The public should give a ‘DAMN.’ about black artists

By Editorial Board

From Ella Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s “Hound Dog” to Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.,” black musicians have created much of what we know as American music and culture. 

For decades, their contributions to music have largely been erased. Take, for example, the millions of people who think of Elvis Presley’s 1956 version of “Hound Dog” as iconic but have no idea of Thornton’s original or the shades of meaning she injected into the song.

But Lamar received the recognition he deserves and will go down in history for his acclaimed 2017 album DAMN. and winning the Pulitzer prize for music April 16, making him the first rapper to win the award. Apart from being a carefully composed album filled with intricate lyrics and themes, DAMN. tackled pressing issues such as racism and the dismissal of rap music as an important cultural movement. 

In fact, the Pulitzer committee’s recognition of DAMN. becomes even more satisfying considering how Lamar refers to criticisms directed at him and rap music by using a Fox News excerpt in which commentator Geraldo Rivera says, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.” 

The same week, another artist made her mark in music history. On April 14, Beyoncé became the first black woman to headline the Coachella, and she used the stage to celebrate black culture.

The performance incorporated step dancing and marching bands, paying homage to historically black colleges and universities.  Beyoncé also sang the 1905 classic song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which played an important role in the civil rights movement and is considered the “black national anthem.” 

Knowing the Coachella audience would be predominantly white, Beyoncé considered her performance a crucial opportunity to educate and to celebrate black culture, according to an April 16 Instagram post by her mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson. 

Some criticized Beyoncé for performing at Coachella, noting the festival’s owner, Philip Anschutz, has reportedly supported anti-LGBTQ and pro-gun organizations and that headlining the festival indirectly supported reactionary causes.

But Beyoncé’s performance defied those beliefs. Like her political February 2016 Super Bowl halftime show celebrating Black Lives Matter and the Black Panther Party, Beyoncé made use of her platform to support marginalized people before a larger audience. 

Beyoncé and Lamar’s achievements are especially worthy of celebration when one considers the backdrop of political tension and hostility toward people of color that characterizes the current political climate.

Despite increasing threats to black Americans’ rights, which are enabled further by the federal government’s rhetoric, it is seemingly impossible for institutions to neglect how these two artists have contributed to music and culture in the U.S.

The publicity given to both Lamar’s Pulitzer win and Beyoncé’s Coachella performance suggests these artists still had to prove themselves to a white majority in order to be recognized for their accomplishments.

DAMN. should not have to be recognized by the Pulitzer committee just for the public to realize the album has had a major cultural impact, and Beyoncé should not have had to devote her performance to educating white audiences about southern black culture to be seen as vital to American history.

Although these events have brought overdue recognition to black artists and may help break the boundaries that have kept diverse narratives from being included in art and music, these milestones should be a catalyst for the public to appreciate work by people of color without having to be validated by exclusive institutions or trendy music festivals.

A Pulitzer prize or a headlining performance doesn’t make an artist great, and we should recognize greatness before an establishment tells us to.