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The Racist Undertones Of The ‘Urban Contemporary’ Grammys Category

Creating a here’s-your-space-and-here’s-mine kind of atmosphere isn’t a good look no matter how you dress it.

Modified from Wikimedia

Back in 2013, Kelly Rowland and Nas presented the first Grammy Award for Best Urban Contemporary Album, designed to honor “artists whose music includes the more contemporary elements of R&B and may incorporate production elements found in urban pop, urban Euro-pop, urban rock, and urban alternative” and “albums containing at least 51 percent playing time of newly recorded contemporary vocal tracks derivative of R&B.”

Of all the nominees — Chris Brown’s Fortune, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, and Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream — California rapper and singer Ocean’s debut solo project nabbed the newly announced award.

There is something peculiar about the category’s nominees that year: Each candidate is black. Since then, this racial demographic has stayed largely the same, all the way up through last night, when The Weeknd took home the award by beating out a roster of entirely non-white nominees.

Some might say this is a good thing — a boon for much-needed inclusivity. But it’s also problematic that the word “urban” has such an undeniable racial implication. Moreover, the category is seemingly designed to compartmentalize black artists, undermining the culture’s contributions to and influences on music even as it tries to celebrate it.

To understand the issues with this Grammys category, we can start by diving in to etymology.

The word “urban” is a derivative of the Latin word “urbanus,” which comes from a Latin amalgam of “urbs” (“a walled town” or “city”) and -ānus (a suffix for “of or pertaining to”). In Ancient Rome — we’re talking between 8th century BC and 5th century AD, some 2000 or so years ago — it wasn’t uncommon to hear folks follow the word “‘urbs” with a proper noun, like “urbs Romana” for Roma (or Rome, as we know it).

From its multiple borrowings and irregularities, “urbanus” found its way to France, there meaning “city” and “courteous, elegant, or polite.” There is a huge time gap here as “urbānus” continued to transform — “urbánus,” “urbani,” and a few others are all variations of “urbanus,” each meaning “city” in some way. Between the 1500s and 1600s, though, the French began to use “urbanus” (or “urbain/urbane” in Middle French) as an adjective, to say someone was “having the manners of townspeople.” At that time, saying someone was “urbain” simply meant they were courteous, generous, polite, stately — essentially, a cool person.

Up until about the late 19th century.

During the Industrial Revolution, immigrants began migrating to “urban” (city) areas in the United States, hoping to secure James Truslow Adams’ American Dream. However, because of abysmal pay and atrocious working conditions — not to mention an increase in pollution, population, and production — these immigrants were forced to migrate from one congested area to another, more congested area.

Pretty soon, because of the lack of income coming into these displaced families, these heavily congested areas began eroding into rundown, increasingly dangerous neighborhoods. And since these immigrants consisted of largely poor, black, or Hispanic citizens, “urban” as an adjective of endearment malformed into an adjective of resentment.

Due to the separation between the poor and the rich, the clean and the unkempt, American society dubbed such unsavory neighborhoods as “ghettos,” a word originating from the Jewish corner of Venice, used to segregate the Jews from the rest of the population. It’s around this time—the late 19th to the late 20th century—that “urban” grew to be synonymous with “ghetto,” which in turn, meant African-American or black.

Thrusting this complex, shocking history into a new category was likely not The Recording Academy’s intention. In fact, Ivan Barias, a Philadelphian producer and the former president of the Philadelphian Chapter of The Recording Academy, told the Fader the category is:

“indicative of a certain musical energy that encompasses all of the diverse genres of urban music…When you look at the whole picture, it shows how diverse the musical tastes really are amongst our generation — and this category exemplifies that.”

But why, then, is it that the nominees are almost always black? In case you forgot: In 2014, the nominees were Mack Wilds, Tamar Braxton, Fantasia, Rihanna, and Salaam Remi; in 2015, they were Beyoncé, Chris Brown, Jhené Aiko, Mali Music, and Pharrell Williams; in 2016, they were Lianne Le Havas, Miguel, Kehlani, The Internet, and The Weeknd; and in 2017, they were Anderson .Paak, Beyoncé, Gallant, KING, and Rihanna.

This year, the nominees were 6lack (pronounced “black”), Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), Khalid, SZA, and The Weeknd. Every nominee (and, by default, every winner) of this category is non-white, with a large majority being of African-American/black descent. This is incredibly telling, as it reinforces the idea that the Best Urban Contemporary Album category is reserved almost exclusively for black people.

Barias’ Fader comments insisting the category is about “inclusivity” in the urban music genre—whatever that is—feels like a feigned excuse for the Grammy’s to “include” more black artists, while still ensuring a separation between us and them. (A lot of the same could be said about Black History Month.)

American singer Sufjan Stevens and Spin magazine believe the creation (and current, continued wording) of the Best Urban Contemporary Album is problematic. Sufjan posted a picture to his Tumblr page almost a year ago responding to the category itself and Beyoncé’s loss to Adele in both the Album of the Year and Record of the Year categories.

The photo read:

“Q: WTF is ‘Urban Contemporary’?

A: It’s where the white man puts his incomparable pregnant black woman because he is so threatened by her talent, power persuasion and potential.”

This was followed by the caption, “Friendly reminder: don’t be racist.”

Spin magazine addressed the same concern, writing:

“Let’s not confuse this with inclusivity, though…the problem is ultimately is a structural one: in attempting to create a black space on a predominantly white tableau, othering is a natural part of this construct.”

It’s hard to conclude that there’s inherent racism within the creation of the Best Urban Contemporary Album, but continuing to compartmentalize and segregate black and non-white artists from the main ceremony, creating a here’s-your-space-and-here’s-mine kind of atmosphere, isn’t a good look no matter how you dress it.

Diversity itself is obviously crucial. But the Grammys and The Recording Academy really only have two options: 1. either rename the category and remove the word “urban” from the renaming, or 2. close the category entirely and better integrate black and non-white artists into the ceremony. (The second option is better, and it’s the only one I’ll accept.)

As Solange tweeted in February 2017, “There have only been two black winners in the last 20 years for Album of the Year.” In total, only 10 black artists had won Album of the Year since the Grammy Awards were first held back in May 1959. For an award ceremony suddenly so concerned with inclusivity, you’d think that six decades of music would produce more than 10 black winners for Albums of the Year. (Last night’s winner for the honor, Bruno Mars, is non-white; he beat out three black artists — Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Childish Gambino — and their hip-hop albums.)

Unfortunately, if this category remains intact, I don’t see more black/non-white artists winning the much-coveted Album of the Year. While the etymology of “urban” may evolve—again—in the next few years or so, the onus is on The Recording Academy to fundamentally shift America’s perception of black and non-white artists.

By perpetuating this glorified segregation—which further instills an us-vs-them mentality—The Record Academy merely reinforces dangerous stereotypes. If the Grammys and The Recording Academy really want to “celebrate all of these other artists who tend to pull from different genres,” they need to stop othering marginalized genres and voices, and eradicate the category altogether.

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