There are no acceptance speeches at the Pulitzers. You get your prize. You pose for your photo and you politely exit the stage. Yet there was definitely something different about this year’s award luncheon at Columbia University’s Low Library on Wednesday, where hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar strolled in about 30 or 40 minutes into the meal, causing a frenzy of photography and heightened, excited murmurs.
Here was a man from Compton, Calif., now an international recording artist and star, politely entering the room to receive his award alongside the likes of the Washington Post and the New York Times—whose newsrooms were honored for reporting on Harvey Weinstein, Russian interference in the 2016 election and the failed candidacy of Roy Moore in Alabama after it was reported that he had pursued inappropriate relationships with teenage girls.
It was a meeting between the impenetrable cool behind the Black Panther soundtrack and the steely resolve of the best in journalism. It was an especially huge moment for those from the Santa Rosa, Calif., Press Democrat, with whom I was seated (alongside Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger and members of the Pulitzer family), who were already on cloud nine because of their win for breaking-news reporting around the historic wildfires that plagued Santa Rosa and Sonoma County.
They were beaming. But so was Lamar. After all, they were all going home with one of the most coveted prizes in journalism, writing, poetry and music.
Welcome to Antisocial, the society column for people kind of afraid of society—namely me, your editor-in-chief, Danielle Belton. In my efforts to overcome social anxiety, I’ve been thrusting myself into social situation after social situation, with increasingly better results. I was both excited and honored to be at the Pulitzer Prize Luncheon on Wednesday in New York City, where I blinked back happy tears for all the awardees and received a warm hug from actress Mia Farrow, who was there to celebrate her son Ronan Farrow’s win of his first Pulitzer for his reporting on the Harvey Weinstein scandal involving claims of sexual harassment, rape and coercion.
Now, I don’t pretend to personally know Farrow or her now equally accomplished son, but she still hugged me happily after I said hello to her. After she let me go, I asked her, “How are you doing?” and she laughed with tears streaming down her cheeks and said, “I’m a mess!”
But, then, everyone was a little of a mess. It is the Pulitzers, after all. For many in the room, this was the culmination of their wildest dreams; the affirmation of their life’s work.
Lamar is the first hip-hop artist to receive the award—which was presented to him by Pulitzer Administrator Dana Canedy and Bollinger—but he’s also the first performer of “popular” music to receive it, since the Pulitzers for music have historically been dominated by the classical and jazz genres. Yet there was Lamar, winning the award for his album Damn., which spawned hits such as “DNA” and “Loyalty.”
I was able to witness Lamar being awarded his Pulitzer thanks to an invitation from Canedy to the awards luncheon. I first met her earlier this year at a Pulitzer event, and we later spoke via phone in April about the historic significance of not just Lamar’s win but also her own role as a Pulitzer recipient who is now the youngest person, the first woman and first person of color to lead the legacy organization.
“I think that this is proof that glass ceilings are made just of that—glass—and glass is meant to be broken,” said Canedy. “The fact that I’m the first woman, person of color and youngest [is] not lost on me. I’m humbled and blessed.”
The biggest message Canedy wanted to impart, though, was that she wanted to see more publications—from small newsrooms to digital-only organizations—apply for Pulitzers, especially including the black press, which Canedy described as “absolutely critical and vital” to journalism.
“I want more of those organizations applying for Pulitzer Prizes,” Canedy said. “Public service announcement to the black press: Apply for Pulitzer Prizes! It’s critical!”
Canedy said that when the Pulitzer winners were announced earlier this year, she invited ninth-graders from New York City’s Queens borough to come and watch the festivities, and she spoke to them about how she grew up in a small town in Kentucky.
“I was not a straight-A student,” Canedy said she told them, adding, “If I could do this, they can do it and more. My main focus is not on me, but just doing good work and being the proper steward and gatekeeper for the Pulitzers and celebrating the winners. ... I’m humbly proud.”
The Pulitzers that Canedy has inherited and that Lamar was honored by have become more diverse since 1950, when Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to receive a Pulitzer, for poetry. While the organization doesn’t keep specific numbers on diversity, since it often honors not just individuals but newsrooms, Canedy said in the last 10 years that “it’s become more diverse. We still have work to do for sure. It’s a huge part of what I spend my time thinking about. I choose the jury pool, and we had one of the most diverse jury pools ever. And not just racial diversity; I want more conservative voices, commentators, applying. More people working on new media platforms applying. I think, hopefully, we’ll see a lot more of musicians from different genres applying. I really want to widen our tent.
“We have to look forward and we have to represent the future and stay relevant and urgent, and I mean, I think the Pulitzer Prizes were just fine before I got here, but I want it to be just even better,” she said.
Watch the full ceremony from Wednesday below.