Hip-hop bags the Pulitzer

Anjali Jhangiani
Monday, 23 April 2018

Kendrick Lamar’s win gives the genre a long-due recognition, and motivates rappers to make political and social statements through their work

How did Kendrick Lamar win the Pulitzer? The answer is simple — history is repeating itself. If you’re wondering how this stands true, here’s a little history for you. Administered by the Columbia University, New York, the Pulitzer is an award for excellence in journalism, literature, and musical compositions made in the US. Though the Pulitzer was established in 1917, the first award for the category of Music was only given out in 1943 to William Schuman, for writing the composition Secular Cantata No. 2: A Free Song. 

The award went to classical composers every year, till 1965, when the jurors decided that no work that year was worthy of receiving this honour and instead gave a ‘special mention’ to Duke Ellington, the band leader of a jazz orchestra. But things didn’t really change till 1996, when the board announced a change in the criteria for this prize to attract the best of a ‘wider’ range of American music. In 1997, for the first time, the award to a jazz musician Wynton Masrsalis for his three-hour long oratorio about slavery titled Blood on Fields. Now, 21 years later, Kendrick Lamar has become the first hip-hop artist to win the Pulitzer for his conscious rap album Damn. 

Just like the genre of jazz caught the attention of important people in important positions, who heard the voice of the African-Americans who were struggling with issues as a community back then, and recognised this art form as a serious one that brought about a change in world history, hip-hop has now got the ‘stamp of approval’ from those who highlight important and meaningful music to separate it from that which only serves the purpose of entertainment.

A long time coming
Arjun Ravi, editor of indiecision, co-founder of NH7.in and head of Red Bull Media House India, believes that hip-hop artists have been coming out with conscious rap for a long, long time now, be it Tupac’s All Eyez on Me, Kanye West’s Graduation or even Beyonce’s Lemonade. “Damn. is a fantastic piece of art. But having said that, hip-hop is not just a popular genre now but one which has as much meaning than the genres previously considered for this award. Establishments like the Oscars, Grammys, and even the Pulitzer, are perhaps a few years late to the game because they are set in terms of what they are looking for. But better late than never,” he says, adding, “You cannot avoid hip-hop. It doesn’t always have to have a serious message, but it does speak to every listener in some sort of way.” 

Kendrick’s win is not only a milestone in the history of music, but also a recognition of the shift in the music industry. Is the motto of ‘being conscious over being conspicuous’ here to stay? We will have to wait and see. But Kendrick’s ambition sure is trickling down to rappers all around the world. Nirmika Singh, executive editor at Rolling Stones India and vocalist, describes Kendrick as a philosopher for the way his rap is making political, economical and social statements, and how he’s caught the nerve of the youth and his own community. She feels that it is the board of the Pulitzer who realised only now that they cannot ignore this massive movement in music anymore. 

“Kendrick’s win is really a win for political consciousness in music because he’s the flag bearer for conscious rap that today’s highly conscious community of millennial audiences reckon with. His rap comes from a place that is honest and sincere. His songs are about his experiences, which was not considered serious or important enough, but getting an award like this is like getting a nod of approval, which is great. Artists feel encouraged to voice their opinions without fear. They don’t need to appease authorities. They now have more responsibility to make social and political statements. For all rappers and listeners, this certainly provides more food for thought. Even non-listeners are realising the might of Kendrick’s creative prowess,” she says. 

A fresh new wave of rap
Talking about how this will inspire Indian hip-hop artists, Ravi says, “I think everyone from Prabh Deep to Naezy has taken inspiration from Kendrick’s flow, subject matter, and the way he puts his music across. This movement is what defines hip-hop in 2018.” Singh adds that she has noticed a significant rise of conscious rap over hedonistic rap in the Indian independent rap scene too. 

She explains, “The first wave of rappers like Divine and Naezy have come up with an impactful way of putting out their stories out there about water shortage, cramped homes, life in the slums and so on. Prabh Deep’s lyrics are about the anti-Sikh riots. Mumbais Finest came out with a track featuring  Bluesanova titled Wo Roke Hum Ruke Na which pushes women to claim public spaces. Rappers are no longer confined to one small creative arena. You can be original as an artist and yet make political statements,” says Singh. 

Hear it from the rappers
Prabh Deep, a rapper from Delhi who released his album Class-Sikh last year, believes that great music is the product of originality. “Though I’m a huge fan of Kendrick’s work, and I think what he did was really original, I won’t be following in his footsteps. I have to find my own path,” says Deep, adding, “The audience here is different, the mindsets are different, the issues are different, and they must be put out in a different way. In my song Click Clack, I’m talking about how a friend of mine dies of an overdose, but at the same time, this song is a banger in clubs, people dance, it’s an energetic number. I work to strike a balance instead of going out and screaming about social issues. I feel that talking about solutions is more beneficial for us as a society,” says he. 

Ace Indian rapper Raftaar feels that Kendrick’s win puts hip-hop in a completely new light, and rightly so. “This is a massive moment for hip-hop music, but a breakthrough moment for the Pulitzers. Rap and hip-hop has not primarily depended on the recognition of trade bodies to flourish and to change. It’s good that the expertise and intensity of craft that’s been present since the genre’s beginnings is finally being recognised,” says he, adding that the Indian rap community has suffered from an influx of fame, money, multiple players who introduce temporary fads and nonsensical lyrics which are a disconnect from the culture’s origins. “But it’s time hip-hop and rap finds a way back to its roots. The genre still needs to get its real meaning in India,” he says. 

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