In the denouement of 2006 film It’s a Boy Girl Thing, bookworm Nell (inhabited by the consciousness of jock Woody as the result of a body-swapping Aztec curse) is in the midst of her entrance interview for Yale. When asked her opinion on contemporary poets, she fumbles, saying that they ‘suck’, then backpedals by waxing lyrical about rappers: ‘It’s urban poetry, sir. They talk about their lives … They can be very brutal, but often undercut with a dark humour.’
The trope of rap—and of other artforms tied to marginalised communities, like jazz and street dance—acting as a leveller is commonplace in blockbusters. And it’s an idealistic one: it taps into the idea of bridging worlds, of dissolving race, class and gender divides. But it seems life and art aren’t so distant: earlier this week, Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Lamar is the first rap artist—and DAMN., the first ‘popular music’ title—to nab this accolade since the inception of the award in 1943.
What lends special weight to this achievement is the fact that rap and hip-hop have historically been looked down on by highbrow music circles. Lamar’s win elicited a significant outcry—mostly from classical-music sectors—lamenting the apparent death of music and the now-meaninglessness of the music Pulitzer. (That two of Lamar’s contenders for the award graciously complimented his work as ‘important’ and ‘truly new’, on the other hand, is telling.)
This isn’t the first time a ‘lesser’ artform has butted heads with an elitist institution: in 2017, when folk legend Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, feathers were similarly ruffled—this time regarding the prize’s dwindling standards and the perceived degradation of this move towards populism. The Nobel committee’s defence? Dylan reinvigorated poetry as a medium for channelling the concerns of the time, of the people. Lamar, too, is astute at capturing the pressing issues of the day, pointedly critiquing racism, violence against the black community, excessive consumerism, right-wing parochialism, Donald Trump. (For more on this, see Mic’s handy glossary of the religious, political and personal references in DAMN.) A commentator has even suggested that Lamar won the Pulitzer—an award whose origins lie in topical reportage—because his rhymes are journalism.
Given the music Pulitzer’s track record (it wasn’t bequeathed to a woman until 1983, and an African-American, 1996; jazz was only accorded the top gong in 1997), it’s exciting to see someone from a marginalised position ascending to such a pedestal. Lamar is an African-American non-classical musician infiltrating the (literal) ivory tower of white classical music. In some ways, this feels like a belated corrective of the 2014 Grammys—yet another bulwark of whiteness—where Lamar lost out on Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Album to white rapper Macklemore. Contentiously, Macklemore even apologised publicly for having ‘robbed’ Lamar of the latter award.
There’s an undeniable air of importance to Lamar’s win. We’ve also just seen the film Black Panther—another quintessential artefact of twenty-first-century black culture—break box-office records again and again, becoming the highest-grossing solo-superhero movie of all time to date (among an array of other achievements). A 2015 Royal Society Open Science study of pop music from 1960 to 2010 found that 1991 marked hip-hop’s entry into the mainstream; according to head researcher Matthias Mauch, from that point on, ‘hip-hop saved the charts’. Lamar getting a Pulitzer may well be the next logical step on hip-hop’s path to predominance, but it also seems to signify something greater in this world where black artistic forms are valued over actual black people. Such an upheaval affects me, too; it affects all of us, even those without African lineage. Like anyone impacted by globalised media and American cultural imperialism, I interact with and am influenced by black culture on the regular (and not only through the pop products I consume—gratuitously, here’s me dancing to Lamar’s ‘LUST.’ as part of my hip-hop dance training).
Awards are, of course, subjective, as well as being subject to the whims of politics, funding, trends, time. Nevertheless, they’re effective means by which power (or public displays thereof) is maintained. Prizes are, to appropriate sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology, forms of symbolic capital: they add to an artist’s ‘wealth’ on their journey towards prominence in their field. At the same time, the institutions that confer these awards are founded, as philosopher Thomas Kuhn has posited, on specific paradigms: the unshifting presuppositions and values that are central to the functioning and persistence of those institutions. Both are ingredients for the amassing of power: gain symbolic capital, establish the paradigm, use it to gain more symbolic capital, further entrench the paradigm, continue the cycle. As Pitchfork’s Sheldon Pearce reminds us, the Pulitzer for music overwhelmingly rewards artists who skilfully enact established conventions (in this instance, those of European classical music and of genres like jazz, having been deemed ‘worthy’).
In turn, both make any outsider an immediate threat to the established order. Rap may have never aimed for mainstream validation, but Lamar’s Pulitzer win is nonetheless a disruption to the relationship between a conservative institution and a genre that’s always been about pushing the envelope. Any work born of an imbalance in power is inevitably political.
Lamar isn’t the only African-American musician to have been at the centre of symbolic redress. According to The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix, Beyoncé’s performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival—which took place only two days before the Pulitzer announcement—is a ‘corrective’ to white culture’s co-option of ‘blackness as fashion’. Beyoncé’s Coachella appearance is likewise historic: she is the first black woman to headline the two-decades-old festival, which is most known for its indie and alternative slates and whose attendees are infamous for eschewing cultural sensitivities.
