The axing of ‘urban’ music: Good thing – or ‘Band-Aid to the real conversation’?

Credit: Press/Atlantic
Lil Uzi Vert

“Never in my career have I heard ‘black music’ or ‘urban’ being talked about this much.”

Shawn Holiday knows the long-running ‘urban’ music industry debate better than most, not least as the phrase appears, twice, in his dual job title: Co-Head of Urban Music at Columbia Records and Head of Urban Music at Sony/ATV.

‘Urban music’ got talked about a whole lot more in a fascinating (and at times fiery) conversation between some of the US industry’s most successful modern black executives this week, via a Zoom discussion featuring Holiday and hosted by Warner Records and its SVP, Head of Urban Marketing, Chris Atlas.

To put it mildly, not everybody was in agreement over Republic Records‘ controversial decision to suddenly axe ‘urban’ from its professional verbiage (indeed, most execs on the call talked of their fondness for ‘urban’ and what it’s meant to their career).

Republic’s move, announced earlier this month, saw the Universal label slam the use of ‘urban’ as “outdated”, while encouraging other companies in the music industry to follow its example.

(Side-note: Republic parent company Universal Music Group – who didn’t have a rep on the Zoom call – doesn’t seem entirely on board with Republic’s move. The Financial Times reports that an internal email from UMG Task Force For Meaningful Change, headed by Jeff Harleston and Ethiopia Habtemariam, issued a company-wide memo this week which said that Republic made its announcement without the “notification or endorsement” of the Task Force. It added: “Moving forward we ask that labels, business units and companies consult and work with the [Task Force] on all initiatives relating to diversity, inclusion and equity prior to implementing or announcing a change in policy.”)

Republic’s banning of ‘urban’ was the central point of debate during the Warner Records-hosted Zoom discussion, which saw leading execs from the likes of Atlantic Records, Columbia Records, 300 Entertainment, Human Re Sources, the Recording Academy and CMNTY Culture contribute their thoughts.

One exec who is no great fan of the ‘urban’ descriptor is Rayna Bass, Head of Marketing at 300 Entertainment. Bass, who works for one of the few black CEOs in the blockbuster record business – 300 boss Kevin Liles – requested to have ‘Urban’ removed from her job title two years ago.

Bass said: “I feel like ‘urban’ is the politically correct way to say black. And, doing research, it seems it was formed as a way to make black music and black culture more palatable to white people… I do understand the need for it 40 years ago, but today I find it to be restrictive and outdated; I don’t need that [word] in my title to know that I’m black.”

“In my experience, urban has been used to keep black executives at a certain level [so] we’re not able to participate at the highest levels.”

Rayna Bass, 300 Entertainment

She added: “When hip-hop became the No.1 genre, I was like, it’s not [about] a seat at the hip-hop table – [because] there’s one table now. We are leading this [industry] so I’m not going to be marginalized.”

Bass proudly explained that, in line with Liles’ genre-agnostic viewpoint, 300 has black woman currently working on rock, pop and hip-hop artists and “because of that I believe they’re going to have more opportunity”.

“In my experience,” said Bass, “‘urban’ has been used to keep black executives at a certain level [so] we’re not able to participate at the highest levels.”

Of Republic’s announcement, she commented: “My first reaction was, y’know, who’s black that works at Republic? I’ve [since] educated myself on that, but that was my first reaction to [try and] understand who weighed in on this decision.”

A different perspective on ‘urban’ was offered by Columbia and Sony/ATV’s Shawn Holiday.

Speaking on the Zoom discussion – entitled A View From The Frontline, which you can watch below – Holiday explained why he’s proud to have ‘urban’ in his job title.

“Now that urban’s more mainstream, I embrace the word,” he said. “I don’t want to shy away from it, or feel like I [shouldn’t] use the word anymore just because it’s the topic of conversation. I don’t think there’s anything personally negative about keeping ‘Urban Music’ in our title.”

