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Definitions be damned

An intro to Urban Legend

Urban music? What exactly is urban music anyway, I wonder, as I consider topics for this first Urban Legend. I guess it's a rather sweeping, politically correct term for black. Then I wonder, what's wrong with using the word black? And since when does urban describe black music better than black music describes black music?
But then, what is black music? Music made by black people? Music that black people like to listen to? Well, I'm black (not particularly urban, in fact) and I like Melissa Etheridge, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Barbra Streisand and even Barry Manilow (hey, the guy's a great lyricist), so I guess by that definition, they do black music.
On the other hand, Tracy Chapman and Lenny Kravitz are black (at least Lenny is half), but when was the last time you heard "Telling Stories" or "Are You Gonna Go My Way" on a so-called urban station such as V-103?
OK, so maybe that's why they came up with the term urban; black is too amorphous.
My dictionary — Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Fully Revised and Updated — defines urban as "of, pertaining to, or designating a city or town; living in a city; characteristic of or accustomed to cities, citified."
So urban music is music about the city by people who live in cities and for people who live in cities? Well, I grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama — hardly a city, barely a town — so maybe urban music is not meant for me. And what about artists who come from small towns like mine? Lionel Richie for one (you remember: "Penny Lover," "Dancing on the Ceiling," lead singer of the Commodores, that Lionel Richie); he's a native Tuskegeean. Is he an urban artist? A black artist? A pop artist? It's all so confusing.
Such are the problems with definitions and descriptions and categorizations. It seems the more we try to define a thing, the further we get from its essence. Personally, I choose to place music in two categories: what I like and what I dislike (well, three, if I count the stuff I'm indifferent toward altogether; polka and bluegrass, for instance). But, I digress.
Through all this dissection of what urban music means, it strikes me that music is changing and changing people along with it. As a mother of two, I'm embarrassed to admit that my 2-year-old son can sing the Barney "I Love You" song and DMX's "Party Up" all in one breath. But as much as I try to monitor what my kids listen to — especially hip-hop — I can't ignore the fact that music — in particular hip hop — has done a great deal to bridge cultural gaps. It's the one language that white kids and black kids, poor kids and rich kids, can speak and understand. It's a thread that ties them all together and teaches them to see things the same way. Now, the lessons they're taught by these songs ultimately could and should be more positive, but at least they've found a common code of communication, and that's a start. And by no means am I naive enough to believe music is going to break down all the racial barriers that exist in the world, but if it even chips away at it slightly, that's a good thing.
Come to think of it, there are many issues surrounding music these days, urban and otherwise. There's Napster, of course, and the stampede of new technology. And there's that wonderful wave of alternative artists entering the urban mainstream. And there's another one of those terms: alternative. Though it's often misused, alternative is supposed to simply mean anything other than what you hear on the radio, anything other than what is traditionally shoved down the throats of the music-buying public.
It's kinda funny, though. Alternative music, at least with urban music, has also come to stand for good music — meaningful lyrics, live instrumentation, true artistry. I can remember a time, and I'm not that old, when that used to be the norm, not the alternative. Nowadays, when an urban act actually play instruments or write an original hook, it's praiseworthy. Silly me — I thought that's what it meant to make music. Can you name five current urban bands off the top of your head? You know, like Earth, Wind & Fire, LTD, Maze — bands with horns, guitars, drums and singing at the same time. Me neither.
More digressions, I'm afraid. Back to the topic. Which was? I guess I should give some thought to what urban or black or black urban or urban black music I'm gonna write about next. Then again, maybe I should think a little less.
Urban Legend is a new monthly column covering urban/black/whatever-you-call-it music. Send comments and tips to rhonda.baraka@creativeloafing.com.