So “Urban”, Not “Urban”

It’s time to talk about that word. The word that every time we speak it we say it with “air quotes”, the word that comes loaded with sarcasm and is starting to feel just downright crude – “URBAN”.

While a new music generation have no idea why we even use the word, a previous generation has already forgotten how the word even came to be associated with ‘Black Music’. What we’re now left with is a word that simply doesn’t feel like it bears any relation to any genre of music or to a culture.

So where exactly did the word originate from? Apparently it goes back well over 45 years at a time when the powers that be at U.S radio in the 70’s, determined that “black music” wouldn’t ‘sell’ as a product and rebranded the airtime dedicated to black music as “urban contemporary” radio. The British music industry followed suit a good 20 years later, when “Urban” music became the ‘buzzword’ for records that were defying the odds and breaking into the Top 40 pop charts without significant radio or mainstream exposure. Unlike Michael Jackson who firmly held the top spot as the king of pop, the 90’s was producing a slew of Top 40 Hip-Hop and R&B artists from the Fugees, Destiny’s Child, Will Smith, to Jennifer Lopez and more, who exported the ‘sound’ globally, and subsequently forced mainstream radio and television to play catch up – temporarily that is.

What followed in the 2000’s was the ease in ‘selling’ the product as “Urban” and packaging it up to a perceived target group simply bracketed as – ‘urban, aged 16-25‘. In the U.K, this sprung into action new initiatives that conveniently began to channel black audiences into ‘niche’ platforms by programming black music into “Urban music stations” and subsequently taking any conversation about the lack of mainstream support for black music back off the table. As The Guardian reported ‘The first national radio station aimed at a black audience has gone on air in an attempt by the BBC to connect with an audience that dismisses it as irrelevant’. Despite Top 40 chart hits, radio programmers were still seeing ‘black music’ as risky for a mainstream pop music station; ‘Recently Radio 1 has made strides to include black music, hiring DJs such as Fabio and Grooverider, Trevor Nelson and Tim Westwood, but executives acknowledge it is still at the margins of the schedule.’

12 years after it’s launch, when 1Xtra published it’s ‘Power List’ 2014 with Ed Sheeran in the No.1 spot and three out of the top four acts as white, the BBC came under criticism for whitewashing their ‘black and urban music radio station’ and the debate about why race should be brought into the discussion about ‘black music sounds’ was back on the table. With Newsnight asking later that night “How did middle-class, white boy Ed Sheeran get named the most important act in black and urban music?”, Wiley responded with his statement; “Not taking anything away from Ed. He is sick. But black artists in England, we are getting bumped… We influence a man and all of a sudden it turns he has influenced us.

In December of 2015, after a year dominated by stories about the resurgence of Grime, The Independent featured a piece targeted to Grime’s expanding middle class fanbase, throwing out a caution to them about appropriating the working-class struggle. ‘No, these new fans don’t belong to the demographic grime originally represented: those disillusioned kids on estates who were labelled ‘chavs’ for wearing street clothing, dismissed as ‘uneducated’ for using slang, pushed out of popular music and forced to use pirate radio stations because their sound wasn’t accessible enough, ‘American’ enough.’ That was enough for Twitter to get raging about the revisionist perceptions of the origins of Grime and turned again to a question of race, spurring on a debate that shifted back and forth between accusations of cultural appropriation to social appropriation;

‘Whitewashing’ culture, emerged from an industry climate where ‘black music’ was reluctantly a contender for mainstream radio, while non ‘specialist’ press publications would privately refuse to feature certain black artists on the cover of their magazine – the excuse was always the same – it won’t sell. “Urban” as a term was supposed to meet with a less biased reception in mainstream Radio and TV, but instead pushed the music further back into the margins, excusing away any need to reflect the increasingly diverse audiences for the music itself.


It’s nothing new, we’ve seen it year in year out, not just with The Grammy’s and The Brit Awards but with power lists and polls that exclude ‘black music’ explaining it away as not meeting the benchmark for quality, impact or sales. Industry gatekeepers uphold the barriers desperately hanging on to the hope that they keep relegating black music to the margins by virtue of their own shifting metrics yet still continuing to insist “it is not about the colour of someone’s skin.”

So what exactly does the word “urban” mean: “of, pertaining to, or designating a city or town; living in a city; characteristic of or accustomed to cities; citified.” Here is what the word “urban” does not actually mean: “black person.”

And that’s where we come back to the word “URBAN” – if the margins is where the music is being pushed out to then it goes hand in hand with ‘that’ conversation about the ‘working class struggle’ – because hasn’t this new wave of social cleansing aka “gentrification” already pushed inner-city communities out into the outskirts?

Let’s assume that the word “URBAN” is just a representation of an ‘inner-city life’ culture, then who does it represent now – and if we’re still talking about a sub-section of society defined by race and class – well then are we now going to have to change the word to “Sub-Urban”? Confused yet?

After Idris Elba took to parliament to address the lack of diversity in TV a year on from the launch of Channel 4’s Diversity charter – aren’t we at risk of engaging in yet another exercise in ‘double-talk’, with tokenistic gestures and initiatives to appease the critics but which do little to change the status quo?

There’s always the fear that it will be taken away from me

A revealing conversation on last nights Late Show With Stephen Colbert confronted ‘white privilege’ with DeRay McKesson a leading activist in the Black Live Matter movement, when he was asked ‘why white people find it uncomfortable  to talk about race’. Stephen speaking for himself rather than all white people responded –  ‘I feel guilty for anyone who does not have the things I have, that includes black people or anyone, because I’m so blessed there’s always the fear that it will be taken from me‘.

And it’s the fear of ‘those blessings’ being taken away that protects the space, success and money away from ‘diverse’ people and keeps the control in the hands of an industry run by privileged middle-class white men.

If Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Rihanna, Beyonce and numerous other previously “Urban” artists start to feel compelled to define themselves and their music as ‘pop’ as it crosses over – is it now taboo to say “Urban” *with air quotes applied.

In an 2007 interview with DJ Semtex, Kanye West explained why he wanted to be a pop artist – “I realise how many people that I’m talking to and how big my voice is in the world especially now as a pop artist which I take as a compliment and not as a diss. Because that was something that was real taboo in hip hop but I think that was just real stupid, like hip hop had a lot of stupid things about it you know what I’m saying, all the way from the gay bashing to the not wanting to be a pop artist and the whole sellout thing. Because for me I wanna be a pop artist, I wanna be as big as possible.

Britain’s youngest generation is currently it’s most diverse and will become increasingly so and watching the British music industry explain away it’s excuses for marginalising Hip-Hop, R&B, Grime and Garage, because it doesn’t sell to the mainstream is no longer plausible. Whether you’re black, asian, mixed ethnicity or white; male or female; working-class or middle-class; British music and culture will be shaped and influenced by this diverse generation and the audience for it will consume according to taste not by definitions of race, class or gender. Diversity isn’t about changing the way we think – it’s simply the way we live in the real world today.

The question remains – in the future, what word will we use for the music and culture that will originate from this diverse generation? Is it about time we bring ‘that’ conversation back to the table?