This week, Kendrick Lamar became the first non-classical or jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The accomplishment ruffled some feathers in the classical world, but two finalists who he beat say they're happy with the decision.
Slate caught up with composers Michael Gilbertson and Ted Hearne, who each called themselves fans of Kendrick's work. So, what do they think his surprising victory means for the future of the award?
"I think it’s wonderful," Hearne says. "When we say classical music, I think it’s a collection of audiences and musicians that have been grouped together and a big part of that grouping together, over centuries, has been about the exclusion of nonwhite people and nonwhite artists. Sure, in some respects, using violins and European classical instruments is a part of classical music, but so are a lot of other ideas. Especially in America, there are incredibly important musical thinkers who have been kept out of classical music spaces for a long time."
Gilbertson added, "I never thought my string quartet and an album by Kendrick Lamar would be in the same category. This is no longer a narrow honor. It used to be classical composers competing against each other in relatively small numbers, but now we’re all competing against these major voices in music."
Hearne also made a point of bringing up the Pulitzer Prize's history of giving the award to white musicians. "The ideas that Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus were playing with compositionally were more innovative than almost anybody in the entire century," he said. "We have to ask ourselves why Miles Davis is not considered part of that genre. It’s great that the Pulitzer Prize, which is considered prestigious in some circles, is recognizing a whole tradition of musical thinkers and bringing them into a space that has been, up until very recently, entirely white."
Explaining that hip-hop is a big influence on his own music, Hearne added, "I don’t put too much stock in prizes, but this is a really important year because Kendrick Lamar’s music is super important to me and to a lot of people. Hip-hop as a genre has been important to me as a composer, but Kendrick’s work in particular. He is such a bold and experimental and authentic artist. He’s one of the people that is creating truly new music."
Speaking on Kendrick Lamar's own reaction to the award, Pulitzer Prize administrator Dana Canedy told Billboard on Monday that the victory was a "complete surprise" for the rapper.
Head to Slate to read the full interview.