Duke Ellington should have won the Pulitzer Prize before Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar is the man of the moment having won a Pulitzer Prize on April 16, 2018. It was the first win for a non-classical or jazz musician since the awards began including music some 75 years ago. Lamar won for his fourth album, Damn.

Damn was deemed “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

To paraphrase Larry Graham, “Ain’t no ‘bout a doubt it.” Lamar deserves all the accolades he is receiving.

The Compton-born (June 17, 1987) artist truly came from the bottom of the American society.

His family spent time on welfare. He is named after the co-founder of the Temptations, Eddie James Kendricks.

Who is the Pulitzer Prize named for?  According to Wiki: “The Pulitzer Prize  /ˈpʊlɪtsər/ is an award for achievements in newspaper, magazine and online journalism, literature, and musical composition in the United States.

It was established in 1917 by provisions in the will of American (Hungarian-born) Joseph Pulitzer who had made his fortune as a newspaper publisher, and is administered by Columbia University in New York City.

Duke Ellington should have won the Pulitzer Prize before Kendrick Lamar. This is how Ellington responded to not getting the Pulitzer Prize in 1965: “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young.” He was then 66 years old.

It took the Pulitzer Prize 21 years to correct itself. In 1997, Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields became not only the first jazz work to take the highest honor in American music, but the first non-classical piece ever to win.  

I have been championing “Sir” Duke  

I have been championing “Sir” Duke for many moons and writing about Mr. Ellington since the 1970s.

I wrote a piece on him in Toronto’s Word magazine. Here is a quote from the Nation newspaper in Colombo, Sri Lanka:

“Ellington was down with black consciousness before it became it become in vogue in the 1960s, long before James Brown sang ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ Ellington commented on taking pride in your roots.

In the 1930s Ellington pointed out, “We must be proud of our race and heritage, we must develop the special talents which have been handed down to us through generation, we must try to make our work express the rich background of the Negro.”

Don’t let the word “Negro” fool you. He composed the song “Black Beauty” for actress Florence Mills in 1928, 40 years before it became fashionable to be black. 

Ellington knew what the Black Panther Party and others would find out later, that culture was necessary but not sufficient.

In 1944, Ellington composed works commemorating black Freedom Fighters: Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman.

Ortiz M. Walton pointed out in his 1972 book, Music: Black, White & Blue; “None of the latter group has been recorded, since the record industry is not concerned with portraying black history as much as making a profit.”

Very little has changed since 1972. Danny Glover was given money by the then President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez to do a film on Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution. The film never saw the light of day.

Ellington journeyed to Africa four years earlier than the Black Panther Party

Ellington journeyed to Africa four years earlier than the Black Panther Party and established an office in Algeria in September of 1970.

He brought his orchestra to Dakar, Senegal to perform at the World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966.

 While Ellington grew up in the United States, he traveled to over 60 countries and was a “roots” man.

In describing his first experience on African soil, Ellington says, “After writing African music for 35 years, here I am at last in Africa.”

The hip-hop generation like Mr. Ellington’s generation flows from the resistance of Africans at home and aboard.

Walter Rodney’s, 1969 volume The Groundings with my Brothers is still relevant in 2018. 

Rodney wrote about how the ruling circle in the U.S. dealt with the Black Power movement in his 1969 book.

Rodney states: “In response to the demand for more black culture and history, the national bourgeoisie of the U.S.A. has adopted a technique different from their neocolonialist puppets in the West Indies…

Imagine the juicy contradictions Rockefeller finances chair on African history from the profits of exploiting South African and upholding apartheid!

“Black revolutionaries study African culture alongside of researchers into germ warfare against the Vietnamese people!”

Mr. Ellington beat Lamar by 68 years in visiting Africa. Lamar was able to see Occupied Azania (South Africa)  with his own eyes in 2014.

Not many people are aware of the input this had on him. His first visit to South Africa found him in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town. This trip had a huge influence on To Pimp a Butterfly.

“I felt like I belonged in Africa,” says Lamar

 “I felt like I belonged in Africa,” says Lamar. “I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught.”

“Probably one of the hardest things to do is put [together] a concept on how beautiful a place can be, and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.”

Lamar’s visit to Occupied Azania helped him understand the complexion question among African people.

“The idea was to make a record that reflected all complexions of black women. There’s a separation between the light and the dark skin because it’s just in our nature to do so, but we’re all black…

This concept came from South Africa and I saw all these different colors speaking a beautiful language.”

The history of Africans at home and aboard is rich with resistance. Ellington laid the blueprint for Lamar’s work. 

Be-bop, Hip-Hop and even George Clinton’s cosmic slop has been by influenced by the struggle for Africans at home and aboard.   


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