In the week since Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. received the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for music—the first artist ever to receive the honor outside the genres of classical and jazz—the award and its implications have been dissected all over the internet.
We’ve heard about the process behind the selection, which Columbia University professor and Pulitzer juror Farah Jasmine Griffin explained to NPR involved recognizing threads of hip-hop in other genres. “You would hear the influence of hip-hop in a classical piece, in a jazz piece, in an opera.”
We’ve heard how hip-hop often reflects the very “journalistic virtues” that the Pulitzers traditionally celebrate. “It’s an award for hard-won persuasiveness,” said New York Times pop music critic Jon Pareles. “Well hello, hip-hop.”
We’ve heard from the Pulitzer organization itself, that “[t]his is a big moment for hip-hop music and a big moment for the Pulitzers.”
We’ve heard from academics and composers and music writers and cultural critics as they debate the merits of DAMN., the import of the occasion and what it all means.
But you know who has been largely absent from the conversation? Rappers.
We figured people who spend their days listening to beats and spitting rhymes might have something to say about what seeing one of their own win an old-school, capital-C Cultural honor means—or doesn’t—to hip-hop right now, so we reached out to a pair of rising rappers to hear their thoughts.
“I was really stoked,” said Kweku Collins of his initial reaction to the news. The 21-year-old “hip-hop misfit” whose melodic tracks have wracked up millions of streams on Spotify said he didn’t know the institution gave out music awards, but once he learned, he wasn’t surprised to see Lamar honored.
“They’re late,” he said. “They should’ve given good kid, m.A.A.d. city a Pulitzer, and they should’ve given To Pimp a Butterfly a Pulitzer. Kendrick’s been this literary genius.”
Las Vegas-based rapper Mike Xavier, who uses the tag “future Grammy winner” on his website and whose lyrics often hew toward messages of hope and perseverance, saw the award as reminder that nothing’s impossible. “It’s a door-opener that reminds you to shoot for things that have never been done before,” he said. When he heard the news, he thought, “Oh man, that’s another thing to strive for—to be that great, to make that much of an impact.”
As for the impact the Pulitzer might have on the hip-hop community, Collins said DAMN.’s recognition is a bigger moment for the historic awards (which have been given out for 101 years) than vice versa.
“I really don’t think it matters for hip-hop. It’s a really dope accolade, but also because it’s this very niche, prestige thing, it doesn’t hold much relevance.”
After all, DAMN. has already been a critical and commercial success. It spent 28 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart and landed in the No. 1 spot. According to Nielsen Music sales and streaming data, the record was the second most popular of 2017, coming in just behind Ed Sheeran and ahead of Taylor Swift, Drake and Bruno Mars.
And Kendrick Lamar has long been canonized as a singular storyteller, whose records grapple with faith, fame, poverty and the experience of being black in America.
“Kendrick Lamar already has college courses taught about him. There are already Kendrick Lamar theories. Kendrick Lamar already has global respect from musical, from academic, from every aspect of culture,” Collins said.
If the Pulitzer isn’t exactly on the artistic vanguard with its embrace of the kid from Compton, Xavier still sees the recognition from a legacy, prestige organization as valuable. “With hip-hop, there’s a lot of influence that’s not always acknowledged by corporate America and people in positions of power,” he said.
Collins agreed. “Art by black people has been at the forefront of pop culture, has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, influence on popular culture since, like, jazz. It goes back so far,” he said. “I think that there are social strides being made in the country, and institutions are taking note and adjusting.”
The Pulitzer’s celebration of DAMN., and the jury’s candidness about hearing the influence of hip-hop in classical compositions and jazz records, he added, seems like a baby step toward a larger correction in recognizing black art as the source of so much inspiration and giving it overdue credit.
“It’s really cool to know that that’s possible,” Collins said of the award. “But the prize isn’t really what I focus on. It’s more just Kendrick. Kendrick is my favorite rapper, and his writing ability is what inspires me.”
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