It had clearly been a long week for Michael Penn II. As we discussed The Frequency’s recent decision to place a moratorium on hip-hop shows for a year, the writer, rapper and activist laid sideways on a dilapidated couch, more out of necessity than comfort. “Too many old white people running this shit; it’s tiring,” he said, regarding the forces behind fiascos like recent events at The Frequency. And it is tiring—the fight to keep hip-hop alive in Madison is one that’s been fought too many times, and this latest iteration of the struggle has many members of the hip-hop community wondering why this exact scenario keeps happening, over and over again.
On Saturday, Frequency owner Darwin Sampson took to the venue’s Facebook page to retract the ban. “I want to address the mistakes I made. I deeply regret putting a time frame on the temporary suspension of booking hip-hop.” For many commenting on the post, it had appeared that the issue was over. But some, including Penn, knew better than to trust a PR damage-control Facebook post.
“It’s always about the money,” Penn said to me, still resting against a pillow as he did when I first arrived. That’s why he initiated a boycott titled “No More Parties On West Main,” which he announced on Tone Madison the same day that the ban went into place. The response brought a financial discussion to the table: if The Frequency doesn’t want hip-hop, then hip-hop doesn’t want The Frequency.
It must have confused some for Penn to come to this conclusion. Just a few weeks ago, The Frequency hosted his label Catch Wreck’s first iteration of Wipe Me Down, a hip-hop dance party dedicated to the thudding 808’s and classic songs that built the foundation for a new era of hip-hop-dominated mainstream music. It was magical—faces of all colors and identities were dancing alongside one another, celebrating more than just Penn’s birthday, which coincided with the inaugural event; they were rejoicing together in the face of Madison’s historical segregation and racism. Even for just a night, we all felt that hip-hop in Madison was going somewhere great, and The Frequency was hopping along for the ride.
But, a single negative case soon drowned out the many positive ones. Sampson cited the evidence of a private hip-hop party at his establishment, where one of his employees was smashed over the head with a bottle by an attendee, as reason to issue a yearlong ban on hip-hop which, in a baffling PR move, was published on Facebook with very little information surrounding the circumstances that motivated the decision.
Slip ups in PR and appearances are phenomenal outlets which often give the public the opportunity to show how they truly feel. What followed Sampson’s post was a torrent of livid Facebook comments, both against The Frequency and the hip-hop community. Before the statement was mysteriously erased, many got a glimpse as to how their show-going peers truly felt about Madison’s hip-hop community, something that almost never gets discussed in Madison music discourse. Some thanked The Frequency for making music shows safer, others claimed that Madison had bigger problems to deal with than a venue that holds 120 people. Most were disappointed that, yet again, an entire genre of music, an entire race, became the scapegoat for the actions of a lone individual.
It’s typical Madison fashion to sweep these problems under the rug until the disgusting mass of troubled history begins to peek out from the side, only to be shoved back into invisibility by a few sharp jabs of a broom. Madison dominates travel and lifestyle lists for being both a great music town and a highly livable metropolitan area. But masked by soothing stats are the finer details of Madison’s existence, those that affect people of color more so than anyone else. Minority poverty, segregation and discrimination are all stats conveniently left out of city rankings. And while national touring hip-hop acts can easily book shows in Madison to beef up our music cred, local black hip-hop artists have trouble finding even a single space that will host their presence and ideas.
When a black hip-hop artist from Madison needs a space to perform to those around them, what are their options? They could go the DIY route, but cops shutting down the show is always a lingering threat, especially more so if it involves black youth moshing and displaying the same tendencies that belligerent Wisconsin students exhibit on a weekly basis, a point that Penn touches on in the post regarding his boycott of The Frequency. It seems as if no show for a rapper in Madison goes without an asterisk which bears the weight of their race and the active efforts of a city to suppress their creative expression. “It’s obvious that so many mainstream institutions don’t want to see hip-hop as a thing,” Penn noted.
Some have pointed to the idea that establishing an institution dedicated to hip-hop would be a starting point for moving forward, but as Penn explains, that comes with its own asterisk as well. “I’d love a couple of designated hip-hop spaces for all genres… I also don’t want people to use designated hip-hop spaces as a way to segregate even further to actually put another ‘Whites Only’ sign on the door and not have to say so… I see where that’s gonna go right now.”
There’s no easy way forward; if there was one, we’d be moshing to local rappers every weekend on the Capitol Square, yelling cries of joy for all of the city to hear. But until that time, both music venues and the hip-hop community will have to find common ground to not just maintain the progress that’s been made, but to look ahead far enough to leave the roots of Madison’s segregation and racism in the past. Penn puts it plainly: “We’ve got a lot of fucking work to do; are y’all ready?”