The Urban Contemporary Dilemma

By Sarah Markos

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Beyoncé’s ambitious visual album Lemonade is a 56-minute chronicle of black femininity overflowing with personal and political messages. Her ethereal performance at the 59th annual Grammy Awards was an ode to black motherhood. She performed “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” while pregnant and featured images of her mother and her daughter, Blue Ivy. Despite the cultural importance and musical ingenuity of Lemonade, the winner of the much anticipated Album of the Year category was Adele’s 25. Beyoncé instead won the Urban Contemporary category. Adele was heard expressing her disbelief backstage, stating, “What the fuck does she [Beyoncé] have to do to win album of the year?” What is required of black artists to receive recognition from white Academy judges? What place do white Grammy Trustees have in judging black art?

The Urban Contemporary category comprises a broad assortment of music styles, making it difficult to decipher the intended meaning of this category. Other nomination included Rihanna’s Anti, Gallant’s Ology, Anderson .Paak’s Malibu, and KING’s We Are King. Beyoncé accepted the award stating, “My intention for the film and album [Lemonade] was to create a body of work that will give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history.” The speech highlighted the importance of representation of black women in media, accentuating the history of excluding black artists at the Grammys despite the domination of black culture in media and general appropriation of black music style. Her speech, however, contradicts the unusual concept of Urban Contemporary, considering the history of the genre.

The term “Urban Contemporary” was first coined by Frankie Crocker in 1974 to name the format of his FM radio station based in New York City, WBLS. Following the success of WBLS in 1908, more radio stations began to broadcast a wide range of black genres in an effort to increase popularity and profit. The term “urban” was used to distinguish radio shows consisting of black music so that broadcastings would also appeal to white audiences. “Urban” remains a catch-all term that music corporations use to exploit black artists for their influence and fame, while avoiding the word “black”.  

The Urban Contemporary category, by definition, includes artists whose albums contain “at least 51 percent playing time of newly recorded contemporary vocal tracks derivative of R&B.” The pioneer of this category, Ivan Barias, denies that the category name suggests inclusion of black artists. He argues it is “indicative of a certain musical energy that encompasses all of the diverse genres of urban music.” Still, the meaning of the term “urban” in the category’s context remains unclear.

Urban Contemporary, in its history and in the Grammys, is a failed attempt to create a black space within a white system—not to increase inclusivity, but rather profits. The winner of the Urban Contemporary category has never won an award in the General Field, which includes Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. These four general awards are regarded as the highest honorthey are all almost always televised, and are almost always won by white artists. For the Album of Year category specifically, only four black artists have received that award in the past 20 years. Conversely, the Urban Contemporary category has never included a white artist, and the award is only broadcast on television when the award recipient that year is likely to attract a large audience. This year’s Grammys is the first year that the Urban Contemporary category was televised since Frank Ocean’s album Channel Orange won the award in 2013, losing to Mumford and Sons in the Best Album of the Year category.

Frank Ocean, like various black artists predating him, boycotted the Grammys this year by not submitting his critically acclaimed and widely popular albums Endless and Blonde to Grammy consideration. In a New York Times interview, Frank Ocean explained this decision stating, “[The Grammys] just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down.”

The Grammys reconstruction in 2012 led to a massive decrease in categoriesreducing from 109 to 78. According to Barias, the Urban Contemporary category was an effort to create a space for non-traditional R&B and rap artists. Following the omission of several R&B and rap categories, some people argue that the Urban Contemporary category is necessary in order to increase the representation of young, black artists in the Grammys. But instead of creating a separate category, why aren’t black artists provided equal representation and equal chances at winning the General Field categories? Black artists should not be expected to be happy with the inclusion of a single category with a genre name that has a history of discrediting black artists. The Urban Contemporary category is not an effective reform, but a new addition to allow white artists to win the general categories.

Meaningful modifications in the near future are unlikely, considering the inherent racism and partiality towards white artists embedded in the music industry. White people throughout history have profited from music of the African Diaspora. For instance, jazz was created by Louisiana creoles during the Jim Crow era, however the first jazz album ever made was made by the original Dixieland Jazz band, and ten years later Paul Whiteman was praised as the King of Jazz. Even today in the Grammy’s, black music categories are also dominated by white artists—Eminem has the most awards in the Best Rap Album category.

In order for reform to be effective, the Grammy decision process and lack of diversity within the Recording Academy must also be addressed. The Recording Academy, which presents the Grammy Awards, is predominantly white. All members of the Recording Academy vote for the General Field categories, often leading R&B, hip-hop, and rap artists to go unrecognized. Academy members have the choice to vote in 20 categories, without any requirements in expertise in the category’s music style. Unequivocal structural changes must be made to the Grammys trustee board and voting process in order to ensure that black artists have an equal chance to gain recognition in the Grammys. Nothing will change until all categories are made more inclusive and more non-white judges are included in the Recording Academy, which seems unlikely considering the president of the Recording Academy, Neil Portnow, does not believe racism exists within the Grammy’s. In an interview with Pitchfork Portnow stated, “No, I don’t think there’s a race problem at all. Remember, this [The Grammys] is a peer-voted award. So when we say the Grammys, it’s not a corporate entity—it’s the 14,000 members of the Academy.” Even though artists have the choice to join the academy or not, it is up to the Grammy board to ensure the membership is diverse.

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