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‘Separate and Unequal’: How ‘Pop’ Music Holds Black Artists Back

The music industry is debating the term “urban,” but the “pop” category often helps prop up white artists at the expense of the black artists who inspire them

In the 1950s, Pat Boone specialized in covering R&B singles by black performers for a "pop" — i.e. white — audience.

Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

For almost two weeks now, a debate around the term “urban” has roiled the music industry. Some believe it’s a barely veiled synonym for black that actually ends up harming and limiting the black artists and executives it’s supposed to protect. Others argue the term is a part of an effort “to give black executives a true voice and an opportunity to run and manage an aspect of the [music] business that was largely being ignored by the corporations.” Republic Records announced that it would do away with “urban;” for now, Live Nation Urban remains unchanged

But this back-and-forth misses a crucial issue: Whether labels have an “urban” department, a “black music” division, or just a “hip-hop and R&B” department, that music will still be viewed as separate from, and unequal to, the releases in the pop department. Mostly white pop artists will continue to get pushed to a bigger audience at radio and enjoy bigger marketing budgets than their hip-hop and R&B counterparts. 

To get rid of the “urban” category while not wiping out “pop” simultaneously amounts to a new frosting on the same old cakepreserving a system in which Adele and Jazmine Sullivan could sing the exact same song with identical power and grace, but Adele’s version will go straight into every supermarket across the country, while Sullivan’s will be pushed only to black listeners in select cities.

The modern music industry has often been reluctant to acknowledge the racial disparities baked into its foundation. But that’s becoming harder in recent weeks. “Let’s talk about getting rid of the word ‘pop’ too,” the veteran producer and record executive No I.D. said last week during the WebinA&R Sessions, a Zoom panel series hosted by Eddie Blackmon, vp of A&R at AWAL. “… You go to your department and you say, ‘I got a record and it’s pop.’ Well, black people don’t go straight to pop… [labels] don’t just let [black artists] into the biggest market.”

The structure called out by No I.D. dates back to the origins of today’s music business. “Because of industry and audience racism, black music has been relegated to a separate and unequal marketing structure,” Reebee Garofalo explains in Crossing Over: From Black Rhythm & Blues to White Rock ‘n’ Roll, an essay originally published in the 1990s. “… The specific practices and mechanisms that tend to institutionalize [black music’s] exclusion and dilution change over time and, for the most part, remain unchallenged even to this day.” 

Before the 1970s, music made by black artists was sometimes viewed as a niche concern by the major labels. This attitude was put on stark display during World War II, when the materials to make records were in short supply and labels had to prioritize some types of music over others. “The specialty fields, especially blues, jazz, and gospel, bore the brunt of the cutbacks, and were essentially abandoned by the major labels,” Garofalo writes. 

“Because of industry and audience racism, black music has been relegated to a separate and unequal marketing structure.”

When the corporate music industry started to engage with black artists again, it frequently did so through two methods. The first was straight-up theft. In the 1950s, white performers started covering hit singles by black artists, introducing them to the “pop” audience — i.e., white listeners — and making far more money than the black artists who wrote the songs in the first place. “Cover records were often released within the expected chart life of the original and, owing to the superior distribution channels and promotional power of the majors, often outsold the originals,” Garofalo explains.

The black and white markets had to be separated for this strategy to succeed. If listeners could find either Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” or Pat Boone’s version, it’s nearly impossible to imagine them gravitating to Boone’s. But the major record companies have almost always been able to control who reaches the “pop” audience and how. And that consistently allows those labels to prop up white artists at the expense of the black artists who inspire them. 

In the 1950s, that meant that Etta James moved over 400,000 copies of “The Wallflower” while a cover by the white singer Georgia Gibbs sold more than a million. This dynamic, where a song is considered R&B and limited to black listeners if the singer is black but deemed pop made for everyone if the singer is white, is still pervasive. Just replace Gibbs’ single with the Bee Gees’s “Night Fever” or Madonna’s “Lucky Star” or Adele’s “Rumour Has It” or Post Malone’s “Rockstar,” all songs that are based on forms of R&B and hip-hop but designated “pop” due to the skin color of the vocalist.

