By Sagar S Apr. 17, 2018
There was a time when mainstream rap involved guys named “Lil” talking about sex and drugs. Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer prize is an indicator that mainstream rap can be meaningful. It could one day be considered classical music.
In 2005, when Mumbai schools thought it was a good idea to take ninth grade graduates to nightclubs for farewells, our entire class was ferried in a school bus to a bar in Lokhandwala, which would go on to acquire a reputation sleazier than Bangkok. In those dark corners, we were allowed a Red Bull each, provided we each paid our ₹500 entry ticket, and promised not to get too wild after all the sugar. It was possibly one of the tamest nights “Club Escape” has ever experienced, barring one moment that came during a song played at the late hour of 7.30 pm.
The track was 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P., which for the uninitiated is the rap equivalent of explaining porn to your grandmother. The video featured up to 12 bare breasts and two chain-smoking men, and so logically when a bunch of us started to rap along, it made our teachers squirm. From that day on, rap music was forever looked down upon in our classrooms — which only ensured that rap becoming a raging trend in school that year.
Back then, the mainstream rap we’d hear in Mumbai provided us in-depth descriptions of various rapper’s sex lives, the alcohol they chose to consume during their sexual proclivities, and their ability to afford whatever a “grill” is. A guy named “Lil Jon” talking about the sweat dripping down his balls was as commonplace as a man named “T-Pain” offering to buy you a drink on the condition he gets to take you home after. And so mainstream rap, at least in the cities of India, remained a music form that attracted mostly sexual predators and groups of very drunk boys for years.
That was until the entry of Kendrick Lamar, who has now become the first Pulitzer prize winner to ever say the words “hola, hola, hola, bitch” in his award-winning work.
Three years ago, Kendrick came into a pop music scene dominated by a blonde girl named Taylor Swift being sassy about break ups, a modern-day T-Pain named Drake, who is most famously known for becoming a viral meme, and a Nicki Minaj nature documentary about Amazonian snakes, and injected some much-needed societal context into modern pop music. His rap sought to bring the problems of African-American people to the forefront, at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement was dominating American pop-culture.
“Up until the late ’90s, the only winners of the Pulitzer prize in music were stuffy classical musicians, and in the years since it has gone to Jazz musicians, and composers. Even Bob Dylan only managed to get an “additional citation”.”
What Lamar did so well then was make a huge mainstream impact with music that could be best described as a fusion of all genres known to not be typically mainstream, and lyrics that never assume the intelligence of his audience. His rhyme scheme is so complex and his message runs so deep that the former president of the United States Barack Obama took time out to laud him. Kendrick’s music isn’t just an attempt to make it to the top of the charts. Instead it’s a critique on American society – gang violence, police brutality, systemic inequality, mental health and depression, women’s rights and survivor’s remorse.
The known-snobs that make up the Pulitzer committee describe the album “Damn” as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life”, a lot of words Kendrick will probably never use to make his case. And that’s what makes this so historic. Up until the late ’90s, the only winners of the Pulitzer prize in music were stuffy classical musicians, and in the years since it has gone to Jazz musicians, and composers. Even Bob Dylan only managed to get an “additional citation”.
Giving the prize to Kendrick then is an indicator that rap music has a chance to go on to be the “classical music” of the future. I can picture it now, a snooty literature teacher walks into a classroom and asks everyone to turn to page 64, where there’s a smiling picture of Kendrick Lamar and a verse that everyone struggles to read, the way we did with Shakespeare.
In a world that equates half-naked women and binge drinking sessions with rap, Kendrick comes out with insight like, “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.” Somehow I feel that if all those years ago, the kids in my class got together and rapped this verse, our teacher might not have had to reconsider all her life decisions. Damn! She might have even been proud.