Graham: Do you get many submissions from rap or other popular genres?
Carter: This year I was surprised that there was more of a mixture. There were some kind of country and western–sounding pieces. Some pop pieces, pop-sounding pieces, some other black American music was submitted. I’m sure now in the future more people will submit. There was more than there had been two years ago, and definitely if you think about 1997 was the first year that jazz was nominated, with Wynton’s piece Blood on the Fields. Before that it was pretty much European classical.
Graham: Was the infamous 1965 snub of Duke Ellington on your mind in choosing Lamar?
Carter: I wasn’t necessarily thinking of that. It’s probably more so on my mind now because of what’s going on in this country politically and just the ugliness of people—the intolerances that people have of each other and of each other’s cultures and music. It wasn’t a decision of, Oh, let’s just give this to a hip-hop artist, or to Kendrick Lamar, because of that. The piece stands alone. I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant work. I think he’s brilliant. Knowing that we were considering this, I felt really proud of us, the jurors, being able to realize that there’s other great American music and great American art forms besides what we’ve always been told is great.
Graham: With a rap record, you have various people involved—the MC, but also producers, beat makers, and so on. Did that factor into the calculation?
Carter: For me it wasn’t. Although it takes all those people, I was looking at Kendrick Lamar as the one who’s delivering. He’s kind of the librettist, if you will, of this. I was looking at it as a whole piece.
Graham: One concern I’ve heard since the award, including from people who loved the decision, is that the Pulitzer helps to bring attention to classical and jazz works that would not otherwise be commercially successful. That’s obviously not a problem for Kendrick. Is there a danger that classical and jazz will lose an important forum?
Carter: I can see why they might think that, but I’m sure the people who were on the Pulitzers prior to Wynton’s win in 1997, the classical musicians when that was awarded thought the same thing. You don’t have the same jury every time. I don’t think there’s a need to worry. Thinking of people whose work may not have been known, everyone knew who Wynton Marsalis was in 1997. I’m sure everyone’s not even familiar with who Kendrick Lamar is. You might have heard his name floating on around on TV, but that doesn’t mean you know who he is.
Graham: Or that you’ve listened to him seriously.
Carter: Right. So I don’t think that’s an issue. Just the fact that this record was nominated, it was granted a Pulitzer—it says that this is a part of the American art form. Not that hip-hop needs that, but just because some people may look down on it. I remember how when I studied European classical music and then I switched to jazz, my teacher looked down, and said, “Oh, that’s not real music.” When you have that attitude toward a specific art form, you have that attitude toward the culture from which that comes. That’s why winning a Pulitzer is saying, you know, take a minute and if you can open yourself up to try and listen to this. You might not like it. You don’t have to like it. But you can’t even make that decision if you’ve not respected it enough to listen to it.
Graham: Did you expect the outpouring of attention this has received?
Carter: I found out when we all found out, watching it. I was actually a bit shocked! But happy. We submit works, and then they pick from that. I wasn’t sure how people were going to react. I thought there was going to be a lot of anger, or a lot of negativity, and I was quite happy to see that there was more positive reaction.