The music industry is reconsidering how we label Black music
Last Tuesday, many music companies participated in an industry-wide ‘blackout.’ The blackout was born out of an increased attention to racial inequality as a result of worldwide Black Lives Matter protests. Although the movement was organized by two Black women, Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, several companies faced criticism for their seemingly performative activism as the movement grew away from Agyemang and Thomas’ initial intentions.
In support of the blackout, a group of Black British music industry executives formed the Black Music Coalition to encourage other music firms to make “tangible changes” in their treatment of Black music and Black artists. The Coalition penned a letterto many prominent labels, stating:
“The music industry has long profited from the rich and varied culture of Black people for many generations but overall, we feel it has failed to acknowledge the structural and systematic racism affecting the very same Black community and so effectively, enjoying the rhythm and ignoring the blues.”
One of the Black Music Coalition’s calls to action includes removing the word “urban” as a genre classification. “Urban” music has a lengthy and controversial history, stemming from radio DJs in the 1970s. In a piece from August 2018, The Guardian’s Kehinde Andrews points out that “‘Urban’ is rooted in US sociologist Elijah Anderson’s notion of the ‘iconic ghetto’, where the image of the streets, the hood or the endz dominates how we understand black communities.”
The use of the term “urban” to discuss hip-hop, R&B, and similar genres has faced heavy criticism for years. For example, after winning the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album last year, Tyler the Creator harshly rebuked the termin a backstage acceptance speech. “It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that’s genre-bending… they always put it in a rap or urban category. I don’t like that ‘urban’ word — it’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.”
On June 5th, Republic Records (owned by Universal Music Group, one of the Big 3 record companies who who received the Black Music Coalition’s letter) announced via Instagram post their plan to “remove ‘urban’ from [their] verbiage in describing departments, employee titles and music genres.” Republic Records is home to imprints like Cash Money, Young Money, XO, Roc Nation, and many others.
Following in Republic Records footsteps, the Recording Academy similarly announced a plan to move away from using “urban” for the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards. The press release, made public earlier this morning, announced that several category titles will be changed. “Best Urban Contemporary Album” will be renamed to “Best Progressive R&B” album, highlighting the experimental and genre-defying qualities albums in this category usually exhibit. “Best Rap/Sung Performance” will also be renamed to “Best Melodic Rap Performance,” and the “Best New Artist” category will have different eligibility rules.
On the other hand, the “Best Latin Pop” category will be renamed to “Best Latin Pop Or Urban Album.” Instead of removing the problematic and outdated ties between Black music and the “urban” title, this category change only further cements such associations.