By Skyler Romero
Since its inception in 1943, the Pulitzer Prize for Music has largely recognized artists from a somewhat narrow field of contenders. Historically, the prize has mostly gone to works of classical music or opera. Even jazz music, which has enjoyed consideration as a serious form of artistic expression for several decades at least, only became eligible for the prize in 1997, and the list of winners still isn’t exactly packed with household names; probably the most famous among them are artists like Steve Reich, Ornette Coleman, and Wynton Marsalis — big names in jazz and avant-garde classical music, but generally unknown outside of those circles.
The Pulitzer Prize for Music’s previous tendency to pay the most attention to classical, opera and recently jazz makes 2018’s winner, Kendrick Lamar for his wildly popular 2017 album “DAMN.”, both a pleasant surprise for fans of hip-hop as well as a mildly perplexing left-turn for the the awards. Citing the album’s, “vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism,” the prize jury’s brief statement on this year’s award calls it, “a virtuosic song collection […] that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” The statement carries the implication that “DAMN.” is a unique case compared to past winners, appearing to win on the basis of strong lyrical writing as much as musical talent. However, a quick examination of the prize’s requirements for consideration reveals a surprisingly open-ended mission statement that places little restriction on the criteria by which a piece can be judged: a work only needs to be “a distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.” This broad stipulation appears to be the only “rule” that a work must follow to be eligible for consideration.
If the criteria has allowed, since 1997 at least, for such a wide variety of genres to be considered, then why is the Pulitzer Prize Board only now exploring different types of music? A recent piece in The New York Times by James Coscarelli finds music critic David Hajdu, a member of this year’s prize jury, revealing that the inclusion of “some pieces of classical music that drew upon hip-hop as a resource” led to “a philosophical discussion among the jurors about what could be considered.” In the end, it was decided that “this sphere of work 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.”
Once the decision was made to include pure hip-hop in the field of contenders, “DAMN.” became a natural frontrunner. As jazz violinist Regina Carter, another juror for this year’s award, told David A. Graham of The Atlantic, “It needed to be included. Once listening to this, everybody knew that this was a distinguished piece of work that should be included.” When asked whether the role of “producers, beat makers, and so on” in crafting the album factored into the jury’s deliberations, Carter assured that “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.” She also stressed that the decision was not made purely with the intent of bringing more genres to the table. “The piece stands on its own,” she contends, “I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant work. I think he’s brilliant.”
Whether or not the jury’s decision to break from tradition will mean a greater variety of contenders in the years to come remains to be seen, but for now, Kendrick’s victory represents a win for artists working in more popular genres, and the recognition that their art can be just as profound, moving, and insightful as those in more stereotypically “high-brow” circles.