Pulitzer Prize Administrator Explains How Kendrick Lamar Won

On Monday (April 16), the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded Kendrick Lamar the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2017 masterpiece DAMN. Not only is this a first for hip-hop, but it's a first for popular music in general – DAMN. is the first non-classical, non-jazz album to win the award in its 75-year history.

After the announcement, Billboard got on the phone with recently elected Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy, herself a winner of the Pulitzer and former senior editor at The New York Times, to learn how K.Dot nabbed the prestigious award.

This is the first non-classical, non-jazz album to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music in its 75-year history. You just took over as administrator last year – do you think you had some impact on this?

I cannot take credit. We have an amazing system that worked as it should this year. The jury made the recommendation to the board, I am on the board, and then the board considered the jury recommendation, and unanimously voted in favor of this. We're very excited. The system worked the way it should in that a really spectacular work was celebrated today in the music category.

DAMN. was hailed as a masterpiece by many, but really he's been knocking out classics for a minute. Why now?

I think we could say that in any category, particularly one like music, where people have been around a while. This just seems like the right moment; the work was on the jury's radar and it proceeded from there.

Was the debate intense?

Oh absolutely, always, in any category. You'd be amazed if you watched these juries at work; they take seriously every bit of work they consider. In this case, I don't know specifically what the piece was, but in this case they were considering a piece of music they felt had hip-hop influences and said, "Well if we're considering a piece of music that has hip-hop influences, why aren't we considering hip-hop?" And someone said, "That's exactly what we should do." And then someone said, "We should be considering Kendrick Lamar" and the group said "absolutely." So then, right then, they decided to listen to the entire album and decided "This is it."

That makes it sound a little impromptu, almost.

Absolutely not. The jury for example, is comprised of distinguished composers, musicians, music critics and scholars of music, so they know what they're doing.

You're a winner – what's the process like, do you know when you're being considered?

It depends on the newsroom or the publication. He had no idea he was being considered so this is a complete surprise. I was actually worried he would think it was a hoax, but it's not [laughs]. I don't even know if he knows yet.

Why do you think it's taken so long for a more quote-unquote popular album to get this award? It's probably the first album to top the Billboard 200 to get this award.

Sure it is. I don't really know why, I'm just glad it is happening now. The important thing about this is the jury and the board just decided that the album is a word of vernacular avant-garde. It's a dense and sophisticated collage of hybrid sounds, polyrhythms, layered under what we would probably consider pulsing kinetic text. The brilliance of the music is what's shone through.

Were you involved in the voting?

I don't vote. I oversee the process from choosing jurors to advising the boards to qualifying the applicants. 

Since taking over, did you select a different pool of jurors?

Arts and Letters, which includes the music jurors, were already in place when I took over in July, so the next round will be my first time choosing those jurors. I chose the journalism jurors. It's going to continue to evolve and it should. The influence I had this year was on the journalism category and it was incredibly diverse in that we had people from news organizations in the Midwest, we had conservative voices, we had ethnic diversity, and that's going to be a driving theme in Arts and Letters and journalism throughout my tenure here.

With who's in office, do you think that had an effect on this, or was weighing on people's minds?

I can emphatically say absolutely not. That did not influence the way the board voted at all. Each entry is taken on the value of the work. I was in the room for the jury deliberation, I saw that firsthand.

How long was the deliberation?

The board meets for two days, and we're usually able to wrap up the selection in two days. The juries read and listen to music all through the fall and summer and deliberate after that. The actual board deliberation is two days.

Anything else you think is important to add?

I think this is a huge moment for the music industry and the Pulitzer Prize, and we're proud of it.