After all, the Lamar news will be, no doubt, the means through which lots of people learn that the Pulitzers have a music category at all. Its favored genres, classical or jazz, have long been on the commercial wane, and their practitioners can frequently be found defending their relevance to the wider world. In that sense, there’s an argument against Lamar’s inclusion, and for the previous pseudo-ban on pop, on purely altruistic grounds. The attention and prize money the Pulitzers can provide would be, relatively, of greater impact to the careers of Michael Gilbertson and Ted Hearne, the composers who are runners-up this year, than to the platinum-certified Lamar. But to decide a prize based on who “needs” it more would undermine its credibility, which is to say, its worth.
Pairing the Pulitzer news with Bob Dylan’s recent coronation with the Nobel Prize for Literature, some will wonder whether we’re in an era of unlocking by high-culture gatekeepers. But it’s important to note how the Pulitzer surprise with Lamar is both more and less radical than the Nobel’s surprise with Dylan. More because Lamar is not a figure of decades-long acclaim whose influence has been routinely portrayed as a fundamental ingredient of modern culture; he’s rather someone new, whose legacy is unsettled. Less because the category violation being made is de facto, not de jure: Rather than expanding the definition of “music” as the Nobel Prize did with “literature,” the Pulitzers are breaking only their own, unspoken rule against hip-hop and pop.
That rule may well have been unspoken because it was incoherent. The music critic David Hajdu, who was on the Pulitzer judging panel, told The New York Times that Lamar’s work entered the discussion once they realized that some of the modern classical artists they were evaluating bore clear hip-hop influence. “That led us to put on the table the fact that [rap music] has value on its own terms and not just as a resource for use in a field that is more broadly recognized by the institutional establishment as serious or legitimate,” he said. The judges (Hajdu plus the violinist Regina Carter, the Metropolitan Opera’s Paul Cremo, the Columbia professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, and the composer David Lang) then recommended Damn unanimously. “There was no talk about recognizing something that was already popular,” Hajdu added to the Times. “Just: ‘Listen to this—this is brilliant.’ This is the best piece of music.”
The ability to hear hip-hop as brilliant music, period, is overdue for institutions and observers of all kind—which has also been the case, repeatedly in history, with regards to black music of all kinds. The Grammys, supposedly the most relevant awards-giving body in pop, routinely passes over excellent hip-hop works in its general categories, a trend that continued this year with Lamar’s loss to Bruno Mars. In the case of the Pulitzers, Lamar’s win brings to mind the way it took jazz decades to be afforded recognition: In 1965, an internal dispute over whether to commend Duke Ellington’s entire body of work resulted in no Pulitzer for music being issued that year, and it would take until 1997 for a jazz artist (Marsalis) to win out.