Last week, American rapper Kendrick Lamar stunned many in the Western cultural sphere by winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
For those of us who are familiar with Lamar, this news came as no surprise. But for some of those unfamiliar with his mind-blowingly stellar body of work, it was somewhere between sneer-worthy and patently ludicrous. The idea that rap be recognised as a legitimate form and that in some cases that form may be elevated to high art is simply unthinkable.
Pretty fitting I suppose, given that hip hop itself was and remains an expression of violence birthed by social inequality. The violence of political exclusion. The violence of social immobility. The violence of racism and how it intersects with class to compound social deprivation for people of colour.
It was from the fertile ground of social deprivation that hip hop sprung; giving African Americans a new, dynamic form of culture to call their own again after years of watching the other forms they pioneered being brutalised and prostituted by white record label executives who got rich of the back of their ingenuity. Hip hop was an evolution, both of African American culture and political consciousness – though it also deserves credit for pile-driving disco into the musical scrapheap like punk did classic rock.
Let’s not beat about the bush here. Hip hop isn’t regarded as an art form by many, not because it cannot be artful, but because it has not yet been co-opted by middle-class white people. You see, that’s what needs to happen for a form to become capable of high art. See ‘graphic novels’ (book-length comics) for an example of this. For these people, art is a commodity. Something they purchase and integrate into their sophisticated personalities like a form of property; denoting a social marker distinguishing them from the riff raff. The sort of people who enjoy Tom Leonard but haven’t clocked that they are who he’s writing about.
READ MORE: Music review: Kendrick Lamar
Despite these people being smart on paper, they are usually slow to the block-party where art is concerned. They tend not to appreciate an artist until long after they died poor. Then they canonise these artists and never shut up about them.
Get yourself along to a Burn’s Night if you want to see what I mean. Have a great laugh at these people and their hilarious inability to see themselves as the rest of us see them. Behold their apparent love of edgy, subversive, radical, political poetry – as long as it’s more than 200 years old. Then watch them sneer, cringe and balk at that exact same thing when it exists within their own lifetime.
Kendrick Lamar is a cultural juggernaut. He uses rap as a form to deploy the same literary techniques as your favourite novelists, poets, playwrights and screenwriters. He conjures vivid imagery like your favourite painters and evokes powerful emotions like your favourite musicians. And like those artists, who are widely recognised as artful, one must immerse oneself fully in Lamar’s body of work to fully appreciate it.
You wouldn’t judge Arthur Miller on one page of The Crucible. You wouldn’t judge Joni Mitchell on eight bars of Dancin’ Clown and you wouldn’t judge Miss Saigon on the scene where the helicopter obtrusively lands on stage in the second act. Nor would you consume these things in isolation and then proceed to opine about the people who created them like you have the faintest clue what you’re talking about.
Why? Well, it’s because you assume there must some sort of sophistication at play where those other artists are concerned. That whatever you are seeing must possess a rich, complex literary interior that must be unpacked. A masterwork which requires more than a passive observation to truly comprehend. Yet, somehow, we have a lot of culturally cocksure knuckle-draggers running around out here, living in the shadows of their ornamental bookshelves, keen to broadcast their stupefying, borderline offensive, inexcusable ignorance, who believe they are smart enough to infer meaning from the work of someone like Lamar simply by Googling a few of the lyrics on the internet. You know the type. People who suspect they have a book in them, who’re slowly coming to grips with the likelihood that’s probably where it should stay.
With hip hop, no sophistication is assumed. Lamar and rappers like him are not hard to understand, apparently. Their work contains no literary interior, apparently. What you see is what you get with hip hop; big-screen TVs, blunts, forties and bitches. They don’t understand that’s what commercial hip hop became once white middle-class people started consuming it to indulge their fetish for ‘gritty’ urban voyeurism; opening a porthole from the mundanity of their white picket-fenced suburban communities into a world of sex, money and murder. That other stuff about black power?
Well, the whites weren’t so keen on that, so it was edited out – until Lamar deftly reconciled the competing notions of commercial success and artistic integrity by becoming the most successful, critically acclaimed rapper in the world.
And the key theme of his recent album DAMN may be that of paternal absence in the context of social inequality: the absolute bullseye where social issues affecting African American communities and the lower classes is concerned.
Some seem confused about what art is. That opera, theatre and poetry are inherently artful and self-justifying rather than the truth: any form can be elevated to high art by a great artist. From karate, boxing and swimming to jazz, funk, blues and hip hop. It’s about what an artist does with the form – not the form itself – that takes something from passable brain candy to transformative, profound and sublime.
But what the hell do I know? I’m just a rapper.