To Bag a Pulitzer
Four years later, did Kendrick’s win actually mean ... anything?
By Victor Omojola
“See, a lot of y’all don’t understand Kendrick Lamar because you wonder how I could talk about money, hoes, clothes, God, and history all in the same sentence.”
That’s a line from “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” the penultimate track on Kendrick Lamar’s first studio album, Section.80. Since the 2011 project, the Compton native has released four more albums. The first three, good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and DAMN., touch upon adolescent self-discovery, institutional racism in the United States, and Christian theology, respectively. By thoughtfully utilizing Black aesthetics, maintaining cultural specificity even as a world-renowned recording artist, and producing anthems of Black affirmation like “Alright,” Lamar has cemented himself as a sort of sage regarding Black culture—managing to remain both revered and beloved by the Black community. And through his genre-bending, rapper’s rapping, and meticulously crafted sonic language, Lamar has established himself among critics, artists, and fans alike as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, his most recent and most controversial album, refuses the designation as cultural arbiter, but could never do too much to complicate his reputation as a rap icon. The album still boasts the impossible complexity of any of his prior releases. It reminds one that Lamar’s music is too comprehensive to be pigeonholed by generic descriptors. In reality, all of his work simultaneously occupies and polarizes the internal, the societal, and the divine. And if one recalls Lamar’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize win for DAMN., one might be compelled to add “the academic” as well.
In late July, Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter wrote a New York Times newsletter titled “Duke Ellington Deserves the 1965 Pulitzer Prize.” In the piece, he scoffs at the organization’s decision to give Ellington a special citation in 1999, arguing that denying the jazz pioneer his due in the first place was a decision too egregious to be rectified by a posthumous recognition. “We assume that Pulitzers are awarded to work that qualifies as for the ages, that pushes the envelope, that suggests not just cleverness but genius. There can be no doubt that Ellington’s corpus fits that definition,” he writes.
Hardly a week later, Marjorie Miller, the administrator for the Prizes, responded to the article, with a tone that does well to personify the institution of the Pulitzer itself, exhausted from decades of discourse surrounding the 1965 controversy: “We believe citations are as consequential as our other awards.” She quoted an Ellington biographer, who wrote, “In 1999, he got his Pulitzer.”
In the months that followed Kendrick Lamar’s history-making Pulitzer win in 2018 for DAMN., the amount of hot take–laced think pieces and Twitter dissertations that filled the ether might have been enough to make Miller wish for a return to the Ellington conversation. Indeed, major news outlets raced to pump out articles prophesying and proselytizing on what K.Dot’s triumph as the first non-classical or jazz winner of the Pulitzer in Music meant for the Prizes, hip-hop, noncommercial music, academia, and so much more. But Miller wasn’t in charge of the Pulitzers then. It was only this past April that she replaced Dana Canedy, who, in 2020, left the role behind to become Simon & Schuster’s senior vice president and publisher.
Indeed, it was Canedy who was tasked with representing the Prizes in the midst of the PR fusillade of criticism and praise in 2018. She repeatedly explained that the Board was “very proud of this selection,” a unanimous decision that “means that the jury and the board judging system worked as it’s supposed to—the best work was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.”
This, of course, begs the question of how exactly the Pulitzer’s judging system is “supposed to work.” Each year, juries for different categories gather in New York to review submissions and nominate three finalists. Jurors for the prize in music are critics, composers, professors, and past winners, who review submissions from anyone willing to pay a $75 entry fee. For Ted Hearne, doing so, in 2018, was a no-brainer. “I wrote a big work,” he told me. “It took several years to really write it and get it right and then make a recording. And then it sounded the way that I wanted, it sounded right. … So I thought that I should submit it for the prize.”
The “big work” in question is Sounds From the Bench, a 40-minute-long cantata for chamber choir, electric guitar, and percussion. Jurors selected Hearne’s piece as a finalist for the 2018 prize. “I was totally shocked to get that recognition,” he remarked.
I also spoke to Raven Chacon, who won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Voiceless Mass, an ensemble piece commissioned specifically for the Nichols & Simpson pipe organ at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. This being his first time submitting a composition for consideration for the prize, he’s an impressive one for one. He laughed as he detailed his newly packed schedule since the May 9 announcement: “It’s added a lot more hours to the day.”
