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More Than Words: Debate Over ‘Urban’ Is Just Part of Industry’s Push to Tackle Systemic Bias

What’s in a name? A lot more than many music executives realize.

Since the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, record labels, prompted by organizations like #TheShowMustBePaused, have been tackling racism and systemic bias within the music business. At a time when the importance of Black culture keeps growing, both in terms of the rising market share of R&B/hip-hop (28.51% of audio album consumption units in the first half of 2020, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data) and the influence of those genres on pop, these renewed efforts are raising questions about what to call these genres, and — more importantly — how to ensure that the artists and executives who make them so successful are treated more fairly.

On June 5, Republic Records announced that it was dropping the word “urban” from in-house use — including department names and employee titles — as an umbrella term for hip-hop and R&B. “We encourage the rest of the music industry to follow suit,” the label said, “as it is important to shape the future of what we want it to look like and not adhere to the outdated structures of the past.”

Other companies are doing the same — including Spotify U.K. and iHeartMedia — with the goal of changing a term they believe unfairly marginalizes Black artists and executives. But not all Black executives agree. ­”URBAN = BLACK, PERIOD!!!” Columbia senior vp/head of urban promotion Azim Rashid declared on Instagram. “Current BLACK executives in the ­#musicbusiness stand on the shoulders of #Legendary #Icons who fought in the 70’s and 80’s for fair and equal treatment INSIDE of these buildings.” On July 20, in the announcement of his promotion at Warner Records, executive vp urban music and marketing Chris Atlas said that the word was important because “it remains present and continues to evolve.”

Most of the Black music community agrees that terminology shouldn’t get in the way of larger issues: Diversity and salary parity, as well as contractual issues that affect artists and songwriters, are among the top priorities. Encouraged by in-house, employee-led task forces, as well as outreach to the broader Black community, many Black executives are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of real reform.

Part of that reform will almost certainly involve addressing the way both Black artists and executives have been marginalized by the way the overall industry has operated since the word “urban” was used to define a genre. The term, short for “urban contemporary,” was coined in the mid-1970s by the influential New York radio DJ Frankie Crocker to describe the diverse tastes of Black music fans. For mainstream advertisers, it became a more acceptable name for what were then called “Black” radio stations. Over 40 years later though, as the lines between R&B and hip-hop and pop continue to blur — and the audiences for different radio formats flock to streaming services — some artists and executives alike are wondering whether the term has become restrictive.

“We create so many different genres, but we’re put in one box,” says now-independent Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Arlissa, a 27-year-old artist categorized as “urban” by two major labels that signed her in the past, even though her music leans more toward soulful pop/rock. “You can replace a word and it will still mean the same thing in terms of putting an artist in a category because of his or her skin color.”

The issue isn’t so much with the word “urban” itself, according to Chad Wes, a manager in the L.A. office of the management firm Milk & Honey, which announced it would “formally eliminate” the term, “but how business is constructed and done with the word.”

Live Nation Urban, for example, a joint venture with touring giant Live Nation Entertainment, has kept the term in its title. In a July 9 open letter to Live Nation employees around the world, president/CEO Michael Rapino pledged to increase diversity from its board of directors to leadership representation, aiming for at least 30% Black and other underrepresented groups by 2025.

Still leading the push for systemic change are the founders of the movement #TheShowMustBePaused, Platoon senior artist campaign manager Brianna Agyemang and Atlantic senior director of marketing Jamila Thomas. Since calling on the music industry to halt normal business for a day of reflection on June 2 — a day dubbed Blackout Tuesday — they tell Billboard that their fledgling organization has been meeting online weekly and has narrowed its focus to three overarching goals: representation, social responsibility and holistic compensation.

The new Black Music Action Coalition, launched June 22 by a group of high-profile artist managers, is now working with them. “BMAC will ensure things will not return to business as usual,” says BMAC board member Prophet.

On July 15, yet another formidable organization based in Atlanta was launched by Michael Mauldin, who served as president of Columbia’s Black music division in the 1990s. The new Black American Music Association — a 21st century incarnation of the Black Music Association, established in 1979 when Black Music Month became an annual celebration — is open to music executives, creators and industry professionals.

Says BAM co-founder/CEO Mauldin: “We all must speak from one united voice.”

This article originally appeared in the July 25, 2020 issue of Billboard.

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