5). The Problem With Urban

The term 'urban' has caused myriad problems for Black artists working in the music industry, argues Nina Robinson, who helped launch BBC 1Xtra.

A microphone resting on a mixing desk.

Rounding up very distinct music genres, such as Hip-Hop, Soul and R&B, whose only seeming connection is that they are largely performed by Black artists and putting them all into a box labelled ‘urban’, is no longer acceptable practise in the UK music industry. In a new pledge to stamp out racism, it’s listed at the top of the Ten Point Action Plan from UK Music – an umbrella organisation representing the UK music industry, which states that the:

“Urban classification [should be] replaced in all reports and communications - either by genre, such as Soul or Rap; UK Music members will commit to support those who wish to use the term ‘black music’.“

How did a word come to be so associated with racial discrimination and injustice? The use of ‘urban’ by the music industry, was seen as an act of ‘silo-ing’ Black artists, lumping them into one homogenous group and tarring a wide expanse of Black talent with a very broad and biased brush. Some music industry executives used the categorisation to marginalise Black artists, justifying the signing of white artists and not of Black artists. The X-Factor winner, Alexandra Burke, said in an Instagram video, that she had been told by a record producer; “I already have one Black artist, I don’t need another”.

Conversely, the categorisation keeps Black artists in one box, limiting their success and exposure to different audiences. The huge hit song by Lil Nas X ‘Old Town Road’, was easily slotted into the Hip-Hop/Rap category, but was removed by Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for not ‘embracing enough elements of country music’. 

The term ‘urban’ sits uncomfortably for many. After his win in the ‘urban’ music category at the 2020 Grammy’s, the artist, Tyler, The Creator, said:

“I don’t like that word, it’s like a politically correct way of saying the N-word to me”.

Will Dropping ‘Urban’ and Reclaiming ‘Black Music’ Really Change Systemic Racist Issues or Solve Underlying Diversity and Inclusion Problems that are Inherent to the British Music Industry?

For me, as a member of the launch team for BBC Radio 1Xtra, which, in 2002, burst onto the music landscape under the banner ‘The Home of New Black Music’, the change from ‘Black’ to ‘urban’ means a lot. 1Xtra’s original tagline proudly represented Black culture with a diverse set of DJs; from the Rampage Duo, known for their legendary sound system at Notting Hill Carnival, to Robbo Ranx, with his expansive network of contacts in Jamaican dancehall, to DJ Flight, who quietly took her place behind the decks via pirate radio for appreciative Drum ‘n’ Bass fans. When the marketing of the station changed, and ‘Black’ was dropped and replaced, not only with ‘urban’, but also with ‘street’ music monikers, it was a signifier of change. Arguably, the loss of the ‘Black music’ identifier was whitewashing a rich history, severing Black musical roots and leaving open the door to cultural appropriation. 

For decades, the term ‘urban’ has been used as a classification by record companies, which is thought to date back to 1974, when it was used by a radio station in New York. It was dreamt up by (white) marketing strategists who were packaging Black music whilst minimising attention to the Black artist; offering an acceptable face to the white mainstream, to attract more listeners and advertising dollars. The term’s history is also linked to the US federal clean-up programmes of the 1950s and ‘60s that targeted slums and Black people living in poverty. Urban was negatively connected to being poor and Black. It’s worth noting that, before ‘urban’, the term ‘race records’ was used. ‘Urban’ was deemed to be less offensive by white music executives, even though ‘race records’ had helped generate income for a Black music industry and implicitly acknowledged its debt to Black people. The ‘urban’ classification hid the racial element, and would also ghetto-ise Black artists. Some of the Black artists who were marketed in this way went on to forge highly successful careers, and were loved by audiences globally. These included Stevie Wonder, Barry White and The Stylistics. 

Debate on the use of the term ‘urban’ by the music industry had been ongoing for decades, but pressure to finally drop it, gathered pace amid the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, when Ariana Grande and Drake’s label, Republic Records, announced that they would be erasing it “from their verbiage in describing departments, employee titles and music genres”.