Chacon chose to submit a written score with his entry, but, since 2004, this has not actually been a requirement. Along with widening the range of experts from which its jurors are drawn, the adjustment was made with the goal of increasing the diversity of music and composers considered for the prize.
Fourteen years later, Lamar’s 2018 win perhaps indicated that these changes were a success. But such a conclusion is arguably marred by the fact that his victory was especially irregular. DAMN. was never formally submitted to be considered for a Pulitzer Prize, but added to the set of three finalists, along with Hearne’s cantata and a quartet by Michael Gilbertson, after the jurors noticed a few works with hip-hop influence, but no actual hip-hop entries. The Pulitzer Prize Board, the body of mostly journalists and professors that chooses winners for all categories, subsequently decided that DAMN. was the most worthy. Lamar’s win fueled disapproval from those who interpreted the decision as another unjust nail in the coffin of noncommercial music.
But such a theory lies on the tamer end of those espoused by parties who objected to the Board’s decision. Others not only disagreed with the idea that DAMN. was worthy of the prize, but contested that the album—and rap music as a whole—is not worthy of any sort of intellectual recognition. One such individual is Wynton Marsalis, who, interestingly enough, was the first composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music for a work with significant jazz elements. The purportedly trailblazing jazz maestro failed to see anything trailblazing about Lamar’s achievement, telling The Washington Post that rap music presents “much more of a racial issue than taking Robert E. Lee’s statue down.”
On the other hand were those who heralded the Board’s decision as a long-overdue step forward for hip-hop and/or the Pulitzer Prize institution. Such arguments, unsurprisingly, have dominated pop culture spheres. For Complex, A.T. McWilliams opined that the event “writes into history hip-hop’s undeniable influence on—and innovation within—American music.” For The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber explained the cruciality of the decision for an institution embarrassingly on an island in its lack of respect for hip-hop. “The Pulitzers got it right,” Doreen St. Félix of The New Yorker wrote simply.
In a New York Times piece that detailed a conversation between a classical music editor and a pop culture critic, the former of the two, Zachary Woolfe, claimed that the Pulitzer Prize in Music was “now officially one fewer guaranteed platform … for noncommercial work, which scrapes by on grants, fellowships, commissions and, yes, awards.”
It would make quite the understatement to suggest that Kendrick Lamar did not need the $15,000 cash prize that accompanies the Prize in Music. According to an AfroTech article, touring for DAMN. alone grossed more than 2,600 times that amount. Indeed, $15,000 can go a much longer way for a composer creating music that could never dream of blasting through radio airwaves or trending on TikTok. Still, it is not necessarily the financial component that makes clinching a Pulitzer life-changing.
For Hearne, the publicity that a young composer can sometimes garner through the prize is just as vital. “The recognition of it helps them coalesce some attention around their career.”
Chacon provided a firsthand account of just this. “The monetary award is nice, but what’s been more valuable to me is just people understanding a little bit better what I do and recognizing some of the other work that I do—even the non–chamber music work.”
Indeed, much of Chacon’s catalog can be categorized as noise music, an experimental genre that emphasizes improvisation and “uses electronics and electric instruments to just make what it sounds like: noise.” Music like this, that can’t be traditionally classified as “classical” or “jazz” or “rock”—that is not traditionally anything—can easily be forgotten when one attempts to analyze 2018 through the narrow lens of hip-hop versus classical, commercial versus noncommercial.
This is largely why Hearne remains unconvinced that Lamar’s win was some kind of armageddon for the noncommercial cosmos. In fact, he contests that, like Marsalis’ line of reasoning, this one is problematic, as well. It erases artists whose music straddles the public market and the academic one. “If a musician is a producer and a rapper, for instance … trying to make something really great, really cutting edge, and would love to sell a million records, but also doesn’t want to only be guided by the idea that to be successful they must sell, should they be excluded from getting those research funds or for having that opportunity open to them?” he asked.
