It is exciting and remarkable news that the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in music went to rapper Kendrick Lamar for his album DAMN. Lamar is the first composer outside of the classical or jazz arenas to be awarded a Pulitzer. And one of the critical subtexts of his win is the message that it sends about how musical boundaries are uncontained—they are breaking down.
For too long we have seen art and music as a function of silos—pop here, classical over there, jazz somewhere else, you get the idea. It doesn’t work anymore. It is artificial. In fact, I would argue that the worst thing that ever happened to classical music was when it became walled off from the broader culture early in the 20th century.
DAMN. is an extraordinary musical journey that goes as deep in its musical, rhythmic, and literary world as anything you could find in any form. The brilliance of the lyrics, and the heartfelt and authentic voice given to the experience of African-American life from Lamar’s perspective, is profound and moving. It is a tour-de-force in every sense.
I can’t help but think that Arnold Schoenberg, king of classical expressionism and atonality, would have deeply admired DAMN. and its application of what Schoenberg knew as Sprechstimme—the blending of speech and song. In form and effect, DAMN. has much in common with Schoenberg’s brilliant song cycle, Pierrot Lunaire.
It is interesting, and maybe a little amusing, that a whole new audience may pay attention to Lamar’s work because of the Pulitzer. But why not? Fifty years ago, jazz was learned in the clubs—it’s now institutionalized in our professional music schools. I’m willing to bet that as a major and important art form that came out of urban life, created in the voice of young artists, hip-hop will in time find its own place in the academy. Whether that’s a good thing for rap or hip-hop remains to be seen, but I know it will be a good thing for the classical side of the house.
Here at Peabody, one of the leading institutions to train “classical” musicians in this country, we created a hip-hop class two years ago, based on a student-inspired and faculty-led proposal. We are now adding Hip-Hop II, and find that more sections are needed, as the class is oversubscribed and extremely popular. At the same time Peabody is expanding its jazz program and introducing a Music for New Media degree that focuses on the cutting-edge intersection of music and technology. Beginning next year, as a part of our innovative new Breakthrough Curriculum designed to teach what it means to be a musician in the 21st century, our student musicians will all receive training in improvisation skills—traditionally limited to those in jazz studies.
I’d like to think that Peabody was being just a little bit bold in welcoming hip-hop into its conservatory culture, but in reality we just gave people the space to create the idea. And create it they did. Because artificial silos cannot last.
The whole point of the Breakthrough Curriculum at Peabody is to make sure that future artists are not just wonderful performers in their genre, but are musically aware and alive, attuned to and responsive to the world around them, and able to enter into a dialogue with all kinds of audiences and make a connection.
After all, that is what any art form is about. From Pierrot Lunaire to DAMN., the works of art that tell a story, make a connection, and represent the human condition in all its complexity and wonder will stand, across time and genre.