He added: “Changing the word urban is really just a Band-Aid to the real conversation. [The bigger issue] is about the way black artists and executives are treated – that we’re not just a personal of color in the room, that we have a real voice.

“Another label should not make me rush into my blackness. So I’m not going to do that right now.”

Phylicia Fant, Columbia Records

“I see the way [major music companies] spend money on white projects compared to the money invested in black music, the money they’ll spend at radio for an urban artist compared to a white artist, and those are real changes that need to happen. We need to keep putting the pressure on.”

Holiday’s co-Head of Urban at Columbia, Phylicia Fant, agreed. She made the point that, to her ‘urban’ is a label that represents “the expertise of the music we oversee and have the conversations with our community, [and] that we live and breathe”.

Of Republic’s decision to axe ‘urban’, and whether others should follow suit, Fant said: “I don’t think we [as an industry] should rush into any decision. Another label should not make me rush into my blackness.”

Another defender of the ‘urban’ term was a fellow Columbia exec, Azim Rashid (SVP, Head of Urban Promotion), who opened with the view that “urban is synonymous with blackness, and blackness is synonymous with greatness”.

Speaking to the Zoom call’s presenter, broadcaster Dyana Williams, Rashid added: “I do not think the term should be limiting. I understand how people can see it that way, and I also think we can have the best of both worlds. I live [urban], I breathe, it, I’m an expert in it, and it’s gotten me this far.”

Rashid later raised the important point that artists identifying as ‘urban’ – just like artists in other genres – can be elevated to ‘pop’ status when they break into the mainstream. But when their popularity inevitably descends again, knowing where they came from, genre-wise, can be a blessing.

“One thing I always talk to our artists about is that popularity, the ‘pop’ space, that’s a vacation.”

Azim Rashid, Columbia Records

He said that the moment a previously ‘urban’ artist who went ‘pop’ doesn’t have a hit “they go back to being black”. Rashid reasoned that “without shoring up that black base [beforehand], those artists could be a one hit wonder”.

He added: “One thing I always talk to our artists about is that popularity, the ‘pop’ space, that’s a vacation. You live in rock, you live in jazz, you live in hip-hop, alternative, you live there. But when you get that record, two records, in some [cases], ten albums, and you become a huge superstar [in pop], that’s a vacation.

“You don’t want that vacation to end, but sooner or later it does – for everybody – and you fly back to the ground and to your roots. That’s why it’s important for us to own the urban space.”

Marsha St. Hubert, Co-Head of Marketing at Atlantic Records, works with artists ranging from Lil Uzi Vert to Lizzo, Cardi B and Burna Boy. St. Hubert says she “couldn’t relate” to Republic’s decision to banish the word from its company.

“I didn’t understand it…. it isn’t for me,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with the word urban. Part of this conversation is the subtle whitewashing of the culture that’s continuing to happen now because [black music] is so successful. This wasn’t a conversation [in the past].”

She added: “I don’t subscribe to the whitewashing of our culture and removing ‘black’ and ‘urban’ because now [that music] is so financially successful in this country, it sits at the top of the charts. I don’t ever want to lose that so I can’t understand why that would be taken out of the conversation.”

“I’m never going to trade my blackness in order to move forward. Whether it’s ‘urban’ or it’s black, I’m taking that word with me no matter where I go.”

Marsha St. Hubert, Atlantic Records

Continued St. Hubert: “I don’t want to have to take urban out of my name to be able to grow out of my [current job level]. If I want it in there, I should be able to keep urban or black music or whatever it is… It’s like, in order to be bigger than the culture, you have to remove this thing. No, I don’t want to be bigger than the culture. The culture is actually bigger than you guys. And I want to take this culture with me as I go onwards and upwards.”

Towards the end of the Zoom discussion, St. Hubert summed up her thoughts: “I’m never going to trade my blackness in order to move forward. Whether it’s urban or it’s black, I’m taking that word with me no matter where I go.”

