present-day issues. His latest album, “Black America Again” (2016), joined other artists, including Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” to create a powerful message in support of black lives. Like “DAMN.” “Black America Again” is full of impactful songs which capture the emotional state of some African American communities across the United States.
These artists, along with others, have worked hard to use music as a way to send real, concrete and in-the-moment messages to the public. Like journalists, they encapsulate everything they see and put it into their work, shining a light on real issues from an internal perspective. In modern day America, rap is one of the most important forms of music as it depicts the lives of people of color in the United States in their own voices. Although it might have been unexpected, “DAMN.” was more than an appropriate choice for the Pulitzer Prize.