New American Songbook: The Pulitzer

Apr 23, 2018

In 1989, the first year that rap music was included as a category in the Grammy Awards, half of the winning duo boycotted the show altogether. The winning act, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, felt slighted by the exclusion of the category from the television broadcast. The emcee, Will Smith, along with several other nominees, declined to participate. The rap group Salt N Pepa put it succinctly, saying “if they don’t want us, we don’t want them.”

If the 1989 Grammys indicated the acceptance of hip hop into a certain level of popular culture--acknowledged, but still marginalized--then the 2018 Pulitzer Prize award for music could be taken as a culmination of a 30-year journey from outlier to absolute cultural hegemony. Even if you’ve never listened to Kendrick Lamar’s winning album, DAMN, you have likely heard its songs in movies, NBA commercials, video games and more. This is a good thing.

But, while Pulitzer is, I’m told, a venerable institution, I want to be careful to keep Salt N Pepa in mind when gauging the importance of awards like this. The impulse is to declare that hip hop has finally made it, but it’s actually the other way around. Kendrick’s album is great, but it exists among forty years of greatness. Congratulations, Pulitzer, you’ve finally caught up.