In 2013, the Grammys introduced a new award category for ‘best urban contemporary album’. The Grammys changed the name of the category to ‘best progressive R&B album’ in June 2020. This was following criticisms of racism, pressure from the #blacklivesmatter movement and Republic Records removing the use of the word ‘urban’.
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Ever since ‘urban’ was introduced as an awards category, it has deservedly received criticism. This is primarily due to ‘urban’ traditionally being used as a codeword for black music. This word essentially plays the part of othering, and unfairly ostracising black artists into a different, and comparatively “lesser” genre.
Tyler Okonma, better known as Tyler, the Creator, spoke out against the ‘urban’ category publicly in an interview after the 2020 Grammys.
“I don’t like that ‘urban’ word, it’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word, to me. So when I hear that, I’m just like, why can’t we just be in pop?” – Tyler the Creator
The Grammys seemingly only recognised the first half of what Tyler, the Creator said by stopping use of the word ‘urban’. But what does ‘progressive R&B’ mean and is it really that much better? It is a much less clear euphemism to mean music by black musicians than ‘urban’, though will still continue the same ‘othering’ of black artists.
The term ‘progressive R&B’ seems purposefully confusing. Progressive R&B, in my opinion, is a very specific thing. Pyramids by Frank Ocean is a perfect example. It’s a nearly 10-minute long experimental genre-bending R&B epic.
This is obviously not what the Grammys mean by progressive R&B. They use it to refer to music with “the more progressive elements of R&B”, that “may include samples and elements of hip-hop, rap, dance, and electronic music” and “production elements found in pop, euro-pop, country, rock, folk, and alternative”. These new guidelines can be found here. This is a more accurate description of alternative R&B. So the term ‘progressive R&B’ is a weird and confusing choice. It seems like they are going to use this perplexing term to continue to separate black genre-bending and pop music from white genre-bending and pop music.
“whenever we, and I mean guys that look like me, do anything that’s genre-bending or anything, they always put it in a ‘rap’ or ‘urban’ category.” – Tyler, the Creator
Looking at recent winners and nominees of the newly named ‘progressive R&B’ compared to recent winners and nominees of the ‘pop’ category it is clear that Tyler has a point. Last year, the ‘urban’ category was won by Lizzo. Her album Cuz I Love You was fantastically genre-defying, but definitely contained a lot of pop elements.
It could definitely be argued this record should have been in the ‘pop’ category. And this is not a one-off. Ever since the Grammys introduced it the ‘urban’ category, black artists have won in that category and white artists have won the ‘pop’ category, other than Bruno Mars in 2014. In fact, a white artist has never been nominated for the urban contemporary category.
In 2017, Beyoncé won the ‘urban contemporary’ award for her magnificent album, Lemonade. The ‘pop’ category was won by Adele with 25.
I would argue that Adele’s album is no more a pop record than Beyoncé’s. Both meld R&B and pop, with 25, in comparison, including more soul. Yes, Beyoncé’s album included a rap verse from Kendrick Lamar. But Ariana Grande’s Sweetener included a rap verse by Nicki Minaj, and this still won in the ‘pop’ category in 2019.
The renaming of the ‘urban’ category does not change the use of the category. It is a tokenistic gesture that came from the pressure of the #blacklivesmatter movement. There is no sign that the Grammys will start to include black artists in the ‘pop’ category. This is emblematic of the Grammys own brand of systemic racism.
They do give awards to black artists, but not as often as white artists. 4 of the 11 artists with the most Grammy awards are black. And they don’t recognise black artists as the very best as often as they should. Since 2008 no black artist has won ‘the album of the year’ award. Most controversially, Taylor Swift’s 1989 beat Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. To Pimp A Butterfly was much more critically acclaimed and is already thought of as a masterpiece and yet it didn’t win ‘the album of the year’.
So will renaming the ‘urban contemporary’ to ‘progressive R&B’ change the Grammys racism? The answer is almost certainly no. The category will continue to separate black and white artists, and the Grammys will continue to refuse to nominate many black artists for the pop category. This is exactly what Tyler, the Creator was addressing and shows that his concerns aren’t really being dealt with. The Grammys should scrap the category and instead seriously consider black musicians for the ‘pop’ category.