Damn: Like Bob Dylan, Kendrick Lamar is literary counterculture | Think Piece

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Hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar’s works are more than music, they are literary masterpieces

The Pulitzer Prize selection committee announced that this year’s award in Music goes to Kendrick Lamar for his album Damn. In making the decision, the committee cited the album for its virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.

This is certainly high praise for an artist whose work has been nominated for Album of the Year–the most prestigious Grammy award–but has lost three times. The Pulitzer Prize validated both Lamar’s work and hip-hop as a viable musical genre worthy of critical attention. However, if the selection committee truly valued his “vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism,” they would have granted him the Pulitzer for Literature instead of Music.

In 1943, the Pulitzer Prize first began including music. For over five decades, it went to classical musicians until 1997 when Wynton Marsalis became the first winner for his jazz album Blood on the Fields. Before then, jazz was not considered an important genre for the award. With Lamar’s win, the committee never considered rap or hip-hop until this year.

As one of the five individuals of the selection committee, Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, explained to NPR, “What happens is that works get nominated and then the works that are nominated have to be considered.”  She went on to explain that no official rule exists that mandates jazz or classical music, instead “The criteria is just that it has to be deemed an excellent accomplishment, an excellent artistic accomplishment by the people who nominate and by the jury”. Someone nominated Lamar’s album—the only hip-hop nomination —and the committee considered it based on these criteria.

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Of course, this is an important milestone not just Lamar himself, but for hip-hop music as a genre. Over the past year, hip-hop has been accepted by culturally high-brow institutions that have historically omitted this genre of creative expression.

For instance, LL Cool J was the first rapper recognized by the Kennedy Center last December, and with the help of Barack Obama, Jay-Z became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame last June. It was only fitting that Obama helped to honor Hova, since he frequently embraced hip-hop artists during his presidency, which no other president has done. Even as a candidate, Senator Obama indicated that his White House would include a space for hip-hop.

The Kennedy Center, The Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the White House, all predate The Pulitzer Prize Committee in affirming hip-hop. Yet the latter committee came to hip-hop through other music. As Griffin explains “the use of hip-hop was appearing in the other things, which also was part of our conversation. You would hear the influence of hip-hop in a classical piece, in a jazz piece, in an opera.”  

Therein lies the problem: the committee realized the viability of hip-hop music only after it became influential in other genres. It had to first prove itself vis-à-vis established forms to be taken seriously. The committee decided to go to the source music this year, instead of choosing works with mere “influence.”

If they valued hip-hop seriously on its own terms, they would have awarded Lamar the Pulitzer Prize for Literature instead of Music. After all, they did it for Bob Dylan last year. In awarding Dylan the Pulitzer for Literature last year, they cited his “impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

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The same criteria applies to Lamar. Hip-hip is the soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter movement, with Kendrick Lamar as the resounding voice because of his unapologetic embrace of blackness and powerful criticisms of the mistreatment of African-Americans.

Dylan, like Lamar, was the voice of his generation, but received an elevation that eluded Lamar even though both musicians have “lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

In fact, Lamar’s lyrics are excellent for teaching students rhyme scheme, imagery, metaphor, repetition, alliteration, and hyperbole – literary devices that any good poet would take seriously. By not giving him this consideration, the Pulitzer Prize Committee is still relegating hip-hop to a subpar art form not worthy of serious literary consideration.

If they truly valued hip-hop as poetry, then the Pulitzer Prize Committee would have praised his work as this high art form. Instead, they gave Lamar the award for music, essentially saying this is good, but it is not quite the poetry of Keats, Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Dylan.

Nevertheless, congratulations to Kendrick Lamar for bringing more exposure to the power and relevancy of hip-hop. His words so moved the Pulitzer Prize committee to garner such a high distinction, and he is the first hip-hop artist to do so. However, until we see hip-hop celebrated as a form of poetry in high-brow institutions, then America will never be a reflection of me.

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Dr. Donavan Ramon is a professor at Kentucky State University. A scholar of African American literature, he focuses on fatherhood.

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