A good test for how progressive an institution is: check how recent their “firsts” are. Barack Obama became the first black president in 2008, 220 years after the office was formed; Hillary Clinton could have been the first woman in 2016. Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white school, is 62 years old now (and of course she looks young). This weekend’s Oscars have the first black American cinematographer, the first black woman editor, and the first Asian woman sound mixer to be nominated for awards. All of those firsts deserve to be celebrated and honored, but it's perhaps more important to note how screwed up it is that these firsts are only just now happening.
This week, we saw another first arrive bizarrely late. Jay Z was chosen to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this June, becoming the first rapper to claim a place next to Bob Dylan and Elton John. “This is a win for US. I remember when rap was said to be a fad. We are now alongside some of the greatest writers in history,” Jay wrote in one of his rare tweets. But we aren't in the Hall; he is. And we aren't just now alongside some of the greatest writers in history; we have been for years.
It's a pick so late to the game that it feels more like a slight than an achievement.
Hip-hop is 40 years old, and it's been the most influential art form in the United States for at least half of that time. We have songwriters that should have been in the Hall years ago. Paul Simon was inducted in 1982—that's before Graceland! That's not to say that no black artists have been inducted; Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Chuck Berry, and Lionel Richie are all inductees. But Prince was only just inducted in—oh, wait. Prince, one of the best writers and musicians of all time, still hasn't been honored by the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Jay is the GOAT by many rap standards. He's got classics sprinkled across eras, he can handle introspective and party songs—he's even written classic songs for other rappers. So there's no question that he deserves this accolade. But is he the first deserving rapper? Songwriters are eligible 20 years after they were first published; that means rap’s first golden era of 1988 is completely left out. What about Slick Rick’s eloquent storytelling, or KRS-One’s rhymes of conviction? Ice Cube’s classic hat trick of Straight Outta Compton, Amerikka’s Most Wanted, and Death Certificate? Then, of course, there's the 1990s: 2Pac’s poignant poetry, Black Thought’s dozen-plus albums as one of the best (and must underappreciated) writers in music. OutKast’s brilliant balance of hits and substance, Nas’ vivid imagery, Scarface’s gut-wrenching narratives. These are lyricists who have pushed the craft forward and written songs that are some of the most definitive works of the 21st century. Even educational institutions seem further ahead than awards institutions, with professors presenting courses that document hip-hop’s literary prowess popping up with increasingly regularity.
Jay Z is a well-deserved winner, but he's the safest choice in hip-hop. Undeniably successful and respected, and someone who can draw headlines for the Hall and make them look edgy without causing much of a ruckus. Someone who won’t be questioned. And hip-hop is so happy to see one of its own win in a new area that we used it as an opportunity to celebrate Jay Z, instead of bringing up why he's such an exception to such a silly rule. Jay Z in the Songwriters Hall of Fame isn't much different from Chance the Rapper at this year’s Grammy Awards: a well-deserved winner being used as a facade of bravery to hide years of oblivious cowardice (or worse—deliberate discrimination). It's a pick so late to the game that it feels more like a slight than an achievement, and confirms what we've always known about historic, predominately white award academies: they're not for us.