The music industry has always felt it needs a term to describe music made by Black musicians. Back in the day, these were called “race records,” which then morphed into “rhythm and blues,” a phrase created back in the 50s by Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records.
When rap and hip-hop arrived, the industry decided that a new name was warranted. Enter “urban” music, which has expanded to include “Urban music” a wide variety of sounds including hip-hop, rap, soul, funk, and reggae. Some even include Latin flavours of the same sort of sounds.
The person who came up with the idea was Frankie Cocker, a New York radio host on WBLS, one of the biggest Black music radio stations on the planet. Today, record labels have urban departments and radio stations across the US use the word to describe their format, including “urban contemporary” and “urban adult contemporary.”
Not everyone was happy with the term, saying it carries false connotations and pigeonholes people. However, events of the last few months have seen the descriptor come under much criticism. Some saying that the term is outdated and doesn’t reflect any kind of diversity in the music, the people who make it, and the people who enjoy listening to it.
Without getting too deep into what’s been a long-running debate, “urban” is has turned into a politically correct code for “Black” and a way of making this music and culture palatable for white folk. People within the industry who have the “urban” attached to their job title are feeling increasingly marginalized. Republic Records was the first label to remove the term from its vernacular. Other parts of the music industry have moved to expunge the word from official use. Others, however, have no trouble with the concept.
For the most part, this is an American debate but it does open up a discussion about Black music in the wider world. Music Business Worldwide has an excellent discussion on the matter here. It’s worth reading. You can also watch this debate on the subject.