Kevin Harewood: An "Urban Music" History is forgotten

 

(June 10, 2020) A few days ago I read a statement that Universal Music Group's Republic Records label will no longer use the title "Urban" to describe departments, employee titles and music genres.  The announcement from the label that is home (or has been home) to the likes of Drake, Kid Cudi, The Weekend, Justin Skye, Lil Wayne and others further states, "While this change will not and does not affect any of our staff structurally it will remove the use of an antiquated term.  We encourage the rest of the music industry to consider following suit as it is important to shape the future or what we want it to look like as not to adhere to the outdated structures of the past."

 

(June 10, 2020) A few days ago I read a statement that Universal Music Group's Republic Records label will no longer use the title "Urban" to describe departments, employee titles and music genres.  The announcement from the label that is home (or has been home) to the likes of Drake, Kid Cudi, The Weekend, Justin Skye, Lil Wayne and others further states, "While this change will not and does not affect any of our staff structurally it will remove the use of an antiquated term.  We encourage the rest of the music industry to consider following suit as it is important to shape the future or what we want it to look like as not to adhere to the outdated structures of the past."

This move was made in the illuminating period that has seen worldwide protest following the brutal murder by police of 46 year old George Floyd.  Floyd's killing is just the latest in a long line of black persons being killed by police.  The list includes names like Bell, Chamberlain, Graham, Bland, Carey, Taylor, Rice and way too many others.  Immediately some gave Republic's decision a virtual round of applause.  Others greeted the announcement with proverbial "Bronx cheer".  This announcement brought me to reflect on the history of the term and wonder if somehow it is being lost.

In the mid to late 1970's Frankie Crocker was Program Director of New York's WBLS FM, the flagship station of black owned Inner City Broadcasting Company.  Hal Jackson was the Vice President of Inner City, which grew to have additional holdings in Los Angeles, Northern California, Detroit and San Antonio.  WBLS was branded as "The Total Black Experience," yet rose to a point where it was the number one rated station in the nation's number one market.  Ratings showed that a significant amount of white folk joined the black core audience in listening to the station.  The sales department found that getting certain types of advertising (and certain advertising rates) was difficult, despite the fact the station had better overall ratings than its general market competition.  The reasoning was the station was "Black."  In response, Crocker with the backing of Jackson and majority owners The Sutton Family, coined the format "Urban" with a desire to widen the advertising logbook.  Mr. Jackson was the first person I personally heard use the term while I was a young college student working as part of the staff of A&M Records New York office.

Knowledge of the origins of the term bring the realization that it was born out of injustice and racial discrimination.  I wonder if decision makers at Republic (and elsewhere) realize the level to which such discrimination still exists today.  I wonder if they realize the level to which they are complicit in such existence.

An example: In the past, independent black owned records stores partnered with labels in supporting a vibrant cultural artistic base and consumer base.  It was win-win as owners were able to support their families, give jobs to young persons, and serve as pillars of their neighborhoods, while the labels were able to financially benefit in a market that otherwise was outside their range. Yet the labels did not throw much of a saving rope at these "partners" when that previously "outside" music became more "inside" at the big box retail locations.  Or when they told us that folks no longer wanted to have to carry their music purchases home, they just wanted to click on Itunes (both moves that helped eliminate stores that were important to black communities in a myriad of ways).

So when I ponder this "urban" decision and read the implication that no structural change will occur I am moved to raise some of the following points:

1) Republic and other entities make a significant portion of their revenue from black music artists.  Will they promote black music executives to higher levels of their corporate ladder and give them authority over the roster outside of just black acts?

2) Will they sign artists (and release music) that represent the wide range of talents and appeal that our community has?  We are not a monolith!  The music released to us should not be monolithic either.

3) Will they spend money with black owned or black supportive media outlets (websites, blogger, traditional and nontraditional radio, magazines etc) or will they just take them for granted?

4) Will they increase internship and employment opportunities to a point where the staff representation is proportionate with the amount of revenue generated?

In my opinion, to change what you call something without changing structure or actions is often not a change at all.  As a native New Yorker I know that the subway no longer takes tokens.  I don't think we should either!

Kevin Harewood is an entertainment industry veteran based in Newark, N.J.  His forthcoming film project is entitled "Am I Black Enough 4 You?!?!" starring renowned comedian A.J. Jamal and actor E. George Perry.  It also features acting turns by acclaimed music artists Carmen Rodgers, Maya Azucena and Monet and has score music produced by V. Jeffrey Smith of The Family Stand.

 
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