The Pulitzer Prize in Music 2018 was awarded to Compton-born rapper Kendrick Lamar this week. It has not gone unnoticed by many vocal critics, Lamar being the first winner not belonging to the schools of classical or jazz composition. Yes, it’s a huge moment for hip hop, and for African-American artists, (Lamar is the fifth to win the award since it was introduced in 1943), but it also provokes a more profound question about what constitutes art music.

When I was an undergraduate studying music, the decision was made by the faculty to introduce a new compulsory module: Global Hip Hop. Cries of heresy ensued. Gangster rap?! At Oxford University?! Tutors begrudgingly handed out reading lists and palmed-off students to younger academics more willing to undertake what would have been, for many haughty Fellows, the embarrassing task of engaging adolescents in rigorous discussion about ‘Gangstas Paradise’ or ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’.

My cohort was lectured by an American professor fresh from New York University, who had grown up in Brooklyn when The Notorious B.I.G. was setting the East Coast hip hop scene alight. That year I answered essays examining theories of globalisation and hip hop, local approaches to racial politics through hip hop, and the false dichotomy between local and global hip hop, taking evidence from Japan, USA, South Africa, Brazil, Hong Chile, Norway, UK, New Zealand, and many more besides.

And I have to admit I found it the most engaging topic I studied all year. It was current art that reflected current socio-economic problems, and it was being taught by highly educated people who didn’t just dismiss it as simply the music of thugs. It certainly felt more pertinent than the study of music in the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

I’ve since considered hip hop to be eligible as art music. It’s just absurd that it’s taken Pulitzer forty-odd years to do the same.

The Pulitzer Prize for Music is awarded to “a distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.” Nothing in that sentence indicates the work should be the product of any particular school of composition, whether it be classical, contemporary, jazz, folk, hip hop, or anything else. Those complaining have no leg to stand on. What they do have is a chip on their shoulder.

Perusing the classical music gossip swamp, Slipped Disc, one sees the usual tired clichés have been trotted out to try to do down Lamar’s win. ‘It was a politically-correct decision, in an attempt to surf on the wave of populism’. ‘The jury was unqualified and discriminated against classical music.’ Composer John Borstlap commented: ‘Did I listen to the CD? No, in the same way it is not quite necessary to smoke Havannas for a month to find-out whether it is bad for my health. Or to attend a Trump rally to see whether he would be a good USA president and world leader.’

Many of the attacks have come from people who are simply unwilling to even listen to Kendrick Lamar’s music, or if they have pressed play, they listen without any kind of artistic or cultural context in mind. Perhaps they hear a swear word and switch off. But artists using strong language is hardly new, nor a reason not to engage. Let’s not forget that the lofty Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a song called Leck mich im Arsch; I’m sure you can manage without a translation.

Lamar himself has said, ‘I want it [the album DAMN.] to live for the next 20 years. You have to listen to it over and over and over again to fully understand the direction and the message I put in it… I want to challenge the way you think and the way you take in music.’

Connoisseurs always claim that those who are newly encountering classical music should educate themselves about it to really comprehend it. Why such flagrant hypocrisy now? Once one understands how hip hop is created—how it uses samples of police sirens or news bulletins to weave a web of cultural literacy and intertextual reference, or how a rapper will take on multiple voices in one song, using heteroglossia to critique themselves and their environment—it becomes endlessly rewarding. To the uninitiated the complexities are, of course, lost, just as on a first read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land seems like gobbledygook.

Lamar weaves this web as well as any. Take this verse from the eleventh track on DAMN., ‘XXX’: 

Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph

The great American flag is wrapped in drag with explosives

Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters

Barricaded blocks and borders

Look what you taught us!

It’s murder on my street, your street, back streets

Wall Street, corporate offices

Banks, employees, and bosses with

Homicidal thoughts; Donald Trump’s in office

We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again

But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

Lamar, a professed man of faith, recalls the Hail Mary as he pleads for intervention in America’s skewed foreign policy. Coincidentally, DAMN. was released on 13 April 2017, the same day the American military dropped the Mother Of All Bombs on Nangarhar, Afghanistan.

The opening invocation also makes reference to Tupac’s ‘Hail Mary’, a song which likens America to the Cambodian killing fields, Lamar at once aligning himself with his hip hop role model and bringing the weight of Tupac’s argument to his own. His flow then moves deftly from the literal to the metaphorical to criticise the systemic and generational prejudices that enforce the dividing lines between black and white, and rich and poor in America, and leaves us with a tantalising question: what really makes America tick?

As with any work of art, analysis on a page doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s Lamar’s aggressive rhythmic incisions that bring the words to life with such raw, bloody authority. I urge you, just listen to the DAMN. thing.

This is not to glorify all hip hop.  There exists a great deal of misogyny, glorification of violence, and homophobia from figures including J. Cole, Travis Scott, 50 Cent, and thankfully the hip hop community is increasingly effective at holding these men to account very publicly. And then there is just plain awful music. ‘Artists’ such as A$AP Rocky, Young Thug, or the puerile Lil Pump can, as far as I’m concerned, be consigned to the scrap heap; they won’t be winning a Pulitzer Prize any time soon.

Lamar on the other hand represents the apotheosis of hip hop and stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries as one of, if not, the best, of all time. Likewise DAMN. is the pinnacle of his creative output thus far. He has honed his craft and his message into something so razor-sharp it has scythed its way atop the annals of US music history alongside the likes of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Wynton Marsallis, and Steve Reich.

There is an increasing problem with classification in music. It simply doesn’t work for contemporary composers who frequently slide across many, many idioms with little concern for what box they can be placed in by music critics and Spotify playlist curators.

Take Nico Muhly, a poster boy for contemporary composition who is regularly commissioned by the New York Met, English National Opera, and the Choir of Kings College Cambridge, but who has also recently released an album, Planetarium, with singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and indie-rock musician and composer Bryce Dessner. Or Caroline Shaw, who herself won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her masterful Partita for 8 Voices; she regular produces and sings with Kanye West. Shaw’s reaction to Lamar’s win? A big fat ‘YES’.

The lines of classification are fast disintegrating. Even Lamar has described himself in one interview as a ‘jazz musician by default’. Good art is good art, and there is so much good to learn from artists like Lamar. Hip hop, more than any other area of the arts, has harnessed the digital age to immense artistic and commercial advantage. Hip hop is a true lingua franca and enjoys a universality that others can only dream of. While others are whinging about Spotify royalties, rappers are out there hustling: Jay-Z didn’t like Spotify, so he started his own streaming service, Tidal.

 The classical music fraternity sees this victory for hip hop as a nail in its coffin. Frankly, if it can’t recognise genuine talent for what it is, it deserves to die.