ur•ban (ˈɜr bən)
1. of, pertaining to, or comprising a city or town.
2. living in a city.
3. characteristic of or accustomed to cities; citified.
[Latin urbānus=urb-, s. of urbs city + -ānus]
I’ve had something of a chip on my shoulder since young when it comes to the word “urban.” It was a word I noticed seemed to start making more and more regular appearances in my life, as I grew, and began to make more and more progression within the music and media world. “Ah, Jason, can you write us something coming with an ‘urban’ perspective?” “Ah, have you got any new songs to show us? We want something a little more ‘urban.’” etc. etc…ah…the way it jars me. I see through you instantly. It’s pain. I know what you wanna say. Over years, I’ve decided through my own growth that this cannot be allowed to run. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but to me, it’s demeaning, even laden with contempt. Why are you so scared to say black? I know you mean black. You want some music from predominantly black artists, right? It’s ok to be honest. You don’t have to be so scared of your honesty. It’s like when people want to describe someone from an ethnic background, but is terrified to mention their levels of melanin. Someone will actively mention every other trait, from their hairstyle down to whether their second toe is longer than the big one, before they discuss the person’s ethnic background or melanin levels. Now when I hear the word urban, it almost sounds like a veiled slur.
Why is there such a fear of being honest about what we’re talking about? I thought we were living in an age that was hellbent on destroying every single taboo and societal norm? There’s nothing bad about being honest and true, calling black when something is predominantly eluding to black people or culture.
I guess my problem with the word “urban” is that it feels like somewhat of a par. Perhaps I’m wrong, but from what I can see, people only re-appropriated “urban” for silly reasons: from fear — either fear of the reaction from black people when asking for or talking about their music, fear of offending anyone, fear of slipping up and committing some form of crime. If not fear, then what? To disassociate some of the positives that we have attached to our culture? To me, the word “urban” has taken on the ugly connotations that people may have once tried to press onto “black.” Deeper than that, we should attribute the positives that come to their true origins; of course, a lot of the artists nominated for MOBOs come from inner-city areas in 2016. But if we’re honest, the majority of the influence comes from BLACK music, not inner city music. Dancehall culture, African drumming and even negro spirituals…look back at the definition of the word urban; what connection do those things I listed really have to that word?
When I thought about this, I considered replacing the term “urban music” with “MoboMusic”, of course alluding to Music of Black Origin — but when I suggested this to my radio station manager, he (an elder white man) looked me dead in the eye & said “but isn’t all music of Black origin?” Now, I dunno about all of that, to be honest, I’m not gonna claim as so. My proposition WAS that we refer to music by black artists, of black origin, as black music? Is that entirely crazy? Is that rude? Would we be stepping on too many toes? Stop the tenuous links. Be real. It’s easier, isn’t it?
On the flipside, by labelling music “black” or “white” music creates division that’s not necessary. Perhaps by labelling music by race or ethnicity, we begin to carve out a boundary that doesn’t need to be highlighted. People often claim that by focussing on differences, we only continue to deepen schisms. While this holds some truth, by failing to identify the roots of culture, do we not equally lose a sense of identity or understanding of that culture? It’s a problem that perplexes me, as the loss of cultural heritage continues to happen at an alarming rate. Coexistence and multiculturalism does not equate to erasure of all culture, or even a shared belonging to all, but rather the ability to understand, partake in, or at the very least, live side by side by those who may have a completely different set of norms, rules and values to yourself.
Perhaps calling something black music would be detrimental, and lead only to stereotypes, as much as calling another type of music “white music.” Perhaps it gives too many connotations that make it appear that, because of prior stated labels, nobody of one racial group should listen to music of another? And that is never a thing I would endorse. Music is an experience that can and be shared regardless of who you are and where you’re from. It should be emotive, before being locational, or racial.
In summation, I’m not sure where I stand in this thought process. All I really know is that I hate the word urban. We’ve gotta do better in 2016. If anyone has a suggestion in how we can change this, or if I should just get over it, please…feel free to let me know.