On St. Hubert’s point about hip-hop becoming a financially successful genre, Columbia’s Rashid commented: “[For] black people, specifically in hip-hop, because we’re the dominating economic force today, [this] becomes a complex conversation.

“Marsha hit it dead on: if hip-hop wasn’t running the world, what we call ourselves wouldn’t matter. Because of the economic power it brings and [the fact] it’s opened itself up to all people… this becomes a systemic conversation. And being the originators of the craft, and the proponents, for the most part, of the culture of hip-hop, we need a bigger stake.”

Chris Atlas, SVP, Head of Urban Marketing, Warner Records, said he took offence to Republic’s axing of ‘urban’ when he first heard about it because “it didn’t address the systemic issues”.

He reasoned that ‘urban’ is “not necessarily about an ethnicity” and that “a lot of people all make up the word urban – it’s black people, Latin people, Asian people, white people”.

Atlas suggested that, to him, the bigger issue at play is “making sure that we address the issues of opportunity for diversity and inclusion in all areas of the business, whether it’s relating to the urban department, or is black and brown people [who] want to work in the country department, the jazz department, the gospel department or whatever it needs to be.

“Removing a word doesn’t change the systemic problems in terms of: are we really creating opportunities?”

Chris Atlas, Warner Records

“Removing a word doesn’t change the systemic problems in terms of: are we really creating opportunities? And if removing a word could actually limit opportunities because that specialization, you’re taking [that opportunity] away or diminishing it. That’s part of what we need to talk about as well.”

Atlas noted that he’d “never felt limited as an executive in the industry because I’m black”. He added: “At no point have I ever felt like I got passed over for an opportunity because my work ethic has always spoken and represented for me.”

St. Hubert commented in response: “I know a lot of people who didn’t work as hard as us who are sitting in corner offices that we’re not in.”

J.Erving, founder of distribution and services company Human Re Sources, encouraged those who wanted to further the black community in music to work with black-owned artist services companies. (Alongside his own, these include Troy Carter’s Q&A and Steve Stoute’s United Masters.)

Of Republic’s decision, Erving said: “To me it’s not about the word. It’s about the treatment [of] black executives. To me, it’s n***er, negro, black, African-American… if you’re still going to treat us like n***ers then that’s just what it is. I think the treatment’s got to change. Systemically, there’s issues that need to be fixed. There’s a lot of education that needs to happen.”

The Recording Academy, which runs the Grammys, has been a constant in the ‘urban’ conversation. At the Grammys last year, Tyler The Creator suggested the ‘urban’ descriptor was “just a politically correct way to say the N-word”..

And just the other week, the Grammys renamed its ‘Best Urban Contemporary Album’ category as ‘Best Progressive R&B Album’ – in order to “appropriately categorize and describe this subgenre”.

Len Brown, the Recording Academy’s Project Manager for Rap, R&B & Reggae, said on the Zoom call that he understood why artists would be keen to change the “catch all” term for awards categories.

“To me it’s not about the word. It’s about the treatment [of] black executives.”

J.Erving, Human Re Sources

“The word urban, whether we like it, hate it, embrace it or not, it’s just a word,” he said. “And it’s a pebble in the sea of the issues we have to face.”

That point was drilled home by Malik Rasheed, founder of CMNTY Culture, who said that the black community needed to work to “address the systemic racism” in the blockbuster music industry and its biggest companies.

“Record companies are just a microcosm of what we’re seeing around the country right now. and the only reason this [issue] got important for a second is because people are feeling guilt and shame,” he said.

Added Rasheed: “We’re being complicit in marginalizing ourselves by not leveraging ourselves. The numbers [i.e. record sales and streams for black artists] speak to us being in a certain [executive] positions, so why aren’t we there? The fact of the matter is we haven’t supported each other in the fashion that we’re supposed to.”Music Business Worldwide

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