21 years. That’s what separates two brilliant men and their Pulitzer Prize-winning albums. This concerns the two men who should not, according either to many in the public at large or the ladies and gentlemen who award the Pulitzer Prize themselves, have won this unparalleled honor. And the history they punched through, with all the trappings and glory that comes along with the pride of being black and excellent. Kendrick Lamar and Wynton Marsalis. The future is now, yet it has deep musical roots in the past. Imagine that.
Fair warning, I will be referring to each man by his first name…because they should have mononyms just in the way Madonna and Cher do. I mean no disrespect. Deal with it.
What are we looking at? What are the firsts these two are now known for?
Wynton-First Jazz Composition to win a Pulitzer with Blood on the Fields (awarded 1997)
Kendrick-First Rap Artist to win a Pulitzer with DAMN. (awarded 2018)
The Pulitzer is named after Joseph Pulitzer, the award-winning journalist who established it. Originally intended to recognize excellence of mostly literary significance, the awards have been expanded to include people and work in 21 categories including music, journalism, and humanitarianism. Ironically, Pulitzer was seen as a hack who invested heavily in the yellow journalism of his day, in essence, peddling Fox News-worthy sensationalism. Since then, the Pulitzer has become so well-respected, people spend their entire lives hoping to be mentioned in the same sentence as the award.
I remember some talk of Dylan not being deserving of his Pulitzer a couple years ago. A fierce admirer of the man’s work myself, I laughed and flipped off the haters. Bob Dylan, however, was immortalized because of his entire body of work—Kendrick and Wynton gained that acclaim in a single collection of music.
The pair couldn’t seem more different, save for their color; Kendrick was born in a pretty unhealthy amount of poverty in Compton, the son of a thug, with family ties to the Bloods; and Wynton comes from a family rich in musical talent and pretty well off before he was even born, in the heart of jazz–New Orleans.
Kendrick is almost 31. Wynton was 32 when he first performed the oratorio Blood on the Fields.
Blood on the Fields is about a couple moving from slavery to freedom.
The album was commissioned by Yale and was very controversial because according to Pulitzer rules, it wasn’t even eligible for consideration due to small revisions Wynton made to the piece between its recording and its actual release. They just don’t wanna give a brother NOTHING, do they? Just kidding. This wasn’t a race thing. Rules are rules.
I actually remember when Wynton won the Pulitzer in ’97. I had no idea who he was at the time, but my dad was elated. I was 11. Was clueless that he comes from a dynasty of genius that is unlike many others in jazz. Honestly, I didn’t even know what the hell a Pulitzer was, let alone what it signified. I was just happy a guy who looked like me was winning some award. That it was for an art form I barely understood and couldn’t yet appreciate was of little consequence: there was very little that black boys could be proud about at that time, especially not where I come from. The slums of Chicago’s South Side. I’d take this win.
New York Times described it as:
(an ablum that’s) “not a character study but a parable, one that grows misty at the end with advice like “freedom is no simple thing but all you need to know.” Along the way, Mr. Marsalis creates memorable sonic pictures: bass slides and cascading saxophones for a heaving slave ship, volleys of percussion and wailing horn solos for a flogging, a boogie-based mesh of repeating phrases for the tedious labor of cotton picking. He also lets loose all he knows about the way winds and percussion work together and about jazz history from New Orleans brass bands to abstruse modernism.” I’ll just trust their judgement on that.
I don’t know if you would call me a “woke brother” but I’d like to think I am. I’m a snob. I’ve got refined tastes and believe in ultimate hip hop purety, as I only consider actual thought-provoking, conscious rapping with a message that The Man doesn’t want you to hear, to be worthy of the title of hip hop. Basically, everything from A Tribe Called Quest to Mos Def, to Black Thought to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Don’t get me wrong, I still listen to shit with a decent beat, but of questionable quality (looking at you Lil Wayne). But I have no compunction in arguing what I feel constitutes real hip hop. Conversely, and this may come off a bit hypocritical (as I’m a hip hop traditionalist and not a jazz aficionado) I do love my jazz watered down–Dave Brubet Quartet (“Take Five”), and Mancini (“Pink Panther Theme”) or Guaraldi (“Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas). Pure jazz is not in my wheelhouse–I get lost too easy–which is why I’ll never be a purist in love with the geniuses of the craft, those artists in the vein of Dizzy or Miles. Of course, so many have put jazz directly into their veins, nodding off to the dope melodies and the dope in the needle. That’s the level of love and dedication I could never see myself becoming committed to.
