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Hip-Hop Artist Kendrick Lamar Makes History by Winning Pulitzer Prize

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On Monday, rapper Kendrick Lamar became the first non-classical or jazz musician to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Music. Lamar has topped the charts with music that tackles issues of race, politics, religion and even mental health. The Pulitzer follows the five Grammy Awards won by Lamar in January for ”DAMN.,” his fourth studio album. His previous album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” also won five Grammys. Lamar recently produced and curated the soundtrack for the “Black Panther” film to critical acclaim. We speak to a high school teacher in New Jersey who uses Lamar’s recordings in his classroom.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:DNA” by Kendrick Lamar, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We end today’s show with the announcement that shocked the world of music and hip-hop.

DANA CANEDY: And last, but certainly not least, for music, the prize is awarded to DAMN., by Kendrick Lamar, a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy announcing Monday that rapper Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for the album DAMN., making this man from Compton, California, the first non-classical or jazz artist to receive the honor. Kendrick Lamar has topped the charts with music that tackles issues of race, politics, religion and even mental health. The Pulitzer follows the five Grammy Awards won by Lamar in January for DAMN., his fourth studio album. His previous album, To Pimp a Butterfly, also won five Grammys. Kendrick Lamar recently produced and curated the soundtrack for the Black Panther film to critical acclaim.

For more, we’re joined by hip-hop educator Brian Mooney. He’s a New Jersey high school teacher. After Kendrick Lamar learned Mooney was teaching the To Pimp a Butterfly album to his students in 2015, Kendrick visited Mooney’s class in New Jersey.

Welcome to Democracy Now! I’m sure the kids could care less.

BRIAN MOONEY: Yeah. Thanks for having me on, Amy. I appreciate it. Obviously, it was an incredible day that myself and my students will never forget. And, you know, I’m part of a collective of educators who use hip-hop in classrooms and educational spaces, called the HipHopEd movement. And, you know, we’re educators and researchers and professors and activists and community leaders who find ways to engage young people, urban youth, using all the elements of hip-hop culture, particularly rap music, but also other elements of hip-hop—knowledge of self and turntablism and graffiti art. So, we’ve been thinking about ways to be culturally relevant in classrooms and get young people excited about, you know, rap music, that they’re already invested in.

You know, so when I saw Kendrick Lamar release To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, there were so many concepts and themes that were relevant to novels that I was already teaching, like Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. So it was a perfect opportunity to just kind of like enhance the curriculum that I was already teaching. And my students responded really well.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, of course, I was kidding when I said they could have cared less. Could you imagine Kendrick Lamar walking into the school? How did the kids act?

BRIAN MOONEY: Yeah. Well, what was incredible about it was that he was really a student that day, when he came in. You know, he was there to kind of really listen to our students perform their work. And he, like a good teacher, was just really leaning in, listening to what they were saying.

AMY GOODMAN: So what was your response yesterday when you heard that DAMN. had won the Pulitzer?

BRIAN MOONEY: Just thrilled and really just, you know, like humbled that my students and I were able to, you know, play a part and bring some awareness to other educators and teachers around the world that his work can be educational, and rap music and hip-hop culture can be used to teach and learn. So, you know, I thought it was a long time coming. It was well deserved. You know, while hip-hop, in many ways, has been very anti-institutional, it’s nice to get the institutional recognition that I feel like is very deserved.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pulitzer committee said DAMN. was, quote, “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” So, talk about how he has changed the landscape.


AMY GOODMAN: You also have now Beyoncé, what, first headlining Coachella—

BRIAN MOONEY: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —the first black woman to headline Coachella. This is really late in time.


AMY GOODMAN: You have Nina Simone getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of course posthumously.

BRIAN MOONEY: Right, right, in the same year when Black Panther is breaking all kinds of records in the box office, too. So, it’s an incredible year, I think. But with Kendrick’s music in particular, you know, I feel like it’s part of a long lineage in hip-hop. And if you listen to that album, in particular, DAMN., the masterful storytelling and command of language, you know, it’s incredible.

You know, sometimes educators will think, “Well, how do you use hip-hop in a classroom, you know?” And you think about people like Shakespeare. Those people were incredibly versatile with what they did with language. You know, Chaucer, they were inventing words. They were inventing language. You know, they used the double negative. People don’t know that, right? So, when you think about emcees, modern-day emcees—right?—these are people with incredible linguistic versatility, like Kendrick Lamar.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a video from NPR of Kendrick Lamar going to your tech—High Tech High School, where you teach in North Bergen, New Jersey. After visiting with your class, he performed at the school-wide assembly.

KENDRICK LAMAR: This album wasn’t made for—I didn’t think I made it for a 16-year-old, you know? So, when a 16-year-old is intrigued by it, it lets me know how so far advanced as a society we actually are, you know? And that inspired me on a whole 'nother level. I always get people like my parents or, you know, older adults saying, ’This is great. You know, you have a message. You have—you have themes. You have different genres of music.' But to get a kid actually telling me this, it’s a different type of feeling. I don’t think nobody in the world can belittle, you know, their humor, their smarts, nothing, because they’re highly intelligent. And walking into that classroom, it just proved me right.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, there he was, at your high school, at High Tech High School in North Bergen, New Jersey. What was his reaction to coming to the school?

BRIAN MOONEY: One of the things that really made an impression on all of us was when he spoke to the whole student body. He said that this was the best accolade he ever received. And this was at the time when he just recently got the key to Los Angeles and he was deemed a generational icon. And he’s telling a whole student body of high school students, “This is the best accolade I could ever receive, is making an impact on young people.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk more about HipHopEd, Brian.

BRIAN MOONEY: Yeah, so, for any teachers out there, educators listening, you know, we have a Twitter chat on Tuesday nights from 9 to 10 p.m. with hashtag #HipHopEd. And we talk about the intersections of hip-hop, education, pop culture. We share resources, ideas, lesson plans. And we’re really, you know, just—it’s a professional development every Tuesday night and a resource for educators, who often can become very isolated in classrooms, you know, in the way that public school works. So, it’s an incredible resource.

And, you know, the HipHopEd movement is led by Dr. Chris Emdin from Teachers College, Columbia University, but also just teachers in classrooms doing the work every day. And they just released a book, a compilation, #HipHopEd, the first part in a compilation, and it’s incredible. There’s just amazing teachers and researchers out there, from Dr. Lauren Kelly at Rutgers to Mike Dando in the University of Wisconsin, to Dr. Edmund Adjapong at Seton Hall and Dr. Ian Levy at UMass—just incredible people who are doing great, great work. And that’s my team, the HipHopEd team. We’re just some brilliant, brilliant people who really care about kids and are trying to do good work in schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Your kids’ response yesterday when it was announced that Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer?

BRIAN MOONEY: You know, I haven’t really talked to them much about it yet, because I haven’t been in yet today. But when we—when I go in, you know, we’re going to talk about it and discuss it, because, you know, this is what we do. We talk about these recognitions and these accolades, that these are artists that they’re already listening to, they’re already invested in. So, when we, you know, do this kind of work in schools, it’s about being culturally responsive and culturally relevant.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian Mooney, New Jersey high school teacher. Kendrick Lamar went to his school in 2015, High Tech High School in North Bergen, New Jersey, to perform for the kids, as Brian Mooney participates in HipHopEd.

That does it for our broadcast. I’ll be speaking in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday night. That’s Friday night at the Rococo Theatre. Check our website for more details, democracynow.org.

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