Kendrick Lamar, the Pulitzer Prize and the cantata

This Monday, April 16, the American rapper Kendrick Lamar received the Pulitzer Prize, music category, for his album DAMN, released in April 2017. “A first for a hip-hop artist and more widely for modern popular music”, enthuses AFP in a dispatch taken up everywhere on the web. The Californian rapper’s record is “a virtuoso collection of songs, unified by the authenticity of its language and its rhythmic dynamism, and which offers striking vignettes, capturing the complexity of modern African-American life”, explains the Pulitzer committee. . We will not say the opposite.

Kendrick Lamar is undoubtedly one of the great chroniclers of contemporary America. Already number 1 in record sales in the United States with To Pimp a butterfly (2015) and DAMN, winner at 30 of twelve Grammy Awards, dubbed by President Barack Obama himself and herald of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, which denounces police violence against blacks, no one waited for the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize to recognize the talent of the Compton kid. On the other hand, let’s be honest, who knew before April 16 that there was a musical counterpart to the glorious journalistic award? By dedicating a popular artist, the prize, long weighed down by his academicism in musical matters, regains media exposure and a little credibility. What if the Pulitzer Prize ultimately had more to gain in this coronation than Kendrick Lamar? Gosh.


A little historical reminder is in order. In his will, in 1904, Joseph Pulitzer, editor of the newspaper World, provides only thirteen awards of excellence: four for journalism, four for literature, four for theater and a last for education (they will be awarded for the first time in 1917). The music category did not appear until 1943. It rewards “an eminent musical composition of significant size by an American and whose first performance was given during the year.” From its inception, the prize was systematically awarded to works of classical music. In 1965, not recognizing any major creation published during the year, the jury decided to honor Duke Ellington. Veto of the Pulitzer committee, which considers it inappropriate to crown a simple jazz musician and prefers not to award an award that year (as in 1953, 1954 and 1981). At the announcement of this affront, the Duke, plays the card of humor: “Fate is good with me. He does not want me to be too famous too young.” He was then 66 years old. “The duke” is a lord.

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To be conquered without peril, we triumph without glory

The Pulitzer Prizes for other artistic categories (Literature, Theater, Poetry) generally reflect works that have an impact on culture. The same cannot be said for music, which for a long time ignored jazz. Pushed to its limits, the Pulitzer board of directors attempted a first dusting in 1996 by modifying the selection criteria “in order to attract the best of a wider spectrum of American music.” The following year, the Music Pulitzer was awarded to the jazz opera by Wynton Marsalis, Blood on the fields. Things are changing, slowly. From 1998, the committee sent “special citations and prizes” to jazz, folk, country artists: George Gershwin (1998), Duke Ellington (1999), Thelonious Monk (2006), John Coltrane (2007), Bob Dylan (2008), Hank Williams (2010).

To be conquered without peril, one triumphs without glory. On the site Slate, American journalist Fred Kaplan reports that in 2003, composer John Adams accepted his Pulitzer Prize with his fingertips for On the Transmigration of Souls, a symphony in homage to the victims of September 11: “Among the musicians that I know, he declares to the New York Times, Pulitzer Music has lost over the years much of the prestige it continues to have in other fields such as literature and journalism. ”Pan on the spout.

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The Pulitzer Prize committee is not deaf to the remark. In 2004, he announced his “deep desire to consider and honor the full range of American musical compositions – from contemporary classical symphony to jazz, opera, choir, musical theater, film scores and music. other forms of musical excellence. ” The title of the price changes. It now rewards “an eminent musical composition by an American and whose first performance or recording has been given or made during the year.” The inclusion of the notion of “registration” opens new doors. In 2007, saxophonist Ornette Coleman received the award for her record Grammar Sound. But it takes another ten years before the Pulitzer committee celebrates a representative of modern popular music. [il sélectionne parmi trois oeuvres retenues par un jury composé généralement de trois compositeurs, d’un critique musical et d’un présentateur].

In 2018, the Pulitzer Prize therefore praises hip-hop, the dominant genre in the United States. The Pulitzer needed Kendrick Lamar more than the other way around. We have never talked so much about its attribution. But the committee would probably have shown more daring, courage and relevance in rewarding the second nominee, Sound from the bench, a work of contemporary classical music by Ted Hearne. Written for the ethereal voices of the Philadelphia Chamber Choir The Crossing, this five-movement cantata doesn’t smell of mothballs at all. It deals in particular with racial divisions, government secrets and the 2010 vote by the United States Supreme Court of a historic and highly controversial ruling allowing companies to participate financially in election campaigns. Just that.

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Julien Bordier


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Kendrick Lamar, the Pulitzer Prize and the cantata

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