That being said, I’m not entirely here to quantify my measure of love of rap or jazz. It’s not a competition of my level of authority compared to yours. And I’m not by any stretch an official on what constitutes real jazz. But you can stuff that one back in your pocket because I do appreciate form and respect its contributions to music as a whole.
I have my personal favorites from both albums (“DNA” from DAMN., and, from the album’s namesake, “(Work Song) Blood on the Fields”). Not sure if that’s the right answer, but I don’t care. That’s what I love, and I’m much more certain about the former than the latter. Hip hop snob coming through.
That’s why with Kendrick’s work, I can speak more honestly and in the know.
DAMN. is multi-tiered and comprises subjects like police brutality, violence in the black community, self-preservation, and gender roles in society. It is an electric, thought-provoking venture into the uncomfortable nature of our stratified society. DAMN. says “in-your-face-and-you-can-take-or-lose-it, unapologetically black and even blacker for those who don’t get it, from wading in the water, to waxing my mirror with society’s face”, as much as any one rap album can.
Delivered with rapid, complex, and breath-taking lyricism, it immediately had 5 star and perfect ten accolades thrown at it, as if that would come close to a proper show of appreciation. And it sold quite well. No one buys CDs, and actual vinyls are novelty items. It went double platinum, when most new albums sell half as much. Of particular note is how much of the album does contain spoken-word poetry and heavy jazz. Kendrick is one of the few hip hop artists-along with Kanye and Jay-Z-who have successfully inserted complex social themes, and painful historical memories, over jazz-infused accompaniments
My thoughts on why hip hop has not been so widely accepted? A loss in translation, a fierce resistance, and an inability to relate. Let me explain.
Acknowledgement is key.
Acknowledge that people like Adelle can defy industry trends and blast through an industry in decline with 2011’s 21 with 31 million sold, and only slightly drop to 22 million with her follow up in 2015. This is no slight to Adele, who’s talent is outstanding, and who’s renown lives up to the acclaim with which it has been given. We live in a time when the record industry is in massive flux since the advent of streaming, and the Recession. With record companies fighting over pennies in sales from individual streams, versus literal dollars back when entire CDs were sold.
Here comes the problem.
So much of rap is unknown and unknowable by people who are unwilling to listen to it in its entirety. The classics to the present. Not willing to listen to Leaders of the New School. Unwilling to pick up a Wutang CD. Close-minded to, and oblivious of, MC Lyte or Queen Latifah. Too many people can’t identify with the themes of poverty, gun violence, and helplessness that artists from these backgrounds come from.
Many still have a notion that hip hop is not a legitimate art form, and that really makes me sad. I do understand where they’re coming from to a certain extent. You look at so many rappers these days and you wanna slap the colorful mops off their heads. These kids with names that start with ‘Lil’, or ‘Young’, or just the other day I heard of this scrawny Denis the Menace meets Casper the Friendly Ghost-looking brat named Slim Jesus. Really? I suppose Thick Buddha is next. Christ. I’d laugh if he didn’t take himself so seriously. This isn’t a game. They sully the art, and people don’t take rap seriously because of these wannabes.
Just as with Wynton, pushback to hip hop has not been quiet or limited, and it’s primarily concentrated within a group of a certain political affiliation, people with the audacity to say that “it all sounds the same,” while bumping Tammy Wynette or Conway Twitty (not sure why I’m picking on these two, as I love them both, but a point must be made). Rap, just like jazz in the beginning (in the 1920s, over 60 communities across America had enacted laws prohibiting the genre because it would “infect fetuses” and gave it the tagline “The Devil’s Music”, if the fetus thing wasn’t enough to sour your mouth), has been condemned. Sadly, with ever-changing standards for what is acceptable in music, both music genres have experienced an identity crisis. Though, I can’t see a better example of perversion than the monstrosity people currently claim to be rap or hip hop.
Have no fear. The funny thing about that identity crisis, is that hip hop is also at one of its most epic, boundary-pushing, raw, and rational points ever. Childish Gambino, Chance the Rapper, and obviously Kendrick, really stand above a fraying society of bunco, bullshit artists that infests the genre and have been slowly creeping in for years. My instructions are to listen to jazz, listen to hip hop, listen to the reasons Wynton and Kendrick are so important to their respective genres to really deserve one of the world’s most prestigious awards.
They are poets, and if you are unwilling to hear them out, you’re still confused about how far we’ve come since the 1920s, when jazz wasn’t acceptable then, and rap damn sure would have been trampled underfoot. We’re taking a grand step into a positive future…don’t stay stagnant. Kendrick Lamar and Wynton Marsalis didn’t, and they will forever be firsts because of it.