For decades, the music industry has used the word “urban” as a euphemism for “black”; it’s one of a long string of dog-whistle terms that the business has employed since its inception. These terms have always been risible, and they’re starting to change. Last week, Republic Records, citing the need to “not adhere to the outdated structures of the past,” banned all use of the term “urban.” Today, the Grammy Awards have followed suit.
As the journalist and executive Jayson Rodriguez points out on Twitter, the Grammys put out a press release this morning where they announced a few changes. The award for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” — generally given to vaguely bohemian and alternative R&B records, has been renamed Best Progressive R&B Album. Interim recording academy president and CEO Harvey Mason Jr. gives this explanation to Variety:
It’s something we’ve been discussing for a couple of years, and the term has been a hot button for a while. A lot of creators and people in that genre didn’t like that description and felt it pigeonholed certain styles of music, so when our constituents brought that to us in the form of a proposal, we listened and voted to approve, as asked by the people in that community. “Progressive R&B” gives us a chance to lean more into the modern R&B and hybrid-style recordings and give us a little bit of flexibility in that category.
Weirdly, the Grammy have also jammed the word “Urban” into a different category name. The Latin Pop Album award has been renamed Latin Pop Or Urban Album, while Latin Rock, Urban Or Alternative has been renamed Latin Rock Or Alternative.
Also, the Best Rap/Sung Performance, once awarded to collaborations between rappers and singers, has been renamed to reflect the reality that rappers and singers are now, quite often, the same people. They’ve changed it to best Melodic Rap Performance, which is honestly just as confusing in an era when most popular rap music is melodic.
In further changes, the Best New Artist award used to only feature artists who had released a certain number of recordings, and that restriction has been removed. Mason says that this is meant to reflect the reality that rappers often release a whole lot of music before they catch on. Now, a committee will decide whether those artists have just had a breakthrough year. In the weird system where Best New Artist often goes to artists who have been around for years, this change seems likely to grant the statue to people who are even more established.
Also, there are new nominations review committees to address potential conflicts of interest in handing out awards and nominations. This is clearly in response to Deborah Dugan, the first female CEO of the Recording Academy, who was pushed out of the organization just 10 days before her first Grammy Awards this year, causing a big uproar. Dugan went nuclear on the organization, filing a sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuit and publicly talking about how the Grammys gave preferential treatment to certain artists. Time will tell whether the new changes are anything other than cosmetic.