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Why describing music as ‘urban’ is outdated

Republic Records, who manage artists like Drake and The Weeknd, have dropped the word ‘urban’ in its company verbiage due to its outdated sentiments. Encouraging the entire music industry to follow suit, the label’s important gesture has already garnered results: Warner Music Group and Milk & Honey, an artist management company, have also pledged to cease using the word within their companies. 

The term ‘urban’ as a musical genre term was introduced by a black New York DJ, Frankie Crocker in the 1970s. The term ‘black radio’ was unpopular with advertisers and so, in order to garner the advertisers’ support, radio stations adopted the term ‘urban radio’ instead. Aiming to maximise their audience and gain as many white listeners as possible, black music had to be presented as ‘urban’. From this pandering to white audiences, the word sparked the categorisation of black artists that continues to this day. However, one bittersweet advantage of its introduction was an increased number of black executives in the music industry who managed to harness the euphemistic status of the word to get promoted. 

It is a dangerous categorisation of the black experience and music as it drives out all diversification within black culture

The word’s use in both the music industry and our everyday lives should be limited. Urban is regularly used as a substitute for black and the stereotypes that are associated with being black. In 1949, the U.S. saw the establishment of the Housing Act’s urban renewal program that targeted slums populated mostly by poor and black people. The program’s name and objective fuelled the association of ‘urban’ with ‘black’. Used as an adjective, it is a dangerous categorisation of the black experience and music as it drives out all diversification within black culture. 

The Grammys have used the word for decades to relegate eclectic mixes of black talent into overlooked categories, whilst white artists thrive in more respected categories. After his ‘Best Rap Album’ Grammy win for ‘IGOR’ in January, Tyler, the Creator addressed his mixed feelings about winning the award. He denounced the use of ‘rap’ and ‘urban’ to classify any “genre-bending” accomplished by black artists. To Tyler, the Creator, the word ‘urban’ feels like a “politically correct way to say the N-word. Why can’t we just be pop?” In an attempt to solve the problem, the Grammys will no longer use the word ‘urban’ but instead opt for ‘progressive’. However, it is possible that ‘progressive’ could morph into another euphemism for grouping black music together. 

Not only does the use of ‘urban’ reinforce racist stereotypes, it also unfairly limits black artists’ earning potential

Black artists make music that can be associated with a variety of genres – using ‘urban’ to lump them all together is undeniably disrespectful. It obscures and forces black artists into a group where their music is treated as though it is all the same. With the immense impact that black artists have on mainstream music, it is unfair to downplay their influence and individuality. The word’s only attribute seems to be the segregation of white and black artists. Music manager, Daouda Leonard, says that categorising black artists into the urban category also limits the amount that artists can make. Not only does the use of ‘urban’ reinforce racist stereotypes, it also unfairly limits black artists’ earning potential. 

As important as it is that the use of racialised forms of categorisation is phased out in the music industry, it is also important to acknowledge that the use of ‘urban’ is not the industry’s only issue. The industry not only has to face up to its blatant subjugation of black artists but also its silencing of their voices and diversity issues off-stage. Removing a word from its vocabulary is an important but easy step. The music industry must now turn its efforts to tackle larger issues of racism. 

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