Change occurs, even if it is painfully slow. Yesterday (June 10) the Grammys announced that they would rebrand the Best Urban Contemporary Album as Best Progressive R&B Album. A group of music executives – the Black Music Coalition, The Show Must Be Paused UK and staff from Warner, Universal, Atlantic, Columbia, Sony and Ministry of Sound, among others – also signed an open letter imploring the industry to drop the word ‘Urban’.
This has been a bone of contention for some time: last week Republic Records dropped the ugly and reductive term, following protest from Tyler, the Creator this year and more recent condemnation from Billie Eilish. (For some reason, though, the Grammy has retained the word in the Best Latin Pop Or Urban Album category. What’s that about?)
It’s fallen on artists to call this out. Many would be happy to receive ‘Best Rap Album’ at the Grammys this January. But when Tyler, The Creator went to collect his for last year’s ‘IGOR’ – a forward-thinking combination of soul, rap, psychedelic and pop – his reaction was bittersweet. Many rappers sacrifice everything just to place their eyes on the shiny golden statue. But Tyler isn’t many rappers, and he had a few stern words for the academy.
“It sucks that whenever we – and I mean guys that look like me – do anything that’s genre-bending, they always put it in a ‘rap’ or ‘urban’ category,” he told reporters after the ceremony. “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. To me, it’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word. Why can’t we just be in pop?”
He’s right, and his stellar fifth studio album is proof that artists such as Tyler, the creator are often lumped into the ‘Urban’ or ‘Rap’ category without letting the music speak for itself. ‘IGOR’ is an evergreen record, showing off Tyler, the Creator’s amazingly versatile artistry. It feels like The Recording Academy said, “Tyler, The Creator – he’s a rapper, right? Stick ‘em in the rap category” without a care to the actual sounds of the album.
Here, though, Tyler highlighted another recurring aspect of the treatment of black artistry – the lack of recognition. And he speaks for many who feel used as ‘token black’ people. The Academy’s attempt to diversify their winners is great, but giving them recognition in the wrong places ran the risk of making them feel misunderstood.
For years, fellow BAME people have been making art that fit into every genre, a fact that’s erased when they’re lumped together into a big pool called “urban”. How are artists meant to pick up new fans when they’re obscured in this way? ‘Urban’ cannot be a genre if it encompasses sounds from at least five different genres that already exist.
The world’s love of categorisation is crippling, and when it comes to genres that black people fall into, the genres most commonly considered are rap or R&B, often seen as ‘struggle’ music. Many people forget the beautiful sounds of funk, neo-soul and soul that many black artists contribute to, as well as techno, garage, and dubstep.
And what is an ‘urban’ song anyway? Artists from a variety of backgrounds could easily be considered ‘urban’. Jack Harlow, a white artist, raps outstandingly on the slinky ‘WHATS POPPIN’, while B Young, who is of Turkish-Cypriot descent, jumps on Kida Kudz’ ‘Issa Vibe’ beat to make the afro-swing, top 40 banger ‘079 Me’. But when I see the word ‘urban’, I (and I bet you do too) instantly connect it with black art. It’s obviously not a bad thing to elevate black music, but it feels regressive to separate this from the rest of the mainstream.
These ‘urban’ categories seemed like the only place black artists reigned supreme. The ‘Best Urban Contemporary Album’ Grammy award, for example, existed for seven years – remember: the Grammys have been around for 62 – and every winner was a black artist. Albums such as The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’ or Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’ could have easily been placed in the best R&B or pop album categories, but they were perhaps given the ‘Urban’ accolade to pacify the potential outcry if they hadn’t won any award.
It feels like the Recording Academy’s more recent efforts to be inclusive were a strategic play to pacify and satisfy black music lovers because – let’s face it, a nomination is not good enough anymore.
The ‘urban’ category was always totally unnecessary. ‘Urban’ is meant to be the umbrella term for all the diverse music created by black diaspora. However, regardless of what colour you are and where you come from, artists from all backgrounds should have the chance to be placed in any genre. There’s no need for one just for black artists and genres considered ‘black’. And it shouldn’t have taken the likes of Tyler, the Creator and Billie Eilish to call this out.