For many in the British music industry, the word ‘urban’ will not be missed. Vin Gadher, a music producer and promoter, thinks it was always pretty meaningless.

“To me, it is what music they make, the genre of music they make. Is it Soul? Is it R&B? Is it Jazz? Rather than calling it ‘urban’. What is urban?” 

Yaw Owuso, a music entrepreneur who has managed artists as exec. at the Playmaker Group, which is based in Liverpool, agrees. He sees some benefit in using the term from a marketing perspective, because he thinks it helps ‘broaden things’ and removes the political element from the music, since he sees how the term ‘black -- as a small b or capital B is very political’. The removal of these associations from music and artist, he thinks, may help to sell more records. This is far from proven to be the case. 

Jay Davidson, launch and brand manager at 1Xtra for 4 years from 2002 says she was disappointed when ‘Black music’ was dropped from all branding.  But she was not surprised. “‘Black music’ was seen as a barrier in trying to grow the station to a majority white audience”. She thinks that audience research may have indicated that white listeners would feel “alienated” and that 1Xtra did “not reflect them”. Station management, she feels, could not afford for potential listeners to “feel excluded”.

Ultimately, Yaw Owuso finds ‘urban’ to be problematic. 

“I see it as a catch-all term that allows white artists to do what is classed as Black music, it felt like it was to champion them. So, I think the change is good to show there is a wind of change. I don’t think anyone will be fighting to keep it”.

When BBC 1Xtra lost its ‘Black music’ tagline, there was a shift felt by some people working at the station. Whilst it is not possible to distinguish correlation and causality, a change in the proportion of Black and ethnic minority staff working on and off-air has been noted by some. In their award-winning Black Lives Matter inspired show, 1Xtra Talks, long-time 1Xtra DJs, Ace and Seani B, bared their souls, as Black men, they spoke of the institutional racism that they had encountered in their lives, including inside the workplace. 

Seani B, who has been a DJ at the station for 18 years, noted that if ‘we looked different’, then his career would have moved further along, since he had been denied his chance to have a ‘good crack’ at the work he had dedicated his life to. He knows this was due to the perception that, as a Black man, he was less ‘palatable’ than white DJs. Just as ‘urban’ was supposed to make Black music acceptable to (white) audiences, maybe a white DJ could package Black music with a wider appeal to British listeners. 

That the radio industry has a serious diversity and inclusion problem is not really in any doubt. According to Ofcom’s 2019 diversity report, in BBC Radio as a whole, only 9% of staff are from a black and ethnic minority, which drops to 6% at senior leadership levels. Commercial radio is even worse, with only 6% of all staff at Bauer Media, which includes Kiss FM, and no senior leaders. 

Speaking to one long time senior 1Xtra employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, the lack of diversity in youth music radio at the BBC is plain to see. As they sit and speak via Zoom on the 8th floor of New Broadcasting House, on a busy workday, they survey the room and can see only two other Black producers across not only 1Xtra, but also its sister station, Radio 1.

“A lot of people left last year. That was among this whole ‘Black Lives Matter’ stuff – we lost 5 DJs over the summer, including Sideman. That was crazy.” 

In August 2020, DJ Sideman resigned from his Saturday mid-morning show on 1Xtra as a result of his employer’s refusal to condemn the use of the N-word by a white news journalist. 

A multitude of listening sessions took place at the BBC over the summer of 2020, which led to an outpouring of painful and traumatic experiences detailing incidents of bullying and everyday microaggressions for staff of colour who work at the organisation. 

1Xtra had become a stepping stone for white people to move into Radio 1, rather than a destination for people who want to celebrate 1Xtra’s music and culture, according to an insider source. 

“Nobody is saying that you have to be Black or brown to appreciate Black culture, obviously not, but people being hired, who were not Black or brown …didn’t have the integrity to work on the station.” 

