Jennifer Hudson’s surprise Pulitzer performance

May 29, 2019

The nation’s most prestigious awards for journalism and the arts capped a normally predictable presentation ceremony with a Pulitzer surprise: bringing Jennifer Hudson onstage for a musical tribute to posthumous honoree Aretha Franklin.

Most of the hundreds in attendance at Tuesday’s Pulitzer Prize luncheon at Columbia University were either winners in the 21 categories, or represented winning news organizations. Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy opened things, as expected, with an acknowledgment of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who had covered last year’s Feb. 14 mass shooting for their Parkland, Florida, campus news publication, The Eagle Eye.

Following a standing ovation for the students, and Metropolitan Opera soprano Brandie Sutton’s lovely musical set, the usual parade of winners took the stage, each group in turn being photographed with their certificates.

The Public Service gold medal to the South Florida Sun Sentinel for its coverage of the Parkland school massacre and the Breaking News Reporting prize to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for “immersive, compassionate coverage” of their city’s Tree of Life synagogue massacre, started the ceremonial progression. Later came International Reporting prizes to both Associated Press reporters who had detailed war atrocities in Yemen, and Reuters staffers who had covered the systematic expulsion and murder of Rohingha Muslims from Myanmar. (Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were on hand to talk of how they had been imprisoned by authorities.) And a special journalism citation went to Annapolis, Maryland’s Capital Gazette for its “courageous response to the largest killing of journalists in U.S. history in their newsroom” last June.

It was a heavy load of tragedy, Canedy figured. So, she said, she intended the ceremony’s music – and especially Hudson’s performance –to help offset “the suffering involved with so much of the work that had won journalism Pulitzers this year.” In lining up Hudson, she added, “I wanted to do something that would help express an element of healing.”

Hudson’s  “Amazing Grace” was delivered with a power reminiscent of Franklin, whose special citation was voted “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.”

The Hudson appearance almost didn’t happen, however. As Canedy told the audience, the singer and her entourage drove 14 hours straight from Chicago to make it in time, because of flight cancellations in the stormy Midwest. The late arrival forced them to take the stage without rehearsal, although few in the audience could have suspected.

But as it turned out, Hudson’s stirring command performance converted the Pulitzer organization’s recognition of its 103rd class of prizewinners — normally a straight-laced occasion — into a relative entertainment-media happening. Rolling Stone magazine’s coverage, for example, included hand-held footage of the star belting out her Aretha tribute.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism,” writes for Poynter about prize-winning reporting and other topics. He lives in Hingham, Massachusetts.