Kendrick Lamar has won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2017 album DAMN. This is notable in many ways. Not only is Lamar the first hip-hop artist to win the prize; he is also the first maker of contemporary popular music to do so. Lamar joins the likes of Ornette Coleman, Julia Wolfe, and Steve Reich as a Pulitzer winner. The Pulitzer jury lauds DAMN. as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
Lamar’s win offers a unique opportunity for educators. The conferring of a Pulitzer on a rap album for the first time highlights what many have known for years: hip-hop is one of the most vital forms of music in America today. Students can be in a better position to appreciate this than teachers, and not just because of their more current musical taste. More than ever, young people are asking tough questions about why they are learning what they are learning. In addition to questioning distinctions without differences, students understand the power of melding tradition with technology, of mixing the elevated with the everyday, traits that are all at the heart of hip-hop.
While Du Yun grappled with raw, contemporary themes in 2017’s Pulitzer-winning experimental opera Angel’s Bone, Lamar unmistakably made DAMN. for our time. Across its 55 minutes, the album confronts police brutality, politics, hip-hop’s disparagement in the media, religion, loss, family, and more.
For those of us in education, this moment is an important reminder. There is as much room for Beyoncé in music class as for Sousa, and as much room for Teenie Harris as Monet in our art classrooms. When we embrace art that addresses personal identity and social justice issues head on, we can meaningfully engage our students in substantive discussions about their lives and what is happening in our country. Hip-hop has been having these discussions for decades, and the Pulitzer has responded by handing one of its most thoughtful voices a microphone. We in arts education have a responsibility to listen.
AEC applauds Kendrick Lamar on his Pulitzer Prize award. We hope his win encourages educators in classrooms, studios, museums, and community centers to explore ways of including hip-hop in their teaching practice. If you are interested in hip-hop education and looking for expertise, we encourage you to reach out to the local organizations listed below.
Image credit Kenny Sun via Wikimedia Commons.