The 1Xtra employee explains how an appreciation of 1Xtra’s music was simply not a requirement of the job. At recruitment boards, interview questions to potential employees did not reference Black culture. Instead, “you could get the job by talking about generic things, like the Olympics: 

”, but when it came down to explaining how important Nipsey Hussle [an American rapper] was, those kinds of questions were not being asked and therefore, “diversity was tough”.

Would Reclaiming ‘Black Music’ Help to Solve the Problem? 

Reclaiming the ‘Black’ in ‘Black music’ will not solve systemic racism, but for many people of colour in the British music industry, it is at least an acknowledgment of where the music comes from. Vin Gadher was manager of ‘The Skatalites’ in the 1990s. He says that they would probably tell you that their Ska sound came from: 

“… listening to Jazz and Mento, so the history there is long. I think the Black sound comes in a spiritual way. It is the Soul-ness of it.” 

A New York Times audio series, 1619 podcast traces the deep roots of Black music in the birth of American music itself. It tracks how the Black sound has permeated all genres today. It can be heard in the ‘gravelly tones of the white singer Kenny Loggins’ for example; “like he is scraping the bottom of a pan to get all the good bits off of it before you pour the gravy in”.

Black music has become the popular culture, according to music exec., Yaw Owusu. 

“Streaming has allowed us to measure this impact in the mainstream, and it is undeniable” he says, “people have known that Hip-Hop is the biggest form of music forever,” but it was only when the download figures from streaming sites were revealed, that “the maths and the push through of Black music… as the dominant genre of music” became clear.”

Latest figures compiled by Billboard/MRC Data show that the number one category for audio and video streams and downloads in the US were for Rap/Hip Hop/R&B, followed by Rock and then Pop

Given that this is the case, you might expect that ‘Black music’ is the principal sound that is recognisable on the A playlist of 1Xtra’s sister station, Radio 1. Radio 1 enjoys a rich historical legacy on UK analogue radio that dates back to 1967. 1Xtra was launched on DAB just under two decades ago. Radio 1’s lineage affords it an elevated status, with the budget to match (£38 million compared to 1Xtra’s £8 million). 

Disparity between the stations exists on many levels, the big one is the weekly listening figures which, for Radio 1, is ten times greater than for its ‘sister’ station. It may be more accurate to say that 1Xtra is the ‘poor cousin’ of Radio 1.

“Black culture is furnishing popular culture, which is fabulous, as long as we remember where it started.” For a senior 1Xtra employee, respecting this fact is a key element of any successful diversity and inclusion policies in music radio.

‘Respect’, is one of the three litmus tests that are detailed in the If Ever You’re Listening blog for recognising the cultural appropriation of music. The other two are: giving credit to Black artists, and, to ensure something new is made from what came before, rather than just taking it as your own.

In an emotional and highly charged radio appearance, in 2014, the Black artist, Azealia Banks, speaks of how hurtful she finds the white Australian ‘rapper’, Iggy Azalia, who, in one of her lyrics, refers to being ‘a runaway slave master’. Iggy Azalia was nominated for a Grammy award in the rap category. 

“I feel just like, in this country, whenever it comes to our things – like Black issues or Black politics or Black music … there’s this undercurrent of kinda, like, a ‘fuck you’.” Banks refers to there being a cultural “smudge out”, which “tells Black kids you don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself.”

Former 1Xtra DJ Flight, keenly feels there has been cultural appropriation of Black music in the Drum ‘n’ Bass scene. She was part of the original 1Xtra launch team and hosted a weekly show for 5 years, until 2007. The roots of DnB are embedded in Jamaican sound systems; Jazz, Funk, Soul and Reggae. But when the Drum ‘n’ Bass label, Hospital Records, bought the rights to the back catalogue of Reggae label, Jet Star, in 2020, all of the 18 remixes they put out were by white producers, except for 1 

”The amount of people who think it’s just fine to sample any old Ragga vocal – they don’t even know what the person is saying, but they stick it into the tune, they put red, yellow and green on their artwork …that kind of shit – very superficial.”

