Last Tuesday, music professionals across the United States engaged in “Blackout Day:” a mostly well-intentioned show of support dedicated to scheming new ways to better support black people in all corners of the music industry. One of the most immediate ways record labels like Republic have shown that support has been to retire the word “urban,” denouncing the term as a catch-all word used to segregate black artists.
“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,” remarked Tyler the Creator in January, after his genre-hopping 2019 album, IGOR, won the Grammy for Best Rap Album. “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. That’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me. When I hear that, I think, ‘Why can’t we just be in pop?'”
The Recording Academy announced on Wednesday that it would rename its “Best Urban Contemporary Album” category at the Grammys, which has been newly christened as “Progressive R&B.” Still, the Grammys will continue to use “Urban” in the Latin field, where “Best Latin Pop Or Urban Album” remains untouched. “At the time that this category amendment proposal was put forth earlier in the year, use of the word ‘urban’ when classifying certain genres in Latin music was widely accepted,” Harvey Mason Jr., Chair & Interim President/CEO of the Recording Academy, told Rolling Stone. “However, we understand that in the current climate, sentiment might be changing. We are continuing to follow the conversation and are committed to making necessary adjustments.”
The term “música urbana,” or “urbano,” a direct Spanish translation of “urban music,” has been used across the Latin music industry for every Spanish-language byproduct of hip-hop: including rap en español, reggaeton, trap and dembow. But just as in the United States, the category has served as a kitchen sink where, apart from tropical and jazz genres, black Latinx artists are siloed and subsequently marginalized. This dynamic has become most visible in Latin Grammys ceremonies past, where black artists have rarely received accolades in mainstream categories like Record of the Year. Meanwhile, non-black rappers like Residente and Daddy Yankee have found greater success at the Latin Grammys than their black counterparts — which made it all the more notable when the latter boycotted the 2019 awards, arguing for more diverse nominees.
The Latin Recording Academy has taken steps to remedy its relationship with said artists by adding new categories for 2020, thus increasing their odds for victory. This past March, the Latin Grammys announced two new awards to debut at this year’s Latin Grammys ceremony: Best Reggaeton Performance and Best Rap/Hip-Hop Song, which will include trap and dembow music. Yet categories like Best Urban Fusion/Performance, Best Urban Music Album, and Best Urban Song, will remain.
“As a peer-based international organization, we follow the guidance of our members,” wrote a representative from the Latin Recording Academy to Rolling Stone. “Thanks to this process, we were able to implement some changes a few months ago. Nevertheless, we are sensitive to the current times and we will regroup with our members for additional feedback. As always, we invite our members to get involved with the Latin Academy.”
In the meantime, Latin music critics across the internet have proposed alternatives to urbano. On Wednesday the Latinx arts and culture website Remezcla announced that it would replace urbano with the term “el movimiento,” which means “the movement” in Spanish. It is derived from “el movimento urbano,” as used by the Dominican radio program Alofoke. (It also, perhaps unintentionally, harks back to El Movimiento: a term that originated with the Mexican-American civil rights movement of the Sixties and Seventies.)
“Within Latin music, urbano serves as a catch-all term for a diverse melange of Caribbean genres including Latin trap and reggaetón,” writes executive director Eduardo Cepeda. “But the term comes with a fraught and problematic history reeking of exclusion and othering, defining the beloved genres many artists fought for.”
Other critics followed with statements backing el movimiento. “Urbano reinforces racial stereotypes while simultaneously perpetuating a ‘commercial culture’ that has played a huge role in the erasure of gritty lyricism and black visibility,” writes music critic Jennifer Mota. “‘Urbano’ does not reflect the richness of the politics, passion and creativity of the varied sounds,” adds reggaeton scholar Katelina Eccleston. “El movimiento is an opportunity to reach back into the raices,” she says, referring to reggaeton, reggae and rap en español’s legacy of political resistance.
As for many of the genres’ artists, both eluded and diluted by marketing terms like urbano, the discourse around the word remains to be in its early stages. In a recent interview on Rapetón, journalist El Guru posed the question of urbano’s name to Puerto Rican rappers Nicky Jam and Tempo. “I think that term was created when they wanted to get in the Grammys,” says Tempo. “That is a question I’ve never been asked before,” said Nicky Jam. “But it’s a good one… Every genre should have its own respective classification.”