I managed to sneak a viewing of this two-hour extravaganza online, and was confronted by a different Beyoncé from the one I’d seen live at Rod Laver Arena in 2013. That performer wowed with outlandish stage presence, vocal gymnastics and an unexpected trapeze act. This one was a provocateur on a mission: hyper-meticulous in concept and choreography, fuelled by an unrelenting message and a clear vision of how to communicate it. (I won’t add to the plethora of existing ‘Beychella’ rundowns, but do check out the takes by St. Félix and by Slate’s Aisha Harris.) The Coachella set germinates the seeds of protest sown in her 2013 self-titled album (especially the track ‘Flawless’) and developed in 2016’s Lemonade (which, among others, contains the powerhouse track ‘Formation’).
At Coachella, writes St. Félix, Beyoncé offered ‘an education in black expression’—and more than that, it is, for me, an example par excellence of cultural infiltration through ‘sneaky subversion’. In the context of an entertainment event, Beyoncé offered a primer on black culture and history to an audience expecting possibly nothing more than salacious lyrics and saucy dancing. This opportunity for learning was shrewdly calculated, and signalled by her references to school bands and the incorporation of Greek insignia associated with universities. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss Beyoncé’s politicking as mere shrewd invocations of the zeitgeist to endear her to ‘woke’ consumers, her performance opportunistically deploying nostalgia (Destiny’s Child reunion), showmanship (marching band, dancing) and cred (the wealth of references to ‘cool’ icons) for moolah. The inverse could equally be true, though: Beyoncé wielding commercialism as a weapon to strike at racist, capitalistic power structures. As a case of economic and symbolic capital being expended for polemic—the added, non-altruistic benefit of making more money notwithstanding—the gig realises the final line of ‘Formation’: ‘best revenge is your paper’.
Let’s not, as they say, let the perfect become the enemy of the good; activism need not be completely expunged of every trace of affluence or comfort. Our faves are often problematic, especially when they have a platform on a global scale (see, for example, the ghostlike sampling of queer artist Big Freedia’s voice on Bey’s ‘Formation’, or the discomfiting disparities in reception between mainland-African viewers of Black Panther and their more privileged African-American counterparts). There’s political potency in what Beyoncé does, however limited it may be, in terms of awareness-raising and inciting us to keep fighting the good fight. After her scintillating turn at Coachella, she may have even inspired audiences not already onside to dip their toes in black history and issues, if at least to quell their curiosity about the enigmatic ‘BΔK’ on her hoodie.
I have no illusions about art putting food on derelict tables or saving trees or stopping bloodshed. (And Lamar’s and Beyoncé’s works are art—I won’t entertain any classicist dismissal due to lack of traditional training, or any modernist dissing of their reliance on creative teams, in favour of the ‘singular genius’.) As I have argued before, there is danger in over-glorifying ‘wins’ in the representational sphere: an uptick in diverse representation and virality on social media don’t always equate to real-world transformation. Yes, art doesn’t ‘do’ anything. But, as populist prophetic devices, as parcels of possibility, works of art do set the stage for what and how we think.
Returning to the idea of levelling, I do see Beyoncé and Lamar as playing the long game of social justice. In many RPGs—my favourite gaming genre—players must tactically deploy different character classes to overcome obstacles and defeat opponents. Beyoncé is, in this schema, akin to the dancer/songstress: not equipped to deal hefty damage, but able to up the team’s charisma points so they can attack again, or attack better. And Lamar is the seer/prophet, speaking truths and warning of doom to facilitate effective strategy. Neither may have the ability to, for instance, change legislation or revolutionise healthcare, but both have key roles in stoking our insurgent fire when complacency and defeatism are easy fallbacks.
Art is about changing minds, honing perceptions, training us in the appreciation of value and virtue. Lamar and Beyoncé take this further by shattering institutional conventions and making their art—no matter the centrality of blackness to their message and form—accessible to a broad audience. There’s no denying that classical music, classic poetry and ballet can be intimidating, inaccessible enigmas to those lacking in a certain type of education or social mobility; engagement with art is still stratified by class and race. But, like the egalitarian moment dramatised in It’s a Boy Girl Thing, these two artists are about ‘bridging the gap’—something Beyoncé herself explicitly sought to do at Coachella. What’s more, they play with canonical expectations, twisting them for subversion on their own terms: ‘I break chains all by myself,’ goes the lyric in their Lemonade collaboration, ‘Freedom’. ‘Salute the truth when the prophet say,’ raps Lamar on ‘DNA.’
Beychella and Lamar’s Pulitzer feel ‘big’ because both could, foreseeably, be at the vanguard of a ‘paradigm shift’ (on Kuhnian terms) in music, and in broader society. Infiltration happens on both macro and micro scales: sneaking into not just traditionally white spaces, but also the minds of audiences.
Adolfo Aranjuez is editor of film and media periodical Metro and editor-in-chief of sexuality and gender magazine Archer. He is also a freelance writer, speaker and dancer. Adolfo’s nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Right Now, Overland, Meanjin and Peril, among others, and he has worked with and performed for various arts festivals and organisations. http://www.adolfoaranjuez.com
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