And Finally Artist News Beef Of The Week

Beef Of The Week #400: Classical music fans v Kendrick Lamar

By | Published on Friday 20 April 2018

Kendrick Lamar - Damn

The Pulitzer Prize is known as the gold standard of journalism awards. It turns out that there are loads of Pulitzer prizes given out for all kinds of things, though. This is something many learned for the first time this week when it was announced that Kendrick Lamar had been chosen as the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize For Music, for his 2017 album ‘Damn’.

One reason the Pulitzer music award had flown under the radar of the popular consciousness for so long is that in its 75 year history the prize has only ever been given to classical and jazz composers. Except in 1965 when they gave it to no one because all music that year was rubbish. But now it’s been blown right open.

Explaining how Lamar came to be in the running, award administrator Dana Canedy told Billboard: “[The jury] were considering a piece of music they felt had hip hop influences and said, ‘Well if we’re considering a piece of music that has hip hop influences, why aren’t we considering hip hop?’ And someone said, ‘That’s exactly what we should do’. And then someone said, ‘We should be considering Kendrick Lamar’ and the group said ‘absolutely’. So then, right then, they decided to listen to the entire album and decided ‘This is it'”.

Whether you were aware of the award before or not, its prestige is clear, and so this decision feels like a big moment for hip hop, as well as for Lamar himself. Already recognised as a phenomenal talent by his peers, acknowledgement from an awards body so apparently removed from his world surely affirms that talent even more strongly.

Not everyone agreed with the decision, however. In the usually placid and undivided world of social media, some classical music fans, as Mozart would have said, lost their shit.

Some felt that pop music already gets enough prizes, and that the Pulitzer should have given its award to someone who had studied their craft to a highly educated level. Someone who had mastered an instrument. Someone who crafted beautiful melodies. Someone who did more than just talking over a drum machine.

Basically, the consensus was that Lamar had got to where he is today pretty easily and without any clear talent for ‘proper’ music, so didn’t deserve a big prestigious award. They ignored the skill with which he raps because, obviously, they don’t recognise rapping as a skill. Some even went to far as to say that the musical Pulitzer was now rendered redundant forever more.

There was a benchmark to compare him to, as well. The other two finalists this year were classical composers: Michael Gilbertson and Ted Hearne. After years of work to reach the pinnacle of their industry, were they angry to have been beaten by a mere rapper? In a word, no.

“I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I am a fan of his music”, Gilbertson told Slate. “I remember when I was at Yale, I heard some other grad students give a talk on some of the theological and conceptual narrative depth in his work, and I was really struck by that. It changed the way I listen to his music. I’m really a fan of his work”.

Hearne, who is currently working with poet and rapper Saul Williams, was even more emphatic. “I don’t put too much stock in prizes, but this is a really important year because Kendrick Lamar’s music is super important to me and to a lot of people”, he said. “Hip hop as a genre has been important to me as a composer, but Kendrick’s work in particular. He is such a bold and experimental and authentic artist. He’s one of the people that is creating truly new music”.

In many ways, had Lamar taken the prize for his 2015 album, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, it may have softened the blow for the detractors, given its departure into jazz. But that actually makes him receiving the prize for an album with a more pure hip hop sound all the more delightful.

The jury described ‘Damn’ as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life”.

Lamar may not have been to a conservatoire, but he has certainly studied. You don’t get to be a rapper as diverse and dynamic as him without work. And not everyone can capture and describe life around them with the talent he displays.

As for arguments that allowing ‘pop’ into the Pulitzer camp weakens the prize, Gilbertson disagrees entirely. “I never thought my string quartet and an album by Kendrick Lamar would be in the same category”, he says. “This is no longer a narrow honour. It used to be classical composers competing against each other in relatively small numbers, but now we’re all competing against these major voices in music”.

Indeed, maybe that new competition will push classical musicians to innovate in new ways. There are already a growing number of emerging composers doing new things with what is often seen as an old fashioned and stuffy genre. Perhaps Lamar’s latest accolade shows less that there are fewer opportunities for classical artists, and more that the door is open for someone working in the more traditional medium to now take a more conventionally pop prize.

There are parallels to be drawn here with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, of course. People thought that was a fucking travesty as well. Although Lamar’s prize is still within music, naysayers argue that this is someone from a low artform winning something meant for creators of a high artform.

But who gets to decide what is high and low? Not me. And not you. And anyway, novels were once seen as the scourge of society, designed for lazy young people to avoid doing something constructive. So, basically, all modern literature should probably be viewed as the dregs of culture.

Time will tell if Lamar and Dylan are thought of as high art by future snobs. I suspect they will be. So the snobs of today should probably start familiarising themselves with the greatest artists working in this era. Doing so might steel them for the inevitable moment when videogames start winning awards like this. And women.