Take a very recent example: Megan Thee Stallion invented the “Hot Girl Summer” meme and released an accompanying single which was an “urban” radio hit. The white singer blackbear grabbed the concept for his own “Hot Girl Bummer,” which was played heavily on pop radio. Since that format reaches many more listeners — 93 million impressions last week on the “pop” Number One, compared to 36 million for the “urban” Number One — “Hot Girl Bummer” has nearly 160 million more streams in the U.S. than “Hot Girl Summer.”

The other way the major labels profited from black music without supporting it was through distribution deals. Sometimes these could provide black artists with the access and resources necessary to reach the “pop” audience. The commonly cited example is the collaboration between Clive Davis’ CBS Records and Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, which led to a series of indelible soul hits in the early Seventies, including Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody.”

But distribution deals could also leave black art at the mercy of corporations that were at best uncaring, at worst cultural raiders. In Garofalo’s essay, Ahmet Ertegun, who ran Atlantic Records when it was an independent label with a successful lineup of R&B artists, recalled a conversation with an executive at Columbia Records about one of these arrangements. 


“He wanted to make a deal whereby Columbia would distribute for Atlantic records because we seemed to be very good at what he called ‘race’ records,” Ertegun remembers. “So I said, ‘Well, what would you offer us?’ He said, ‘Three percent’… I said, ‘We’re paying our artists more than that!’ And he said, ‘You’re paying those people royalties? You must be out of your mind!’ Of course, he didn’t call them ‘people.’ He called them something else.”

The major labels pursued black artists more aggressively after the release of a 1971 report on the size of the R&B market. Labels established “black music” or “urban” divisions, which gave black executives “an opportunity to run and manage an aspect of the business that was largely being ignored by the corporations,” as Live Nation Urban put it on Instagram.

But the emergence of black music divisions did not necessarily signal that the major labels were taking a different approach to the racial divisions — pop and R&B — that they had helped cement. Even as CBS raced to sign black talent, “in the mind of CBS executives, music appeared to be a means of segregation, not integration,” according to David Sanjek’s Tell Me Something I Don’t Already Know: The Harvard Report on Soul Music Revisited. 

“At a label, black artists don’t get the same marketing, promo and radio budgets.” 

Soul singers like Johnnie Taylor and Tyrone Davis “entered into arrangements with CBS as a means of securing a larger, more diverse audience,” Sanjek continues, “only to find [that] … the label apparently set and met limited expectations for their careers.” 

Decades later, many black artists have the same experience. Streaming has made it harder for major labels to determine what constitutes “pop,” but the pattern for viral TikTok hits is the same as it was for Etta James and Georgia Gibbs: Benee and Trevor Daniel, who are white, jump from TikTok to pop radio, while Lil Mosey and Megan Thee Stallion, who are black, have their TikTok hits slotted into both the “urban” and “rhythmic” radio formats before they can be considered “pop.” 

Even in 2020, only a handful of black artists — Rihanna, the Weeknd, Jason Derulo — get what the critic Nelson George once described as an “honorary pop pass.” Many of the biggest stars on the planet — Beyoncé, Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar — still have to go through the process of “crossing over,” literally working twice as hard to get the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

“At a label, black artists don’t get the same marketing, promo and radio budgets,” says one A&R who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They’re met with, ‘do you know how much it costs to go to radio?’ White artists who have no real following and little-to-no streams don’t hear that. Labels will still sign them and force feed their music to the market, doing everything they can to ensure the record or artist’s success.”

What’s remarkable is that, even with the music industry’s “separate and unequal marketing structure,” black artists have still found ways to reach a wide audience — and “against all odds, to exert a disproportionate influence on popular music in general,” as Garofalo writes. Imagine what they could accomplish if the “pop” system wasn’t designed to hold them back.