Why Say ‘Urban’ When We Know You Mean ‘Black’?

Words by: Minou Itseli

When you hear ‘Urban’, you immediately think ‘black’ right? It’s the big elephant in the room and it’s time to address it. 

Head on.

The word instantly alludes to popular black culture as well as titles throughout the music industry, from the verbiage in describing departments to employee titles and music genres.

Where should we start?

I’ll be brutally honest and say it’s very passive-aggressive and an indirect way to use the term ‘black’ rather than stating it overtly. 

What’s the difference between the previous segregation signs in society and the term urban in the music industry? They are both an action or state of setting ‘black’ apart from others but in this case, ‘urban’ is a form of a black badge.

Or should I be polite and say ‘Why ‘urban’ when we know you want to say black?’

DJ Semtex states:

dj semtex

“‘Urban’ is a lazy, inaccurate generalisation of several culturally rich art forms.” Breaking news, historically almost every genre is created by a black person. Rock n roll? Chuck Berry Blues? William Christopher Handy was one of the many pioneers from the deep South of the United States around the 1870s. The form of Blues is an extension of Rnb, Doo-Wop, Funk, Disco, House, and many more.

So is ‘Urban music’ just simply music?

We should recognise the genre for what it is and where it came from.

In the 1970s everyone from labels to radio concluded the white audience would be reluctant to tune into music labelled as black despite us listening to being inspired by black people. This may not always have been direct, however, the originator of the genre or people behind the scenes were often not the people with the mic.

Republic Records announced that they will no longer be using the expression “urban” to describe music which is the first big step to the bigger picture.

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#WeUseOurVoices, Use Yours.

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This, however, is by no means a novel sentiment. In 2018, Sam Taylor – a senior vice president of rights management and publishing company Kobalt Music – stated to Billboard he “hate[d] the word ‘urban’…the word urban to me feels like a project. It feels like something that needs to be built. It’s basically like, ‘Oh this urban neighbourhood.’”

sam taylor vice president kobalt

‘Urban neighbourhood’ another term for the word ‘ghetto’, is instantly associated with low-income or not safe therefore are they subconsciously assuming urban music needs to be refurbished. It travels from mainstream Radio where Baxter perfectly describes it as ‘a vertigo of urban loneliness that late-night radio addresses’ to awards like Best Urban Contemporary Album to Music channels.

Is it lazy? Yes. 

Is it an indirect type of censorship? Yes.

Urban covers several genres such as rap, hip-hop, trap, drill, grime, garage soul and R&B that are placing many artists in one box and limiting their full access for acknowledgment. It should be treated as its competitors since the same ‘urban’ music in 2004 accounted for 80% of the number-one R&B hits that year whilst all 12 songs that topped the Billboard Hot 100 were African-American recording artists.

Music is simply music.

“Urban” we apprehend you mean black, we know by categorising something as ‘urban’ comes with all the same stereotypes rooted from US sociologist Elijah Anderson’s concept of the “iconic ghetto”. This instantly annihilates the diversity of the black experience and the music. 

Say it’s name, it’s evidently Rap, Drill, Soul, R&B, Hip-hop and more – it owns a name for a reason, use it. The black experience provided the world it’s rhythm as the world never concerned it’s blues. 

Erase Urban and accept it as Music.

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