Why the Music Industry needs to stop using the word ‘Urban’…
By Edith Matthias
The unjust murder of George Floyd initially highlighted how prejudice and racism have always been ingrained within the system of policing- but that outrage has spread and sparked conversations about how racism occurs in almost every institution and aspect of life. From education to beauty standards, to the subconscious actions of the individual, the list is endless, and so like many other industries, the music industry is no exception.
Before 2020 turned particularly Black-mirroresque, music award ceremonies like the Grammy’s operated as normal. Where the Brit awards are deserving of Brownie points for their uncomplicated award categories, the Grammy’s have fallen short by choosing genre to classify the awards. How does one decide on music genre, when more often than not it is a subjective and debatable matter that unfortunately cannot be determined via a tick box handout. This problem has only increased in recent years when musicians often merrily straddle the blurred lines of genre. In 2013 the Grammy organisers were clearly squirming as there was a rise in Black artists creating music that wasn’t definitive to just Rap/HipHop or R&B. So in a blind panic they added the category ‘Best Urban Contemporary Album’, slotted snugly under the armpit of the general ‘R&B’ category. Considering that ‘urban’ is not a specific genre, what does this actually mean? The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences defined it as:
“Albums containing at least 51 percent playing time of newly recorded contemporary vocal tracks derivative of R&B. This category is intended for artists whose music includes the more contemporary elements of R&B and may incorporate production elements found in urban pop, urban Euro-pop, urban rock, and urban alternative”
To me, this just translates as “Blah, blah, blah… How do we say Black people music without sounding racist?”
The music being produced by these Black musicians is not a new genre in itself, instead, the musicians as individuals should just be categorised into the other ‘non-Black’ music genres such as rock, alternative and pop music like everyone else. Unfortunately, the Grammy’s opted for the lazy option of just bundling all these musicians together and slapping the word ‘urban’ over their heads. Considering that all 38 nominees and recipients of this award were people of colour, the word ‘urban’ is highly problematic as it is not a genre of music but instead is a racial stereotype that is synonymous with being Black. If the Grammy’s wanted to make a new category for these musicians, they could have at least given it a name to do with a musical genre such as ‘Contemporary soul’ instead of utilising a toxic trope of Black racial identity.
This year, the musician Tyler The Creator won the Grammy ‘Best Rap Album’ for Igor. During the interview he gave after receiving the award he called out the Grammy’s for their racism stating: “It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that's genre-bending or that's anything 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”. This is not the first time that complaints have been made to the Grammy’s about pigeonholing Black artists into certain categories even when they don’t fit. For example, this year’s winner of the ‘Best Urban Contemporary Album’ was Lizo, which I was shocked to discover. There is no way around it, if she was white, she would have been nominated for ‘Best Pop Album’ as there is nothing else to differentiate her music from any other of the pop nominees apart from the colour of her skin. In the past 10 years, out of all of the ‘Best Pop Album’ nominees, only 4 artists were people of colour, and Bruno Mars was the only non-white winner of ‘Album of the Year’, despite many Black artists being nominated.
To me, this just sends the message that Black musicians will not be appreciated at these awards unless they conform to solely Rap or R&B. Overall this prevents the integration of Black artists into the wider award system and therefore music industry as a whole. If we truly want change to happen in regard to racism, change needs to take place in every aspect of society- the music industry must stop using the racially derogatory word ‘Urban’ and instead make an effort to judge and appreciate an artist on the music they produce and not make presumptions based on the colour of their skin, so that all artists can be celebrated equally.