Lamar’s Pulitzer Reminds Us There’s More Work to Do

There are a lot of things I never thought I would see in my lifetime. Most of them have not happened yet, which is good, because I hate to be wrong — humanity has yet to colonize Mars, time travel has not been invented (thank the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for that one), and the Cleveland Browns haven’t gotten any better.

One of the things on my list did happen recently, however: Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for music.

It’s about time.

The prizes for music, established in 1943, have never before been awarded to a composer or artist outside the classical or jazz genres. Awards for jazz have only been given out twice, and it should come as no surprise that classical and contemporary classical are largely white-dominated genres.

For some lovers of music, myself included, Lamar’s win is an affirmation on all fronts. First and foremost, awarding the prize to Lamar for DAMN. uproots — at least for now — the historic whiteness of the musical academy. It sends a message that finally, genre boundaries aren’t a good enough reason to exclude music from consideration.

Lamar’s win is also heartwarming because it feels like proof of something that I’ve always felt, standing in opposition to the musical snobbery that continues to dominate most academic discussions of music theory and criticism. There is so much great music in the world; to me, Kendrick Lamar, Roomful of Teeth, Alabama Shakes, and Beethoven all go together. They all make (or made) incredible music, without which life wouldn’t be the same. For so long, it seemed like the academy would never come to that realization.

And the truth is that it still hasn’t — at least not here at Oberlin. The Pulitzer Foundation is the exception to the rule, even if they got it right. Go into any music theory or aural skills classroom at Oberlin on any given day, and you’ll hear almost exclusively the usual suspects: Bach, Beethoven, Strauss, Liszt, Mozart, Schumann ( maybe even Clara, if you’re lucky), Brahms, Haydn, Monteverdi, Ives, Messaien — and the list goes on. Dead white man upon dead white man, with the occasional alive white man or white woman thrown in.

In one of my first Conservatory classes, before I even became a double-degree student, my professor passed out sheets of paper with three questions on them. The first was easy — name five male classical composers. I rattled off five of the names above. The second was harder. It asked for the names of five female classical composers. I managed one — Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century composer whose name I only knew because she had been a focal point of a class I took in the History department (read: not the Conservatory). The third question, though, was the hardest — name five classical composers of color. I drew a total blank, as did almost everyone else in the class.

I’ve finished my core classes in the Conservatory now, and sometimes I wonder how well I would do if I took the test again. Probably better — with time comes knowledge — but I’d still struggle. I’d guess most students currently in those classes probably would too, because we don’t teach about non-male and POC composers with any intention. And in doing so, we structurally perpetuate the long history of oppression in music.

Lamar’s win is then, of course, a massive achievement, especially for folks whose ears perk up at the sound of the word “Pulitzer.” That matters, as it places Lamar in an elitist conversation where his name isn’t often mentioned. But academically, it’s not much of anything. The fact that the Pulitzer Foundation’s jury, full of the brightest composers, music critics, and academics of our time, was perceptive enough to figure out that Kendrick is one of today’s great musical minds is, well, not that surprising.

It also matters that in the classrooms where we teach students who may well become the great composers, critics, and scholars that sit on future Pulitzer juries, we don’t say Kendrick Lamar’s name — and the names of so many others — as much as we should, if at all.

But we could. Popular music, which is very diverse, offers us that. Our professors could, if they chose to, teach harmonic analysis, part writing, scales, and many of the core concepts students need to know by using popular music. If our excuse is that there is no popular music made by women, queer folks, and people of color that contains teachable chord progressions, then forget “hard enough” — we aren’t looking at all.

And if there’s a time, it’s now. We are at what feels like a cultural zenith, where queer, female, and POC visibility is immensely high. If you don’t believe me, just ask Beyoncé, who made history last Saturday as the first Black woman to headline Coachella, and did so with a stunning set (go watch it, seriously).

I hope something changes, but I’m not optimistic. After all, people may well argue that with Lamar’s Pulitzer, we’ve established his validity, and that there’s no need to change the academy. But that’s not really how things are. All that has changed is that a small committee of people did something that should have happened a long time ago.