This year the Pulitzer juries responded to the zeitgeist of the Donald Trump era, awarding prizes to works that appraise perhaps the most notable pitfall of the man’s presidency — a society that finds itself increasingly divided along the faultlines of race and gender.
Setting a precedent, this year rapper Kendrick Lamar became the first nonclassical, non-jazz artist to win the prestigious prize for music. The committee also awarded the prize for public service to The New York Times and The New Yorker, and the prize for investigative reporting to The Washington Post, for blowing the lid off institutionalised sexism.
All these bodies of work have found themselves at the centre of movements taking on the culture of impunity about the violence faced by black Americans and women.
Lamar won the award for his 2017 album Damn, which the award panel described 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”.
The Grammy-nominated artist’s album edged out Michael Gilbertson’s Quartet, which follows the conventions of the string quartet, and Ted Hearne’s Sound from the Bench, a work that mixes chamber choir music with more contemporary instrumental elements. Last year the prize was awarded to an operatic work, Angel’s Bone, by Du Yun.
David Hajdu, one of the music jurors this year, told the New York Times that the panel was forced to consider hip-hop as a genre with “value on its own terms and not just as a resource for use in a field that is more broadly recognised by the institutional establishment as serious or legitimate”.
The recognition comes hard on the heels of a growing acceptance of the genre within sanctified cultural institutions over the past year, including Jay-Z becoming the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
Damn takes up some of the political criticism of his highly acclaimed 2015 offering, To Pimp a Butterfly, featuring the track Alright, which became a war cry for the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Trump, whose election the artist once described as a “complete mindfuck”, is not exempt from Lamar’s pointed political commentary. In The Heart Part 4, a pre-album track from Damn, Lamar angrily cuts down the president, placing him among a motley crew of political and cultural villains. “Donald Trump is a chump, know how we feel, punk,” he spits.
Although Ronan Farrow’s remarkable New Yorker investigation, headlined “Donald Trump, a Playboy model, and a system for concealing infidelity”, wasn’t among those honoured by the Pulitzer board, the fact that it was awarded the prize for a range of other articles that take sexual harassers to task seems like a thumb in the eye of the man whom many regard as the face of sexism.
The investigations led by Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey and Farrow, which became a catalyst for the viral #MeToo movement, were described by the board as “explosive, impactful journalism that exposed powerful and wealthy sexual predators”.
The legendary takedown of Harvey Weinstein has brought to light a running list of 85 women who have accused the Hollywood mogul of rape and sexual abuse, ultimately leading to his cultural exile. The exposés have also directly ended the careers of political commentator Bill O’Reilly, comic Louis CK and restaurateur Ken Friedman.
#MeToo has also helped to force institutions such as the United States’ national gymnastics body and Vice Media to own up for failing to intervene in cases of rape and sexual harassment.
The Pulitzer board also recognised The Washington Post for its investigation into sexual misconduct accusations against American senate candidate Roy Moore by six teenage girls, a report that upended the Alabama senate race.
The Pulitzer prize has long stood as a symbol of sanctified Americanness, but nowadays what that means — especially to a section of the elite that has in the past associated its patriotism with liberal values — seems shaken by the very public outpouring of racist, sexist and other prejudicial ideologies.
And so, what seems like a cultural renaissance might be this elite’s way of dealing with the USs’s steady drift towards the right.