Lola Christina Alao on why ‘urban’ is another form of coded language we need to stop using.
Republic Records has decided to stop using the term ‘urban’ to describe the music of Black origin.
The record label, which sits under the global music corporation (Universal Music Group), manages artists such as Drake, Kiana Lede and The Weeknd. Republic Records is one of Universal Music Group’s many different divisions and is a company that prides itself on being the ‘world’s leading music company’, also recently vowing to ‘speak up and stand alongside [Black people]’. Their statement reads: “Republic Records will remove ‘urban’ from our verbiage in describing departments, employee titles and music genres”.
Their decision followed shortly after LA-based entertainment management company, Milk and Honey, declared it would be ‘eliminating’ the use of ‘urban’ from their company.
According to Oxford Dictionary, ‘urban’ can either be a noun connected with a town or city or a noun connected with types of music such as rhythm and blues, reggae, soul, etc. – played by Black musicians.
The term is a lazy attempt to group all music of Black origin into one category, and the decision made by Republic Records and Milk & Honey to stop using it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Coined by Black New York DJ Frankie Crocker in the mid-1970s, ‘urban contemporary [music]’ was described as ‘a musical genre defined by recordings by R&B and soul artists with broad crossover appeal”. But why is it that music of Black origin gets thrown into this annoyingly vague categorisation? R&B, Garage, Hip-Hop, Grime, Neo-Soul, Reggae, Soca, Rap – and countless others – all with prominent, gifted talent behind them. Some emblematic of the African diaspora, others more traditional, they are rich in history and undeserving of being watered down in the name of consumerism.
After winning Best Rap Album at the 2020 GRAMMYs, Tyler The Creator criticised the award show’s categorisation. Ranging from R&B to Jazz Rap to Neo Soul to Hip Hop, his music is undoubtedly varied in terms of genre.
“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,” he said.
“I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. To me, it’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word. Why can’t we just be in pop?”
“Half of me feels like the rap nomination was a backhanded compliment,” he added.
While White artists have the luxury of freely flowing between virtually any genre, Black artists are often only allowed to step out of their ‘urban’ or R&B box once they have achieved a certain level of success. A prime example is fourth richest rapper in the world, Drake. With commercial success so significant, he is now considered one of the biggest pop stars in the world.
BAME is another word that attempts to uselessly group every ethnic minority as one. Widely used by the UK government and the media, it makes us feel as though we are other and refuses to acknowledge the fact that we have very different struggles.
Many of these issues are rooted in fear of the word ‘Black’. There is a reluctance to use the word ‘Black’ even when we really mean ‘Black’, which leads to the erasure of Black stories, Black individuality and Black identities. Why don’t we all take a look at the words we’re using and start questioning why we use them? It’s time to stop defining Black artists by what they look like and allow them to take up as much space as is deserved in any genre they please. Let’s finally start appreciating them for the multi-faceted artists they are.
Featured image: Kiana Lede by Robb Klassen for Volume #36.