Hearne’s question, more broadly, alludes to the institution’s tendency—and, in many cases, its design—towards exclusion. Rather than dwell on the fact that the Pulitzer went to Lamar, the commercially successful musician, perhaps it is better to celebrate that it went to Lamar, the non-classical artist—against all institutional odds. This also suggests that looking at a work not in a vacuum, but as rich matter shaped by and capable of shaping many sociocultural forces—including the Pulitzer Prizes themselves—is key.
As Chacon formulates it, “the music is more than its sound.” A Diné composer, whose winning work considers how colonial institutions have historically worked to remove and silence Indigenous Peoples, Chacon believes that subject matter should be a crucial part of how Pulitzer jurors assess a given year’s applicants. “It is in what it’s saying, where it’s being made from, who it’s being made by,” he continued. “And sometimes, it’s who it’s being made for.”
The group of individuals nominated for and, occasionally, awarded the Pulitzer Prizes is an extremely exclusive one. Hearne told me that 2008 winner David Lang is a former teacher of his, that 2017 winner Du Yun is a friend, and that the only Pulitzer winner of the last ten years that he doesn’t have a personal relationship with or at least “some sort of small community knowledge of” is Kendrick Lamar. This isn’t exactly surprising, but it indicates that the Pulitzer in Music tends to circulate within a small coterie of artists. And as Hearne put it, “it’s not like that’s the only music that’s happening in the world. That’s actually just a very, very, very small fraction of the music.”
The fact that operas by Ellen Reid and Anthony Davis, an orchestral work by Tania León, and Raven Chacon’s piece have received the last four awards since 2018 supports the argument that Lamar’s win was not as transformative as many speculated it might have been. However, it would not be much more than speculation to suggest that bias or a desire to draw renewed attention to the awards fueled their selection. Individuals that served as jurors in 2018 and others who served in administrative roles for the Prizes either declined or failed to respond for comment.
Still, even if one were to ascertain evidence that implied the reasoning behind awarding Lamar the prize had to do with anything other than a belief that his work was that year’s best, would it really matter? Ironically, since it is what leads to the speculation in the first place, the configuration of winners since 2018 suggests that, for now, the answer is “no.”
Indeed, for the moment, the barriers that stand between certain musicians and a Pulitzer Prize remain robust—yet to be shattered by the aftereffects of Lamar’s triumph. Specifically, most of these boundaries are those that define exactly what classical music is and, more crucially, who it keeps out.
Chacon is particularly interested in rectifying this. His work with the Native American Composer Apprentice Project helps Native American students compose concert music. “The hope is that these barriers get eliminated and there’s more access to new communities, new people who have been excluded before from having access to these instruments and education, seeing what they will do with the genre next,” he said.
Composers who come from backgrounds that are less white and less wealthy will, since they once lacked proximity to classical music (and maintain closeness to others), likely approach the genre’s conventions with a greater skepticism. Exposing young people from underrepresented communities to the arena of classical music has the potential to eventually disrupt notions of what the genre looks and sounds like.
Another way to critique the classical music space is by simply asking, as Hearne does, “does it say anything positive, more positive, about the music if it’s considered classical music?” From the viewpoint of academia, at least, it certainly seems to.
It is commonly held that institutions of higher education are all about messy scholarly problems, challenging knowns, and a lack of resolution in pursuit of resolution. Well, if this is the case, then Kendrick Lamar, in all his aforementioned complexity, certainly fits the bill. And so do many other rap and hip-hop musicians. And so do experimental artists of all genres who push boundaries and create tension. We might more fiercely indict academia for what it deems worthy of study and how it makes such determinations. More often than not, a history of race and class discrimination is central.
It is important that establishment sympathizers understand the implications of their cries against the introduction of popular musical styles into an institutional space. Whether intentional or not, such appeals suggest a contentment with, or even endorsement of, a discriminatory conceptualization of music.
Four years is not long enough to know truly and fully any theoretical reverberations of the Pulitzer Prize’s most controversial decision to date. What’s worthy of more general concern is the fact that without a commercial platform or academic endorsement working to amplify their art, experimental musicians composing in any genre remain largely unaffected by the decision—even in theory. There are about a million Kendrick lines that one might use to effectively poetize this, but it is Chacon’s wordless Pulitzer Prize–winning work, which considers how best to empower those who struggle to be heard, that is most applicable.