Prize Fighters

Wynton Marsalis and Kendrick Lamar have both scored Pulitzer Prizes for Music in genres previously ignored (the jury snubbed Duke Ellington in 1965 after a brief consideration).

Marsalis’ 1997 Blood on the Fields, a two-and-a-half-hour oratorio, is unquestionably protest music. With tracks like “Soul for Sale” detailing the history of American slavery, the album (with occasional vocals from Cassandra Wilson) was also the first jazz album to win the coveted prize.

Twenty years later, hip-hop earned its own Pulitzer with Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. But the artist had already made history by giving the Black Lives Matter Movement its anthem; “Alright,” the centerpiece of 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, floats on a Pharrell Williams beat that Lamar sat on for months before the proper inspiration arrived to create a protest song on the level of the Civil Rights Movement’s “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Opening with pivotal sax support from Terrace Martin, “Alright” offers optimism in the face of police brutality, white supremacy and other all-American obstacles placed before Black people, and it does so by suffusing hip-hop with a jazz sensibility. Almost since the song was written, protestors have chanted its chorus—“We gon’ be alright”—at rallies and marches.

To Pimp a Butterfly collaborators Martin, sax wizard Kamasi Washington, bassist Thundercat and pianist Robert Glasper are among the 21st century’s young jazz lions. They are building on the innovation and daring of contemporary players like bassist Christian McBride, trumpeters Nicholas Payton and the late Roy Hargrove, and saxophonists Joshua Redman and James Carter.

The jazz of 2021 sounds like an amalgam of styles, embracing post-bop, second-line, hip-hop, funk, soul, symphonic and avant-garde strains with fearless aplomb. There are fresh improvisational solos arrayed atop sampled jazz loops of the past, MCs laying vocals over the music like swing-era singers once did, live instrumentation and, when desired, beat-machine brilliance. Look no further than Washington’s triple album, The Epic, or Glasper’s celebrated Black Radio series for cases in point.

As for explicit protest, direct yourself to 2020’s Dinner Party, the supergroup collaboration of Washington, Glasper, Martin and stalwart rap producer 9th Wonder. The album treats police brutality on lead single “Freeze Tag” in the same spirit of outrage as “Strange Fruit,” We Insist! and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

Dinner Party is jazz for an era that has seen the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless others, a surge in extremist violence and rhetoric encouraged by former President Trump and attempts to suppress the Black Lives Matter Movement with bullets, mace and batons.

Clearly, though, even amid a deadly pandemic and economic crisis that disproportionately affect people of color, this music will continue to voice resistance, speak truth to power and move hope to take flight.

Miles Marshall Lewis is a Harlem-based pop-culture critic and author of the forthcoming Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar. A former editor at Vibe, XXL, Ebony.com and BET.com, he’s been published in The New York Times, GQ, Rolling Stone, The Fader and elsewhere.


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