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Is This The End For 'Urban' Music?

The term "urban" has been used for decades as a catch-all term for Black music — but it is now quickly falling out of favor in the music industry in the midst of a growing new civil rights movement.
Jasper James
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The term "urban" has been used for decades as a catch-all term for Black music — but it is now quickly falling out of favor in the music industry in the midst of a growing new civil rights movement.

Imagine this: you're a participant in a televised game show, and you've made it all the way to the final round. After you spin your wheel or choose your letters or pick your question, the only thing standing between you and all the money of your dreams is a simple task — define the term "urban contemporary."

Could you do it? Would you win that money?

Despite an enduring debate around the name, it is, for many, still unclear what precisely constitutes the genre of "urban contemporary," and how or why the meaning of the term has migrated over the last several decades. Industry stakeholders have been pushing to change the name since at least 2018.

On June 5, in response to the rapidly increasing momentum behind the fight for Black lives in the U.S. and around the world, Republic Records announced that it would "remove 'urban' from the label's verbiage in describing departments, employee titles and music genres," citing their belief that "over time the meaning and connotations of 'urban' have shifted and developed into a generalization of Black people in many sectors of the music industry, including employees and music by Black artists."

A few days later, on June 10, the Recording Academy — the parent organization of the Grammy Awards — announced that it would be renaming the Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Rap/Sung Performance categories to Best Progressive R&B Album and Best Melodic Rap Album, respectively. The former includes "the more progressive elements of R&B and may include samples and elements of hip-hop, rap, dance, and electronic music." The latter encompasses songs with "strong and clear presence of melody combined with rap cadence."

Whether these new descriptions make things any clearer depends on how clear you thought they were before. Notably, Latin categories including the term were excluded from reconsideration. (Though not by everyone.)

But what is urban, contemporary or otherwise? What does eliminating the term accomplish? And why now? What is it about the fomenting of a new civil rights movement that has finally prompted institutions to act?

Coined in 1974 by legendary radio DJ and radio program director Frankie Crocker, "urban contemporary" was originally meant to describe the broad mix — of R&B, hip-hop, disco, rap, and everything "from James Brown to Dinah Shore" — that Crocker was playing at the newly created WBLS station in New York. Despite being one of the most popular radio formats of the era, Black music stations couldn't attract the lucrative ad sales that would help them thrive.

"The urban category helped Black music cross over to mainstream charts," says Gail Mitchell, executive director of R&B and hip-hop at Billboard. "There was a perception that Black radio wasn't their audience, or that Black people didn't buy from their brands. The urban label helped make the white executives more comfortable."

With Crocker's clever rebrand, Black music was newly marketable as a commodity that white companies could package for mainstream — i.e., white — audiences to consume.

Prior to Croker's intervention, music by Black musicians were called "race records" before the emergence of Rhythm and Blues in the 1940s and the term fell out of favor. Urban contemporary's use as a marketable commodity also opened the doors for Black people at the executive level to have a hand in shepherding the talents of Black musicians. But, according to Mitchell, it was a double-edged sword.

"What happened is that the urban label boxed those executives in. It was a bad word to the white gatekeepers. If urban music is so popular, why aren't black executives getting equitable advancement in the record companies? Why aren't they getting the same benefits and promotions and marketing budgets? They don't have the freedom to cross into other genres the way white executives do, and they are told to stay in their lane. But then white executives are brought in to oversee urban divisions and don't know the culture. We should have a say and a role in bringing in profits to the music companies," she says.

Conversely, Mitchell says that despite these industry struggles, she's on the fence about losing "urban" as an umbrella term, because she worries it may contribute to the erasure of the historical legacy of Black music. Back in the '60s, Black radio helped spur the successes of the civil rights era, sharing strategies to combat discrimination and to warn listeners of police activity. Black radio has long had a central role in Black resistance. "We can't lose track of what the main issue is," Mitchell says, "and that's calling for racial equality in the music industry."

Even though Crocker's original intentions were noble — and it's important to recognize that his plan worked — some, like author Feminista Jones, say the term never quite fit to begin with. "I don't think [urban] is only for Black artists anymore, but it also should never have been. Urban describes cities, and it isn't just Black people who live in cities."

According to writer Taylor Crumpton, part of the problem is that the term urban wasn't accurate enough. "In its original context, 'urban' simplified the sounds of Black communities in metropolitan areas, similar to Philadelphia Soul or Motown's association with Detroit. [But] it failed to incorporate the sounds of Black communities in rural areas such as the South, who engaged in Americana, country and folk music, but experienced racial discrimination from gatekeepers in their respective genres," she said.

The furor over the industry's initial refusal to classify either Beyonce's "Daddy Lessons" or Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" as country songs stands as a prime example of Crumpton's point. The contradictory narrowness and breadth of the "urban" genre has, ironically, meant that no matter what kind of music black artists actually make, they are all swept into the same category .

Music and culture writer Sharine Taylor concurs. "It definitely gives a green light for fans to limit the capacity of what artists can do, if there's a pre-prescribed box for what kind of music to expect. For artists, it can be difficult if they're trying to explore new sounds or depart into new sonic territory and are unable to do so," she said.

Charlie Harding, co-host of the podcast Switched On Pop, says these contradictions continue to crop up because they are rooted in the music industry's racist history of white supremacy.

"The music industry is constantly struggling to acknowledge Black music without calling it Black music," he says.

"The way we create these categories reinforces the existing power dynamics in society — specifically racial dynamics. When pop music took off, we still lived in legalized segregation. Music charts were segregated into 'Black' and 'not Black' and we still live with that legacy, and are constantly trying to find ways to undo that. Enmeshed in the capitalist need to sell records, there's a continued fumbling to address the root of this [historical] violence."

Republic Records' stance seems to be an attempt to get it right this time. But Crumpton thinks the onus is on a different organization: The Recording Academy.

"[T]he industry is built upon The Recording Academy; an institution with historic wrongdoings against Black artists and their music. The Recording Academy has the chance to rectify its wrongs and push the industry forward. If not, the industry will [likely] revert back to its oppressive ideology, but lose the engagement of Black artists," she says. "Black artists created country, house and techno, so allow them to reap the fruits of their labor, because white artists have been doing so for decades."

There's no easy solution. The nature of creative musical expression means that these categories will routinely, inevitably outlive their usefulness.

"In a sense, Black music is queer because of its fluidity [and ability] to exist among multiple genres," says Crumpton.

"The problem is that genre is ever-changing," says Harding. "How do we encapsulate the ways in which people listen to and make music, and make sure there is space to specifically serve black audiences, without cordoning off that music from the rest of the pop sphere?"

It is not yet clear how, or whether, these newly announced changes will greatly affect the industry at large, especially in the middle of a broader political movement to address systemic anti-blackness. But Harding says that the thing to keep in mind as the industry moves forward is that there need to be spaces for "safe Black creative practice."

The co-opting and shift in connotation of the term "urban" is a reflection of the way the same thing often happens to music that is produced under its banner. What was originally created by Black people to empower, is later used by white people to marginalize those same creators while profiting from their creative labor.

"Are these categories a segregated space created by white people, or a [safe] space created by black people? Who is the labeller?"

Cate Young is a critic and journalist based in Los Angeles.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cate Young