‘Urban’ Was Always A Terrible Word To Describe Music

A few weeks ago, the music industry participated in a “Blackout Tuesday” to reflect on ways to better serve the demographic that drives so much of the industry’s success. One of the resolutions that emerged was Republic Records’ announcement that the label would ban the use of the word “urban” for internal departments. That announcement was followed by a similar one from the The Grammys. The moves drew skeptical side-eyes from some observers, but were met with praise from many others.

Both reactions are understandable. The “urban” category had long been a point of contention within the industry, especially among Black members, due to its fraught history and indiscriminate use as a seeming replacement for “Black” music. In fact, the term was originally coined by radio programers to do just that. New York radio DJ Frankie Crocker coined the term “urban contemporary” in the 1970s as a euphemistic stand-in for what had been called “Black music” until then. The problem with either category to describe the phenomenon was summed up by Tyler The Creator after the 2020 Grammy Awards.

After winning the Grammy for Best Rap Album for his genre-defying 2019 album Igor, Tyler addressed the press, calling the award a backhanded compliment. “It sucks that we — and I mean guys who look like me — do anything genre-bending or anything, they also put it in a ‘rap’ or ‘urban’ category,” he said. “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. It’s just a politically-correct way to say the N-word to me. When I hear that, I’m like, ‘Why can’t we be in pop?’ Half of me feels like the rap nomination was a backhanded compliment. Like, ‘Oh my little cousin wants to play the game. Let’s give him the unplugged controller so he can shut up and feel good about it.’”

More recently, Billie Eilish — 12 years younger than Tyler — called out the double standard in her own interview in GQ, pointing out that “if I wasn’t white I would probably be in ‘rap’. Why? They just judge from what you look like and what they know.” She talked about how such categorizations rarely reflect the style of the music, instead seemingly focusing on performers’ looks. “Just because I am a white teenage female I am pop,” she lamented. “Where am I pop? What part of my music sounds like pop?”

From their comments and others over the years, we can see the issues with the “urban” designation and its shortcomings in describing the depth and breadth of the artists that have fallen under its umbrella. In years past, the urban music departments at labels have siloed artists in styles ranging from hip-hop to reggae to house, demonstrating how useless the term is at describing the music itself as much as the artists. Think about the diversity in styles of hip-hop alone, where Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar are hailed alongside Lil Uzi Vert and Travis Scott. Lil Nas X blew up with a country song. If just one genre that exists within the so-called urban silo can have so much disparity, what good does it do to house anything that can’t be easily defined under that one category?

Even R&B can range from the soulful acoustic style of John Legend to the gritty, hip-hop-influenced sound of Ty Dolla Sign. In November of 2019, Ari Lennox’s understandable distress at missing out on a Soul Train Award for Best Soul Artist sparked a debate about whether the winner, Lizzo, classifies as a soul artist. Many observers brushed off Lizzo as a pop star, but others pointed to the lineage of women who made the sort of brassy, gospel-inflected soul music that defined the genre earlier on its history, such as Aretha Franklin. They also rightfully pointed out how artists like Whitney Houston had been criticized the same way but later revered for their talents. Meanwhile, contemporary debates continue to rage every time The Weeknd releases an album — what style is his music? Doja Cat sings and raps with equal ease and aplomb. Is she R&B, hip-hop, pop? She clearly appeals to more than just Black audiences, so should she be marketed solely to them?

By defining all this diversity under one category, “urban,” the music industry effectively told the most influential artists that they would only ever be the color of their skin. Meanwhile, artists like Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and others can effectively dip in and out of Black music styles at a whim while maintaining their elite, pop star status. The shortcomings of urban music departments at labels like Republic can be seen in examples like the botched rollout for Tinashe’s second album Joyride. Unable to determine how to market the singer, RCA Records tried multiple approaches that failed to gain traction simply because of the ingrained belief that “urban” artists can’t be “pop,” no matter how catchy their singles are.

And that’s where I and others remain skeptical about these institutions simply renaming their “urban” categories, because it wasn’t just the term that was racist and reductive, it was the policies behind it. It’s true that audiences determine the popularity of artists at the end of the day, but audiences must be marketed to. They must know about a song, artist, or album before they are able to “vote” with their dollars. It remains to be seen whether Black artists will be better marketed to Top 40 radio stations or simply shunted onto R&B-specific playlists on Spotify and Tidal.

We still don’t know what level of commitment labels will have to dedicating the same resources to “rappers” who sing and “singers” who rap that they do to blonde-haired, blue-eyed, “All-American” girl-next-door types — or whether it’ll be business as usual, leaving artists who don’t fit in one particular box to struggle within the constraints of stereotypes. The removal of the catchall “urban” is a step in the right direction. But there’s still a long road ahead.