It was announced on April 16, 2018 that rapper Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. In a society where awards seemingly get distributed like water bottles after a natural disaster, sometimes the gravity of these awarding bodies gets lost in the shuffle. This was not a Grammy nor a BET or MTV music award, but the Pulitzer Prize. This award is often thought of as the journalism and news media award. It’s a badge of honor that the major media outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post rake up with abandon year after year.
The Pulitzer Prize for Music was not an original category in the will of founder Joseph Pulitzer, but was added later in 1943. In 1965, the jury wanted to award a special citation to Duke Ellington for his body of work feeling that no one singular composition was worthy of the award that year. However, the board overruled that decision and he received nothing. Ellington was quoted as saying “I’m hardly surprised that my kind of music is still without, let us say, official honor at home. Most Americans still take it for granted that European-based music—classical music, if you will—is the only really respectable kind.” It wasn’t until 1996 that an African American musician was awarded the prize. Kendrick is the first recipient where the original piece of music is from the hip hop tradition: a rap.
As fate would have it, Beyonce performed her blackness at Coachella the weekend prior to the announcement of Kendrick’s award. This is not the first time these two have blasted onto the scene of mainstream culture. Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance of “Formation” coupled with Kendrick’s “We Gon’ Be Alright” at the Grammys that same year were cultural zeniths where black culture was on full display for mainstream America. In other words, for white people.
In the two years since the dyadic event of Beyoncé at the Super Bowl and Kendrick at the Grammys, the celebratory mood around blacks celebrating black culture has shifted to a more defensive posture given the surprising turn of the political landscape of America. For eight years, pop culture adapted to having black voices closer to the center of conversations where race and culture were topics that couldn’t be ignored. That often meant that black voices had the chance to drive the conversation. But it also meant black voices had to navigate the dual task of speaking to black folks who were happy to see and hear black faces and voices, but also still function as an authentic interpreter to a white American culture not used to seeing black voices centered.
This is not a new phenomenon. The DuBoisian mantra of double-consciousness “a peculiar sensation… this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” This has been asked of by hundreds of “first” blacks who ascend into predominantly white spaces. This was true for Booker T. Washington to DuBois himself; for Hattie McDaniels to Jackie Robinson; for Thurgood Marshall to Clarence Thomas; for Harold Washington to Barack Obama. The “two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body” often times result in one side winning the war. It is this particular abnormality of being the first black or the only black that produces the notion of the Uncle Tom. How does a black voice remain authentic to its native blackness and still function in a world dominated by white American culture?
On the surface, black culture going mainstream appears to be a positive. It lives into all of the American ideals that make us feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. It is the “cashing of the check” that Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to in his “I Have a Dream” speech; that America finally fulfilled the obligation of the promissory note that every American was to fall heir. More than just the nation’s first black president, but Beyoncé on a Super Bowl stage or Kendrick receiving the Pulitzer prize embodies the idea that blackness isn’t divorced from American culture. While black folks are clear that blackness might be the only pure American concept (while proto-American, the beginning of race as we know it was uniquely forged on the North American continent in the bowels of slavery, what was to be whiteness had much of its basis in European modes of thinking and behavior), time and time again, examples that modern-day white Americans still see black culture as Other reign supreme in mainstream culture.
One of the trade-offs that comes with black culture being mainstream is that it opens it up to cultural critique from other arbiters of culture. Even as I was researching for this essay, I ran across an article from a well-known media outlet about Beyoncé’s Coachella performance that wrote “before she sang Lift Every Voice and Sing, which has been referred to as the black national anthem.” On the surface, there’s nothing journalistically wrong with the statement. But it’s the tone. To any black person, it’s dismissive. The Black National Anthem or even Negro National Anthem is a proper noun. Even the passive voice of “has been” can be seen as cavalier to a demographic set that holds the words of the song in the utmost regard.
However, what I realize is that when it comes to editors of these media publications, the predominant audiences aren’t black or other persons of color, they’re usually white. And that’s just the reality of the numbers. The day in which the promissory note does not get returned for insufficient funds has not arrived. Yet.
In the meantime, I sorely wish for the day when black voices, especially those who do stringent cultural critique, find a media outlet on their own that can operate enough outside of the gaze of white American culture in order to speak contextual truths that don’t deal in the petty and the shade of gossip websites nor rely so heavily on snark and satire that basic forms of intellectualism fly out the window.
Beyoncé taking over Coachella, such as it is, and Kendrick receiving a Pulitzer are certainly watershed moments. But it’s also a reality check about how distant the gap is between modes of blackness and how white American culture chooses to maintain the gap at all costs.