She also notes the switch to white DJs at the BBC. In a team which used to consist of 5 Black DJs across both Radio 1 and 1Xtra (DJ Flight, L Double, Bailey, Fabio & Grooverider), today, in 2021, there is only one white Canadian, representing British DnB music.

 “I could feel my whole career and achievements being erased before my eyes” she says.

1Xtra’s Ace and Seani B also feel as if their music has been taken from them and replaced by white line-ups. In their Black Lives Matter Talks Special they explain how;

“Our aesthetics are scary, so [the solution is] let’s give people what’s not scary to deliver the music they love, which is our music.”

Seani then lays down his truth, and asks a question that is inspired by seeing so many white artists representing Reggae and Dancehall, both on radio and on festival rosters: “Can you imagine if I was a white Dancehall DJ??” He is thought to be referring to a disparity in treatment and opportunities offered to the white Dancehall DJ, Toddla T, who left 1Xtra after 11 years in August, 2020, during the summer of Black Lives Matter protests. Toddla T is also married to veteran Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac.

1Xtra has recently appointed its first Black Station Head, Faron McKenzie. Music executive, Yaw Owusu, knows him, and thinks that, “moving Black people into positions of influence” will see things “play out very differently”.Already, line-ups are starting to change. Rampage and The Heartless Crew are among the Black DJs who have been brought back to the schedules.

Historic Racial Inequalities and Exploitation Play Out Today 

After decades working in the UK music industry with Jamaican and South Asian artists, Vin Gadher is “still shocked” by how many white faces he sees, even in departments representing global regions whose populations are Black or brown. He is concerned about the exploitation of Black artists.

“As musicians [The Skatalites] were highly respected but, economically, they weren’t. When I discovered them again in the 1990s, they were in New York State doing manual jobs, and I was thinking; “These guys are geniuses, why haven’t they been given the income due to them?”

It is a common complaint voiced by music industry diversity campaigners, pointing to systemic inequalities resulting in poor contract terms for Black artists when they are signed. Shauni Caballero, speaking to Power Up, a long-term initiative to address racial disparities in the music sector, says, “I tell them, they have a duty – the major labels especially --because you profit so heavily off these artists, there are certain things you need to tell them… at least give them the basics of understanding [about] their publishing rights.”

Exploitative practises in the music industry date way back too, of course. In the 1950s, the father of rock n’ roll, Chuck Berry, spoke of his managers and promoters, “who were usually friends, or businessmen, as there was a lot of money transacted that I didn’t’ know about,” he said in a BBC interview

When the interviewer asks him what advice he would give to a young artist, he replies;

“Major in math, then take up music, which is really half math, and then major in human nature.” 

This remains essential advice for Black music artists in 2021. 

Long-term plans to address systemic racism are currently underway, instigated by influential UK music industry insiders on a variety of fronts. These include Power Up, which offers grants to Black creators, combined with professional network support. The founder of the MOBO Awards, Kanya King, is launching a platform to connect Black people to mentors, and the Black Music Coalition presents a manifesto for change. For Yaw Owusu, the solution ultimately lies in “independence and autonomy”. He gives Stormzy and Jamal Edwards as examples to follow.

“We are seeing that people want independence from the corporations. What Jay Z is doing in America, and there is a lot of social and structural stuff to do”.

He says it will all take time, another generation perhaps.

As for black music on Radio 1 and 1Xtra, DJ Flight puts it succinctly; “nothing really changes at the BBC”. 

If a new generation of music artists have any hope of breaking free from the systemic racism in an industry where it runs deep, pulling off the disguise of a well wrapped up term, such as ‘urban’ is an obvious first step. If the huge and continued success of Black music tells us anything, it’s that audiences do not need a dilution or cover-up of ‘Black’ to make it more marketable or palatable. Recognising its history and culture through people who work in those industries today is necessary to reveal those connections between what happened before and what is still happening today.