In this long-standing history there are three defining acts this year.
In January Tyler, The Creator won the Grammy for Best Rap Album, and along with giving thanks it shot the term urban. “It’s just the politically correct way to tell me the ‘N’ word,” he complained.
Then Republic Records, a powerful subsidiary of Universal Music, with big stars like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Post Malone, announced in June the elimination of the urban concept, urging other labels to overcome “the obsolete structures of the past.” Then the Grammy Awards announced reformulations from 2021.
Among the changes, the Best urban contemporary album category for Best progressive R&B album disappeared, a label that considers “the most progressive elements of R&B and can include samples and elements of hip-hop, rap, dance and electronic music,” according to the Academy. National Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States, as a way to get in tune with current sensibilities.
Doesn’t urban music include these ingredients? Of course, and for a long time. But discomfort with the concept increases in the Anglo industry and in particular in artists, who are always averse to labels, because it is considered racist, pigeonholing black musicians and executives.
Nor does the concept enjoy greater artistic prestige because its contours are diffuse. Any singer with a couple of rhymes and a base can be “urban.”
In fact, Ed Sheeran is. “I wonder why we can’t be in pop,” asked Tyler, The Creator with the Grammy statuette in his hands.
George Floyd’s assassination in late May, which sparked popular anger among the African American population, sparking riots with toppled statues and symbols of slavery and domination, raised awareness and altered the agenda in the US.
“We want to be really inclusive,” interim Grammy CEO Harvey Manson stressed in June when the elimination of an urban category was announced. However, another was created with the same term. The best Latin pop album is now called “Latin or urban pop.” In turn, the Latin rock box, urban or alternative album, remained in “Latin or alternative rock.” Thus reggaeton records will be able to compete directly with the main Spanish pop hits.
Frankie Crocker had a police record worthy of a gang member and pimp with allegations of bribery, femicide and mistreatment, ditching every charge.
He was also one of the defining figures of the radio business in the 70s, brilliant in marketing strategies and with an extravagant look (he appeared in the classic blaxploitation Cleopatra Jones, among other films), which led him to be one of the first faces of the channel VH1.
In the mid-70s, Crocker took the New York station WBLS to number one by restructuring the programming with the phrase “the total black experience in sound”, for which he recruited a renewed team of DJs including Vy Higginsen, recognized as the first female disk jockey from New York.
The grid brought together artists with a more sophisticated touch such as Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Billie Holiday, Johnny Mathis, and Kool and the Gang. Crocker furiously embraced disco music but also opened up to new wave and punk with Blondie and The Clash, crossing black and white listeners, just as radio host Alan Freed paired audiences by popularizing the rock & roll concept in the 1950s. where blues and country converge.
This type of programming, dubbed “urban contemporary” by Crocker, was intended to increase advertising by expanding audiences. The model was so successful that it was quickly adopted in the rest of the country, along with demanding more staff to develop this lucrative box, promoting a new generation of African American executives.
For veterans in the business there is nothing more than appreciation to the niche. “The #Urbanmusic divisions were built to give black executives a true voice and an opportunity to lead and manage an aspect of the business that was being ignored by corporations,” Azim Rashid, Columbia’s head of urban promotion, explained on Instagram. Records, before the initiatives to eradicate the term.
Between what happened in the 20s and 40s when black music was sold as “race records”, and an African-American executive who in the 70s created a category in the radio industry, extolling artists of color along with a fine selection of the white musical offer, there is an undisputed advance.
But the language evolves and the label appears expired, as stated by Republic Records.
As with much of our history, the original connotation of the term urban was not considered negative. However, over time the meaning and connotations of ‘urban’ have changed and it has become a generalization of blacks in many sectors of music, including employees and music of black artists.
In Latin America the panorama differs and appears with generational borders.
Stars like Daddy Yankee and Ozuna prefer that their music continues to be recognized as urban, while J Balvin describes his music as plain reggaeton. In statements to the Shock de Colombia site, the Puerto Rican Ángel Vera, El Gurú, founder of the Rapetón platform, promoter of the Latin urban genre and recognized authority on the matter, this matter leaves the stars in Spanish unconcerned. “I spoke with various artists and they don’t know that the word ‘urban’ represented something bad, and they don’t pay much attention to it.”
For Gianluca, one of the figures of the Chilean trap, the qualifiers make him uncomfortable and the urban concept, according to the gringo parameter, is vague.
“I don’t like labels, I think they have to change. Urbano, just like Latino, is used in the US to talk about black music or in Spanish, often without giving a clear description of each artist. I think that Tyler’s complaint exemplifies well what happens with the urban concept in the USA. It is a way that the system has to be able to continue replicating racial behavior. Hopefully all this will disappear soon ”.
At the Latin Grammys on November 19, the urban concept heads five categories and there are no signs of eventual changes, oblivious to the racial weight of the Anglo case. Added to the Republic Records decision and the lukewarm changes to the Grammy Awards, Warner Music and iHeartMedia Inc., the largest radio station in the United States, will retire urban music as an expired label, although the product remains being highly profitable.