Latin Music’s ‘Urbano’ Reckoning

Is it time to retire the term?

by
Zahira Kelly-Cabrera (Bad Dominicana), Sech and Bad Bunny (from left). Credit: Kelly-Cabrera by @marioshotme; other images courtesy of the artist.

Urbano has worn many faces. In the 1990s it looked like a cassette tape in Puerto Rico, where members of the National Guard stormed record stores across the island trying to destroy it. Urbano is also etched on caserío concrete and favela rooftops, where predominately Black, low-income kids traded freestyles and samples for kicks. It has stretched itself to fit dembow, baile funk, reggaeton, trap, champeta, hip-hop en español and more, going so far as to lend its mug to the twinkly pop of “Despacito.” And now, urbano even looks like J Balvin making the TIME 100 list and Bad Bunny careening through Washington Heights atop a party bus, livestreaming a mobile concert through one of the largest Spanish-language networks in the United States. Yet this new face seldom recalls its ancestors.

In 2020, “urbano” equates to mostly non-Black stars finding success within inherently Afro-diasporic music. Begin chipping away at the industry’s blanqueamiento, or whitening, and you’ll come up with only a handful of Black Latinx artists entering the charts today. This phenomenon is nothing new, as evidenced by the trajectory of genres like rock ’n’ roll. But this year, concerns over urbano’s bleached ranks are beginning to raise more questions. Among them is what to do with the term urbano itself.

Many Latinx music professionals began thinking more critically about the umbrella term urbano in June, after the record label Republic and the Recording Academy announced their plans to retire its counterpart and precursor, “urban,” in the U.S. Early statements from figures in the industry — including journalist Jennifer Mota, reggaeton historian Katelina Eccleston, a.k.a. Reggaeton con la Gata, and Latinx media site Remezcla — opined that urbano is too unspecific and rife with exclusion for Black artists to continue using. They offered the phrase “el movimiento,” derived from “el movimiento urbano,” as an alternative.

Panamanian wunderkind Sech sees where they’re coming from. “I understand ‘el movimiento’ because it sounds like a crew, or a group of people who are working to push something forward,” he says. “It is a movement, what we’re doing.” But at 26, Sech is also quick to consider what his older peers in the industry might have to say. On the one hand, “a lot of people have fought to name it urbano,” he suggests. But on the other, “it’s a term created to cover so many styles.”

This is where things get murky for urbano. For many in or from Latin America, the term holds a commercial and personal appeal. Meanwhile, conversations on “urban” in the States have largely come to an agreement on its futility in any space — perhaps because the term has simply had more room to breathe, its debates already having taken place for years.

The godfather of the “urban contemporary” tag, NYC DJ Frankie Crocker, seen here c. 1973. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

“Urban” dates back to 1974, when the legendary Black DJ and radio programmer Frankie Crocker came up with the catchall phrase “urban contemporary” to better attract ad sales for his New York City station, which heavily featured Black artists across multiple genres. Before that there was “rhythm and blues” and “race records” and “Harlem Hit Parade” and — you see where this is going.

Along the way Latin America followed suit, adopting urbano for its own melange of Black-rooted styles. When it comes to urbano in particular, the term “has always been a way to categorize the music that is coming from marginalized populations,” says the sociocultural critic and artist Zahira Kelly-Cabrera, a.k.a. Bad Dominicana. “But most important, it’s been used to just never call that music Afro-Latino music.”

As Crocker’s appeal to advertisers in the States suggests, music by Black artists has never been received impartially — and efforts to appease white audiences, executives and industry professionals remain a cost of entry for mainstream success in any context, Stateside or otherwise. In the case of Latin music, vague expressions like urbano serve to signal the genre’s Black, often low-income roots without always setting out to actually represent those roots. “Everything that we call urbano is coming from poor Black people, regardless of who is doing it now, which is mostly whiter artists, never any Black girls,” Kelly-Cabrera stresses. Despite this reality, “a lot of people will argue that [urbano] is not Black, because ‘everyone doing it is white’ or ‘we’re all a rainbow,’” she adds. “But if we were a rainbow and everything was equal, then I would see a bunch of Black women on the charts, and there’s zero instead.”

Urbano also draws an inevitable allusion to where the music itself comes from — urban spaces, much like San Juan’s public housing or the barrios just beyond Cartagena’s ramparts. But Petra R. Rivera-Rideau, the author of Remixing Reggaetón: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico, is careful not to dismiss the racial and economic realities that words like urbano have come to signify. “The term urban is a spatial term, but it’s not a neutral spacial term,” she says, pointing out its common correlation to Black and brown communities. “It’s not a racial term by definition, but I think it is used as a way to also signal race and class without saying them explicitly.”

For many who grew up with the term, or whose professional careers are a product of urbano, holding onto the phrase is just one way to assert these identities in the mainstream. “You have no idea how hard it was to get people to accept reggaeton because of the lyrics, because of the way the artists looked,” recalls Ximena Acosta, a veteran publicist who has worked with the trailblazing reggaeton label Machete Music, among others. “Now that Bad Bunny and Balvin became huge, we’ve forgotten about our roots. We forgot about how this started, where this came from, how hard it was to get it to be accepted.”

In a moment when so much of what is now mainstream is divorced from these roots, Acosta isn’t interested in letting urbano go. Neither is Cristina Novo, another longtime publicist and A&R consultant, and a founding member of Conciencia Collective. She echoes Acosta in saying, “with the removal of that word, you’re erasing a lot of the history that comes with it.”

Acosta also questions if the removal of an umbrella term like urbano would translate for audiences — especially those in previously untapped markets. “How do we package this up to the mainstream world so they can understand what they’re listening to?” she wonders.

Sech thinks the next best step would be to simply get more specific and call respective styles by their existing names. “If it’s trap, it’s trap. If it’s reggaeton, then reggaeton,” he says, recalling similar statements from Puerto Rican rappers Nicky Jam and Tempo in an interview for the website Rapetón.

If there’s one thing these Latinx music professionals can agree on, it’s that conversations around representation cannot end with the term urbano. “The issue to me is not necessarily the category name, but whether these artists are actually going to be competitive for prestigious awards, like Record of the Year,” Rivera-Rideau says. “You can call things whatever you want, but the structures remain the same.”

Novo concurs. “What is removing ‘urban’ or ‘urbano’ going to do for the actual issue at hand, which is racism within our culture and within our systems?” she asks. “Let’s look at why we are at this point.”

For Kelly-Cabrera, these larger questions point to her own experience. “Ultimately, the industry wants something that you can easily categorize. But we see people like Bad Bunny who cross all of those lines,” she says, referencing his genre-hopping album X 100PRE. “It’s about who is allowed space to expand and to be different things. With me, I’ve had a bunch of people say, ‘I prefer you singing in English. I don’t like the Spanish.’ But they’re not used to Black girls singing in Spanish. So to them, English is what is supposed to be coming out of my mouth. I am not allowed to do Latin-American music, period.”

Her guiding question in all of this remains, “Where are the Black girls?” Moving forward, our conversations about genre and representation can start there.

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