Can Madison fix its broken hip-hop conversation?

Two writers examine how a venue and the community are moving forward. | By Michael Penn II, Scott Gordon

Madison-based rapper Trapo performing at the Memorial Union last fall.

Madison-based rapper Trapo performing at the Memorial Union last fall.

Last week, downtown Madison music venue The Frequency held a community meeting at which owners Darwin Sampson and Dana Pellebon tried to make something constructive emerge after a rough few weeks. In March, the venue declared a one-year ban on hip-hop shows, just hours after an incident in which patrons at a private event started fighting, and injured a Frequency employee who tried to intervene.

This cycle has played out over and over and over again in Madison venues. The difference this time around is that the conversation about race was primed to articulate how The Frequency’s decision played into systemic injustices. What made it even more unfortunate was that Madison hip-hop artists are having an exciting moment, from the burgeoning popularity of locally raised youngsters like Trapo and Ra’Shaun to the ever-promising stream of artists in UW-Madison’s First Wave program to other folks who’ve settled here and contributed to the community, including Charles Grant and Sincere Life. What’s more, in a town where music communities often are too fragmented and clique-y for their own good, all these folks are actually talking to each other and collaborating, forming something like a coherent but diverse hip-hop scene.

The reaction was explosive, including a post Michael Penn II wrote for this site calling for a boycott of The Frequency. Two days after announcing the ban, Sampson called it off and apologized. (Full disclosure: Penn’s rap project, CRASHprez, is one of those artists to emerge from First Wave, and we’ve covered his music a lot in the past.)

Penn attended last week’s meeting and came away feeling surprisingly optimistic. He and Scott Gordon, who missed the meeting but has covered these issues in Madison for years, had a back-and-forth on where things are at.

Scott Gordon: Michael, a week ago The Frequency had a community meeting to address this whole hip-hop blow up, and you attended. I was booked up with another story I was working on so I wasn’t able to go. Did this meeting accomplish anything? Did it affect your stance toward the venue at all, and do you think the owners are receptive to what you said in your piece? Because at first, Pellebon and other Frequency staffers did not take kindly to it.

Michael Penn II: They definitely were. It was substantially more productive than I anticipated, I’ll admit I wasn’t the most optimistic. Granted, I’m skeptical of most things. But Darwin and Dana are starting to put the work in. And this meeting wasn’t the only one; whoever couldn’t pull up the first time should definitely pull up the next time. That was my first time meeting Dana, but me and Darwin go back since I was a 17-year-old freshman trying to sneak in the shows with the homies. He knows where I stand, and he knew even in the midst of all the static. A few folks asked me whether or not the ban is still on; frankly, it was up the moment they repealed the statement. I’m convinced of their sincerity and I intend to involve myself in this process for as long as I remain a resident.

Scott Gordon: Although I missed the meeting, I’ve generally had the impression that The Frequency’s owners wanted to do the right thing and honest-to-god screwed up in the face of a bad situation. But let’s ask a bigger question here. Throughout the years, there has been plenty of talk about committees and task forces, and yes, communication is good and addressing these things on a policy level is good. Why then, for all that talk and task-force-forming, did The Frequency not have some framework or guidelines to turn to in what was clearly an upsetting situation?

Michael Penn II: In the Frequency meeting, they came through with an agenda and ran through their policies (new and old) for a closed group of community members to workshop together. We know this wasn’t the first ban; circumstances tell us it may not be the last. It’s concerning that no precedence was set prior to this instance where their sound person ended up with stitches—and that stitches were necessary to workshop something—but let’s chalk it to 20/20 hindsight and keep them accountable.

Scott Gordon: So what do you think they need to do going forward, to make a real difference as a venue?

Michael Pen II: Hold steady and stay true to their word. Whatever ideas they decide to implement, they need to ensure they’re all applicable across genres. Hip-hop was the focal point for the discussion, and I understand why to some degree, but I don’t want the next Frequency rap show I attend to look like a police state, while folks at bedroom-pop indie band shows enjoy themselves security-free. Train the in-house security so incidents like the one in question won’t repeat themselves. Make sure your curators have the cultural insight to make appropriate decisions around how to program and push shows with community content; meaning, don’t shun one subgenre over another based on prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions. Consult the younger individuals who invest in Madison culture and have the best in mind to progress our efforts. If shit hits the fan again, we’ll be right there to call bullshit... but, again, The Frequency’s transparency leaves me quite optimistic for now.

Scott Gordon: I also want to look at the broader reaction to all this. Why did aggrieved artists and audience members have no recourse but to rage against The Frequency on social media, or—for various white Madisonians—fume on social media about how offended they felt at the mere mention of racism? In those angry 48 hours between Sampson announcing the ban and walking it back, why did those affected and involved not have some sense of how to talk to each other and work it all out?

Michael Penn II: When I proposed the boycott, hella people in the scene tried to chalk it up to race-baiting, like it’s merely punishment for bad behavior. Best part of the whole Facebook fiasco: getting a front-row seat to where everyone stands on rap in general and the work I involve myself in. It’s a simple measure of the free market: You can’t take it personally when you piss your constituents off and they don’t want to rock with you. Hell, some people had the nerve to say I was calling Darwin a racist, that a boycott is an outdated medium, all these nonsensical ideas that’d be quelled by simply reading what I said more than once… I never had an issue with Darwin in all my time working with him, but I definitely attacked the hell out of the explicit and implicit ideas that ban upheld.

