‘Urban’ music drawn into controversy amid US racial reckoning

The reckoning over racial injustice sweeping the US has ignited a fierce debate within the world’s largest music company over the contentious term “urban” music.

Republic Records, the label behind Drake and Ariana Grande, told staff it would stop using the “antiquated” term in its business in the wake of protests over the police killing of George Floyd last month.

But on Monday top black executives at parent company Universal Music said the move was taken without their “notification or endorsement”, according to an internal memo seen by the FT. 

The use of the term urban music dates back to the 1970s, when DJ Frankie Crocker coined it to describe the eclectic music he played from black artists. The term helped radio stations sell advertising to brands who might have chafed at the word black.

Prominent artists have argued the term segregates them from other popular acts and promotes stereotypes.

After Republic’s announcement that it would stop using the term, Jeff Harleston and Ethiopia Habtemariam, two senior Universal executives appointed to lead an internal task force on diversity, took issue with the decision.

They wrote: “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.”

Last week the Recording Academy removed urban music from some of the Grammys categories.

Warner Music, the third-largest music label, is leaning towards ceasing use of the word, but is still consulting with employees, who hold a wide range of views, said people familiar with the situation.

Warner Music, which owns the Atlantic Records label that is home to acts such as Cardi B, this month announced a $100 million fund ‘to support charitable causes related to the music industry, social justice and campaigns against violence and racism.’ © Getty Images for Universal Pictu

The divide in the music industry reflects the complexities companies face in navigating a historic uprising over racial inequity.

It comes as the American music business, which has throughout its history relied on the innovation of black artists, confronts inequality that persists across its ranks.

Earlier this year when Tyler, the Creator won best rap album at the Grammy awards — another category dominated by black music — he said the nod was a “backhanded compliment”.

“It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that’s genre-bending or that’s anything they always put it in a rap or urban category,” he said. “Why can’t we be in pop?”

The term urban music also has implications for how companies structure their businesses: many record labels have departments dedicated to the category that find and develop their own artists and allocate marketing budgets.

At Warner-owned Atlantic Records, home to acts such as Cardi B, there is a president of Black Music, while Columbia Records, which houses Beyoncé, has an urban music department.

“This is a much more complex issue than I think some people may realise,” said Mr Harleston, interim chief executive of Def Jam and general counsel for Universal Music. “If you’re a group of people at an urban department, and you sign and develop an artist that goes on to be one of the biggest . . . you’re proud. That’s something the urban department did. There is ownership that goes with it.”

But on the other hand, he said: “Does it put you in the box . . . as though it’s something less-than?”

Ms Habtemariam, president of Motown records, said: “People kind of jumped the gun in throwing it out there, more as a headline in my opinion, and not really understanding the real implications.”

“Considering the fact that we are Universal Music Group, the position we take on this is extremely important. We’re conscious of it.”

The issue is one of many topics faced by the Universal task force, which is comprised of nearly 40 top black executives. The company commands about a third of the $20bn global recorded music market.

The group has committed $25m to supporting legal services and bail funds and is also looking to help push forward legislation that challenges systemic discrimination. 

Ms Habtemariam, who signed acts such as Migos, is optimistic about the potential for progress. “I don’t think we’ve ever had this opportunity that we have right now, to have significant change,” she said.