I was at work Monday when I found out Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. I watched the live stream from my phone and my jaw just about hit the floor when Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy impishly smiled as she announced the “HUMBLE” musician as this year’s recipient. As an avid classical music fan, I was expecting a far more conservative choice from the classical music realm to prevail — someone like Ted Hearne or even Thomas Adès. The formula for these types of prizes tends to favor those who contribute to classical music, not to mention white, cisgender men. I, along with many others, found Lamar’s win to be an absolute surprise, though not an unwelcome one.
Like many prize organizations, there are no sub-genres in music categories, meaning there aren’t separate prizes for, say, classical and non-classical genres; everything is grouped together. And this isn’t exactly common knowledge either, seeing as the honors are notoriously granted to classical composers, with jazz musicians recognized sporadically. When the Pulitzer committee added Music to its list of categories in 1943, it was exclusive to classical music. It wasn’t until 1998 that music of all genres would be considered. Wynton Marsalis was the first non-classical musician to take the Music prize with his 1997 album Blood on the Fields. Following Marsalis’ victory, the tide began to change for this category as jazz became the only other contender. However, Lamar’s win for DAMN. was the tsunami that broke the norm for classical music.
The Pulitzer committee awarded Lamar the prize based on “its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” Working for a classical music nonprofit organization, my office was abuzz with opinions about the controversial win. The general consensus was positive from colleagues around my age who, ironically, don’t actually listen to classical music. In fact, there was only minimal distaste for Lamar’s win within my circle of peers. And though I was elated by Lamar’s victory, I honestly can’t name a Kendrick Lamar song to save my life. I actually had to Google a list of his singles in order to make this piece more cohesive. But my excitement for this gargantuan triumph has nothing to do with Lamar himself — it is more about how this victory will change the music industry.
I appreciate all types of music, even genres I unknowingly ignore. As a classical music professional, I thought I had a clear grasp of what is considered “good” music. But this turn of events has shifted everything I have thought to be true about the music business, and Lamar’s win has changed the standard for what makes “good” music, at least from a critics’ standpoint. I’ve spent most of my budding professional career trying to establish myself as a music critic, shying away from the more mainstream beats of pop and hip-hop. I realize now how much of a disservice this has been for myself and my musical knowledge. I was so concerned with being perceived as “high brow” that now my forehead has wrinkles. I forgot why people turned to music in the first place.
Music is supposed to serve as an escape from the ugly, a giant middle finger to an oppressive society that targets the underdog. In an attempt to foster my own career, I abandoned this mantra because music should have little to do with accolades. And to briefly play devil’s advocate, Lamar’s win shouldn’t even matter — who is the Pulitzer committee to decide what is considered the “best”? All music is created equal, but these judgements should be personal, not universal. The Pulitzer committee’s decision to award Lamar has everything and nothing to do with this philosophy.
I cannot emphasize enough how important Lamar’s win is for the music industry. On a more personal note, it was an intense wake-up call for me to acknowledge and celebrate all types of music, not just those written by cis, white men from the 18th and 19th centuries. Classical music isn’t dying because people aren’t interested. It’s dying because its composers and critics are unwilling to explore the unknown. That was the case until today.
Arya Roshanian is a graduate student studying library and information science. His column, “From The Top,” runs Tuesdays.