Perhaps certain members of the community take issue with the idea of people of color utilizing their resources—limited as they may be—and advocating for themselves, but is that an original idea, my friend?

Scott Gordon: Oh, and why has none of this talk over the years provided an opportunity for Sampson to get his landlord to change the deplorable stipulation in his lease forbidding hip-hop? (Darwin told me recently that he thinks his landlord is basically resigned to there being hip-hop at the venue anyway, for what it’s worth, but the provision is still in there, subject to selective enforcement.) We’ve got committees, non-profits, and task forces, but no dedicated context where people can congregate and resolve issues in moments of crisis when things are most likely to go much worse than they need to.

I guess what I’m saying is: I also have faith in The Frequency’s efforts, but why is it all on them to lead the charge on a bigger problem in the community, while many other venues remain silent while the pieces fall? Doesn’t it say something troubling that the big push has had to come from them?

Michael Penn II: I’ll say it off top: I don’t trust the task force idea. The powers that be in this town, in an overwhelming part of this country, could give a fuck about hip-hop; they’ve shown it time and again. Darwin and Dana aren’t the ones who need convincing at this point; it’s the mythical liquor boards and city officials who smile like they’re all for inclusion, but expect the constituents of our communities to do literally all the work for a handshake and no payment. It’s a tried-and-true tactic that never fails a governing body who’s down to maximize the labor of individuals who’ll sacrifice time and effort to see something through, whether it’s your local police station or the Board of Regents. When these conversations happen simultaneously, it’s never a matter of coincidence.

The Frequency is a pillar of the community, which is why the community gives so much of a damn. If they lead the charge like they say they will, they’ll truly have an opportunity to be the example for the rest of the industry players to pay attention to. As for the other individuals in the community, we can theorize all day as to where they stand in engaging with musicians in the populations they serve, but the answer is not only painfully obvious, but irritating to repeat. What did Denzel Washington say in Training Day? “The shit’s chess, it ain’t checkers!”

Scott Gordon: I’m not expecting much from the task force, either. Adding to the reasons you’ve spelled out, there’s also the fact that city officials are particularly tone-deaf when it comes to arts and music. Within the city government, there are a couple semi-autonomous units—the Bubbler program at the Public Library, and the BLINK installation program—that can move quickly and do cool things that involve a diverse bunch of people. But on a bigger level, there’s just no vision, with the city spending tens of thousands of dollars on things like Make Music Madison and a yet-to-materialize “songwriting conference.” The people steering the conversation among the ruling class are just hopeless.

Michael Penn II: Maybe that has something to do with what’s considered “art” and which forms of “art” are worthy of investment on an institutional level, no? No shots to the other programs at all—I love them and I know several folks who’ve collaborated with them—but you know where I’m going with this.

Scott Gordon: Local media outlets and journalists also have contributed to the problem, and to the stale, frustrating state of that conversation. (I include myself in this, though I think I do OK for a guy running a website on slim resources.) I’ve been trying and failing these last few weeks to write an essay with a working title of “Madison hip hop is more than just a thing that gets in trouble.” Because frankly, between these cyclical blow-ups, most outlets in town have shown an astounding lack of curiosity about the actual music that hip-hop artists are making here.

You can count on journalistic hand-wringing about the latest hip-hop ban or the latest fight at a rap show, but not so much on robust local coverage of, say, the latest Ra’Shaun single or DJ Pain 1’s latest track for a big-name rapper, or a dozens-strong collaborative show featuring First Wave artists alongside other artists from around Madison. Even now, with Madison- and Wisconsin-based rap as energetic as it's ever been, I wonder if observers at home will ever catch up.

Michael Penn II: It’s the consistent contradictive space hip-hop continues to operate in: mainstream, yet othered. One of the world’s most popular genres, originated by a people damned to a legacy of institutional othering, and that’s an insanely-conservative description. I’d say our expectations—yours, mine, the people we associate ourselves with—are astronomical in a city like this. How can we possibly expect a citywide competency that actively engages with the independent music community at all, let alone effectively? Madison can’t even cope with the black bodies they lock up or the brown kids they set up to fail from the time they enter public school, so I wouldn’t dare expect appropriate attention to a rap scene that’s functional and gaining more traction by the second.

This is the same Madison that lets every DIY indie show happen in every basement full of white people, but shut The Vault down the moment that space started hosting hip-hop events more frequently. I know this for a fact because of some conversations I’ve had off-record—that I’ll keep off-record for now—but trust and believe any showgoer could put two and two together. Hell, half the rap scene here is white; the coded approach to the genre is an obvious means of targeting and isolating artists of color, but it also inconveniences some white bodies that get their opinions and privileges upheld in damn near every other arena of public discourse in this town. Wouldn’t that be enough for the task forces to maybe mobilize around? Since some white people care about it?

I can’t call it, Scott. The student papers try their best to keep up since they’re comprised of younger individuals with more of a taste for what’s going on, but that’s not gonna cover everything. But the kids are listening, they’re engaged, and there’s plenty of evidence that they’ll stay engaged. Some of their classmates are on the road to being famous and they get to see a Trapo or a Ra’Shaun long before a critical mass. That’s the most beautiful development to come out of this lately. There’s real hope here. I just hope we’re not watching a rerun.