Study pokes holes in narrative about Madison hip-hop shows and violence

Advocates hope new numbers from UW-Madison researchers will put a stop to officials and business owners framing the genre as a public-safety issue. (En Español)

Vince Staples performing at Union South in December 2015. Photo by Scott Gordon.

Vince Staples performing at Union South in December 2015. Photo by Scott Gordon.

The broader public discussion of hip-hop in Madison so often revolves around people getting in trouble. Over and over and over again throughout the years, various local venues have temporarily stopped booking hip-hop shows, claiming that these shows are more likely than others to result in violent incidents. The resulting controversies tend to draw a lot of public and media attention to hip-hop shows where fights broke out or someone pulled a gun, and away from all the hip-hop shows that go off without a hitch. The Daily Cardinal even recently caught some downtown bars restricting hip-hop on their internet jukeboxes, claiming that the music draws the wrong crowd. The narrative about hip-hop and violence also undermines a crop of local hip-hop artists that's as strong as it's ever been, from locally raised MCs like Trapo and Ra'Shaun to UW-Madison-affiliated artists like Broadway Muse and Lucien Parker.

Hip-hop artists, activists, and fans in Madison have long pointed out that it's absurd to attribute more violence to one genre of music than to another. Now they have some social-science research to point to. In a study released Tuesday, UW-Madison sociology professor Randy Stoecker and his students examined the correlation between live music performances and police calls in Madison between 2008 and 2016. The data set they assembled simply does not back up the notion that hip-hop shows are more likely to turn violent than shows in other genres. The study was conducted in partnership with Madison's Urban Community Arts Network, which organizes a variety of hip-hop events and advocacy efforts, including the annual Madison Hip-Hop Awards and an extensive summer concert series featuring local artists

Having this empirical data could be a turning point for local hip-hop artists, who've dealt with erratic access to venues over the years, largely because of the perception that hip-hop is an especially violent genre of music.

"In the past, every public conversation I have been involved with regarding hip-hop has been completely focused on public safety and we can never get to a conversation about art," UCAN president Karen Reece says. "This data shows that the public safety conversation is a distraction and a misconception." The study is also something of a meeting of musical and scientific worlds for Reece, a classically trained cellist who earned her PhD in physiology from UW-Madison and worked as a research scientist for Promega before advocacy became her full-time job.

Stoecker and his students first drew on Madison Police Department records of 4,624 police calls made from live-music venues. They then set about scouring the internet and back issues of Maximum Ink to determine what kinds of music were being played on the dates and times of each of those calls. They assembled what Stoecker believes to be a unique data set; the study refers to other research that has investigated correlations between hip-hop and violence, but none of it approached the data in quite the same way as the UW-Madison group did. Stoecker's group also created a set of genre codes that attempts to account for some of the nuances and variations within and among genres, and for the fact that many shows involve more than one genre. The study has two major categories for hip-hop: "Live hip-hop," i.e. shows involving actual live MCs, and "Mixed with hip-hop/DJs," for DJ-centered events that might conceivably include some hip-hop in the mix.

"The students just put hundreds of hours into finding performances that occurred during the times of those calls, literally building the data set by hand in lots of cases," Stoecker says.

The study found that venues that frequently host live hip-hop actually get fewer police calls per month than venues dominated by country and EDM. The researchers also looked at how many of the calls actually resulted in someone being cited or charged for a criminal offense. They found that police calls to hip-hop shows were less likely to result in charges than calls to events involving country, Caribbean music, EDM, or jam bands.

"Part of our concern in this analysis was whether there is any support for the belief that Hip-Hop requires extra security and policing compared to other genres," the study notes. "If that was the case we would expect to see higher proportions of charges for Hip-Hop than other genres. But that does not appear to be true for either Live Hip-Hop or Hip-Hop All, and it is at least not true more than for Jam Band Mix, Country Mix, and EDM."

In fact, perhaps the biggest takeaway is that if you measure police calls or arrests at shows along a genre axis, you generally don't find that much variation period. Take the table laying out the proportion of calls, by genre, that resulted in charges: the results range from about 19 percent to about 47 percent, with "live hip-hop" at 37.5 percent. It's almost as if musical genres don't actually cause certain types of behavior.

A summary of the study pointed to media coverage as another factor fueling the stigma and skewed perceptions attached to hip-hop in Madison, citing a piece by the Wisconsin State Journal columnist Chris Rickert as an example. It's true that local media are too easily drawn to skewed narratives about hip-hop and violence, though I'd happily point out that most of us in local media are not Chris Rickert. Additionally, local media outlets have offered some more nuanced coverage of this debate and of the music itself, including in Isthmus and here on Tone Madison. But I can hardly dispute that local journalists could and should be more engaged with the hip-hop community.

Armed with this information, Reece and other community advocates are making a final push for the City of Madison to create a Task Force on Equity in Music and Entertainment. City officials and hip-hop advocates have discussed this off and on for seven years, and the Madison Common Council is slated vote on a resolution actually creating the task force at its June 20 meeting.

Reece hopes the study, which draws on police reports, will change her group's conversations with MPD.

"I'm hoping this will reduce profiling as we have used their own data to reach the conclusion," she says. " I don't expect the conversation to change immediately. I would hope we can begin to shift perceptions over the course of the next year using the study conclusions and perhaps actions of the task force."

Stoecker says it's important to point out that the study doesn't really try to prove that hip-hop is especially safe. Rather, it actually takes the prevailing societal narrative about hip-hop being a more violent genre as a hypothesis.

"When we met with UCAN and presented this to them last week, one of the board members said, 'Oh, so you set out to see if you could prove that hip-hop was more violent and you failed,'" Stoecker says. "And yeah, that's pretty accurate."