Has the time come to retire “urban”? As an umbrella term for hip-hop and R&B, it’s either convenient and apt or an antiquated shorthand for music made by black artists. And as a department at many labels dating back to the 1970s, it has arguably marginalized black musicians and those who work with them.
As conversations about race and gender have intensified culturewide, “urban” is getting reassessed too. In early August, Music Business Worldwide reported that several black executives wanted to see the term eliminated. Sources at Warner/Chappell confirm to Billboard that outgoing CEO Jon Platt, who is exiting his post to head Sony/ATV, is among those who want to do away with the term.
Most objections are to the word itself. “The connotation of the word doesn't hold a positive weight,” explains Sam Taylor, senior vp creative at Kobalt Music Group, the rights management and publishing company. “It’s downgrading R&B, soul and hip-hop’s incredible impact on music. And as black executives, we have the power to phase ‘urban’ out -- to change the description.”
“I’ve been hearing people talk about whether ‘urban’ is a viable term since my early days in the music industry,” says RCA Records executive vp A&R Tunji Balogun, who launched his career in the early 2000s (RCA has an urban-music division).
Some executives of color defend its use. “I wear ‘urban’ as a badge of honor,” says RCA president of urban music Mark Pitts, who managed The Notorious B.I.G. in the ’90s and today oversees a diverse roster including Miguel, SZA, Khalid and G-Eazy. “As a black executive, I’ve always promoted it with pride.”
To those for whom “urban” remains relevant, it encompasses something bigger than a genre or a label department. Rahman Dukes, senior vice president at Sean “Diddy” Combs’ REVOLT cable TV network, equates “urban” with “black lifestyle. It’s hip-hop. It’s R&B. It’s dance. It’s jazz. ‘Urban’ tells people who may not be of the culture, ‘Hey, we are bigger than just one particular black style of music.’”
“‘Urban’ is culture,” echoes Atlantic vp A&R and artist development Riggs Morales. “There’s hip-hop, R&B, soul -- urban is just the overall hub.”
But as Morales also points out, hip-hop is now the dominant genre commercially -- today’s de facto pop music. Which, for many leaders within the business, further underscores how “urban” relegates black music -- and leaders -- to an industry ghetto. “When I got to Atlantic five years ago, a lot of major labels did not want to touch urban,” says Morales. “Most of these labels had a favorite son, a favorite genre, and it was not urban.”
Balogun recalls “being marginalized as an executive in the urban A&R department,” specifically when he was promoted in 2013 at Interscope. “There were other artists I was interested in working with who weren't specifically urban, but I was only considered to be an ‘urban’ executive.”
Balogun has seen the term adversely affect his artists, too. “It’s so much harder for a black artist to get played at top 40 radio because they are looked at as ‘urban,’” he says. “When I go to see [Childish] Gambino or Khalid perform, I see a lot of white kids. You can’t tell me that their music is only ‘urban.’”
The problematic history of classifying black music dates back to 1920, when the “race record” was born after composer Perry Bradford convinced the white-owned label Okeh Records to take a chance on black blues singer Mamie Smith. “Race records” came to encompass not only blues but vaudeville, jazz, gospel, even classical -- any music performed by black artists.
Back then, black-owned labels didn't reject the term outright. “It was connected to this larger idea of black uplift -- an extension of that philosophy of racial empowerment,” says Fredara Hadley, an ethnomusicology professor at Oberlin College. But in 1949, Billboard changed its “race records” charts to Rhythm & Blues, and by the mid-’70s, black New York radio DJ Frankie Crocker had coined the phrase “urban contemporary,” which eventually morphed into “urban.”
To some, the solution to today’s quandary is simple. “I’m very proud to call black music ‘black music,’” says Balogun. “Even white artists making music from our genres -- you can’t tell me that Eminem and G-Eazy, both artists I respect and like, are not doing black music. So why are black artists the only ones who get labeled ‘urban’?” Hadley suggests that “if you are trying to point to black culture -- which is what marketers and the record industry and radio folk are attempting to point to -- then say ‘black.’” (Atlantic is the only label with a black-music department, which is headed by president of black music Michael Kyser, although the titles of some members of his team include the word “urban.”)
Dukes points out that artists and athletes speaking out on race recently have inspired music executives to assert their identities. “Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe are the new civil rights voices,” he says. “Now you have people who have worked within that urban lane for years saying, ‘No: We are black. And we are doing black music.’”