Music of black origin: why urban is not a genre



As diverse UK urban artists continue to seep into a wider consciousness, Getintothis’ Olivia Douglas argues the case for ditching the catch-all term altogether. 

We’ve all witnessed the huge rise of the underground UK ‘urban’ scene into mainstream charts over the past 2 or 3 years, artists from Stormzy to Skepta to Lady Leshurr to Loyle Carner making their mark.

Of course any rise is always paired with controversy.

In the past couple of months, issues with the term ‘urban’ itself have arisen more frequently, and its not the first time either. What is urban music, and why are so many particularly diverse and individual genres pigeonholed under the same umbrella term when the only thing they have in common is that they’re of black origin?

It’s true that as underground rap genres have grown, they’ve been pigeonholed under this single umbrella term that fails to pay sufficient homage to the diversity of both sound and culture that characterises each distinct musical style. Under the ‘urban’ umbrella sit rap, hip-hop, trill, drill, grime, garage soul and R&B.

A whole spectrum of different genres with admittedly similar sounds to the unseasoned listener and, in all honestly, it takes a while to get out of the habit of describing all these genres as ‘urban’. The more you listen the more differences you notice sonically and, particularly if it’s something that you’re really into, you quickly begin to recognise the sub-cultures that stem from each one.

The over reliance on the term ‘urban’ detracts from the original qualities of modern music of black origin, not merely in terms of the music itself, but also in respect of the sub-cultures that stems from it.

So first, where did the term come from?

Looking into the history of ‘urban’, it was first coined by New York DJs in order to make black music more accessible, back when the descriptive word ‘black’ was laden with negative connotations.

The term was used to appeal to advertisers who felt that ‘black’ music wouldn’t reach a wide enough audience because of their assumption that, as good as it was, black music didn’t have a big enough market to keep radio stations in action.

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Looking up the word itself, the actual definition of ‘urban’ is ‘in, relating to, or characteristic of a town or city’, the second definition, ’denoting or relating to popular dance music of black origin’ and then the third, ’denoting popular black culture in general.

The first definition explains the link to black genres; a lot of the genres that sit under the urban generalisation originate from groups of people living in urban areas with life experiences that influence both the sound and the issues discussed lyrically.

The second two basically just mean black, so why is it that we don’t just use the word black?

Using the term ‘urban’, allows for the music to be re-appropriated and unintentionally claimed by artists such as Ed Sheeran, who was named ‘the most important act in black and urban music’ by Radio 1Xtra back in 2014.

Although I have massive respect for Ed, the fanbase he’s grown and the success he’s achieved, it can unequivocally be agreed that Ed Sheeran is not a black, nor an urban act. Music of black origin has long been claimed by white artists as their own, mainly because the music wouldn’t have achieved mainstream success if fronted by a black face.

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Rock n roll is influenced by jazz, rhythm and blues and was first explored by artists like Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, not Elvis Presley. Jazz was born in New Orleans, a fusion of African and Caribbean sounds cultivated by the grouping of these cultures due to the shipping of human slaves from their original homes to the US. By no means is this an accusation directed towards Ed, but a reminder that ‘urban’ can be applied to so much and, consequently can become so unnecessarily diluted.

Just to be clear, we all know that white people are able to rap too and that there are some big grime MCs or rappers that have built a lot of respect and success through their artistry. But the point to be made is that ‘urban’ music might barely exist without the rise in popularity of African-American hip-hop in the 90s and its subsequent resonance with black Londoners and their shared experience of gang culture.

Urban music is deemed as black music on account of its origins. The issues discussed in early grime, hip-hop and rap are issues experienced mainly by a black demographic due to the stigma that was once attached to being black, and a lot of the time that was something that couldn’t be understood or communicated by a white demographic. A key example is the MOBO awards, standing for Music of Black Origin – it doesn’t exclude anyone but recognises the origins of the music itself.

Don’t get me wrong, this article is not intended as a race-fuelled rant, but rather as a conversation starter and something to think about.

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Why do we seek to categorise such a diverse range of music and cultural heritage under a single umbrella term? This is particularly pertinent when we consider that the term ‘urban’ was originally intended as a more palatable alternative to the word black, freeing it from its then perceived negative connotations. Yet it seems increasingly anachronistic in an age where the word black is no longer deemed as negative and is in fact celebrated.

Notable names within the industry have expressed their unease with the use of the term and their want to eradicate it. DJ Semtex, Radio 1Xtra presenter, Spotify podcast presenter and all around legend within the industry for his presence at key cultural moments and securing some of the most exclusive interviews within hip-hop, rap and grime has discussed his distaste with the catch-all term, and he’s not alone.

Warner/Chappell‘s CEO & Chairman Jon Platt has also raised concerned with the word along with Virgin EMI’s general manager, Rob Pascoe.

Something also recognised a few years back by Peter Robinson, the Founder of online blog Pop Justice was the breaking of genre boundaries. In such a heavily saturated industry, many artists can now be identified and align themselves with a number of different genres, which is both good and bad. An album might have eight tracks that could each slot into a different genre, yet that artist may still establish themselves under a genre that only features once or twice in the album itself.

So perhaps this has added to the assumption that we don’t need to identify all different genres under the ‘urban’ umbrella as separate. It’s good that artists from different genres are able to cross over easily and with a lot of genres this is an effortless fusion, but that makes it all the more important to recognise that genres like hip-hop and grime specifically aren’t only genres, they’re cultures and they should be acknowledged for that.

It’s very easy to continue using the lazy term ‘urban’, because realistically what changes are going to be made now when it’s so widely recognised, but in an industry so heavily saturated now with a lot of music that can’t always be easily classified into a specific genre bracket, its important to give credit to those genres that do have a very clear uniqueness, originality and cultural individuality. ‘Urban’ is not a genre.