Madison’s hip-hop community already gave us 31 ideas for addressing racism and policing

A June 22 livestream event continues the work of the City of Madison’s Task Force on Equity in Music and Entertainment.

A June 22 livestream event continues the work of the City of Madison’s Task Force on Equity in Music and Entertainment.

Photo: Rob Dz performs in February 2020 at Art In.

Back in November 2018, a special City of Madison task force dealing with the need for inclusivity in music and the arts delivered its final report. The Task Force on Equity in Music and Entertainment especially wanted to deal with the long, repeated cycle of venues and city officials shutting out and scapegoating hip-hop artists, which has been especially hard on locally based audiences. Karen Reece, president of the non-profit Urban Community Arts Network and a longtime advocate for local hip-hop, chaired the task force and beloved Madison-based MC and educator Rob Dz was the vice chair. Other members included MC Jalen McCullough (stage name Protege The Pro), Majestic co-owner Matt Gerding, and current Alders Arvina Martin and Syed Abbas. 

The report came up with 31 recommendations—concrete things local government and businesses could do to make our music venues and other cultural institutions more welcoming and empowering for artists and audiences of color. The recommendations were about music but also about a whole bunch of other things: policing, public transit, liquor licenses, festival permits, venue staff training. They included creating “a full-time staff position in the Mayor’s office at $60,000 per year (including pay and benefits) focused exclusively on promoting equity in arts and entertainment”; “Within one year, the City of Madison should work with festival organizers who are receiving City funds to ensure that artists of color, and specifically Hip-Hop artists, are incorporated into their programming”; “support finding venue spaces outside of the downtown area”; “reduce police presence in communities of color, and when police are present in these communities, the focus should be on building build trust and connection.”

Members of the task force and City of Madison staff will continue the discussion about these ideas in a livestreamed conversation on June 22, with Reece and Dz hosting. The city asked for the Task Force’s recommendations by officially forming it in 2017—this after years of local hip-hop advocates trying to advance the discussion with local government. But almost two years after the report’s release, city officials have done very little to act on these ideas. Meanwhile, the struggle has continued

It’s a frequent frustration in local government: People spend years and thousands of dollars talking, consulting, writing reports, making recommendations, and ultimately the people with the power to act let it wither. As Forward Lookout explained last year, a few different city committees ended up having an absurd conversation about whether to “accept” or “adopt” the Task Force’s report. At a Public Safety Review Committee meeting in January 2019, Alders including Paul Skidmore and Ledell Zellers pushed back on the report’s recommendations about policing, clearly hesitant to criticize or alienate the Madison Police Department.

As communities around the United States finally open up to bolder ideas about changing or eliminating the role of police in their communities, not to mention addressing racism at a deeper level, the ideas in the report seem more prescient than ever. Just as importantly, the report looks at problems in a holistic way, acknowledging that music and the arts are not off in some separate compartment, but threaded into all aspects of our lives. Reece and Dz remain focused on the bigger goals in the report.

“I think the biggest thing we want to get across is this is an opening conversation about really creating opportunities for stages for musicians, especially artists of color,” Rob Dz says of the June 22 event. “And just really just working to create opportunities, now that the world that we’ve known is changing.”

Reece says that City of Madison Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf, or another staff member from the city’s Planning Division, will also be joining the conversation. The livestream will also include performances from singer-songwriter Lo Marie, hip-hop crew Supa Friends, and six-string bassist Joshua Cohen. Reece, who has a background in research science and a UW-Madison PhD in physiology, also collaborated on a 2017 study questioning the notion that hip-hop events are more prone to violence than other kinds of shows.

“I’m hoping this will result in a series of town halls or discussions with different segments of the music community to really get the ball rolling on implementing some of these recommendations,” Reece says. “We want to share the groundwork that has been laid and then draw people in, because we need all hands on deck to get this implemented. We’ve intentionally left the next steps somewhat unplanned. We want it to be somewhat organic so there is room for other voices and perspectives, while making sure that the original goal of equity and giving space to Black artists and crowds stays as the focus.”

If not for the pandemic, Reece, Dz, and their colleagues at UCAN would usually be busy this time of year putting on the non-profit’s annual outdoor summer concert series, which offers a platform to a wide variety of local hip-hop artists. And many other organizations in Madison would be putting on all sorts of concerts, fairs, and festivals that by and large focus their energy on serving a white audience. 

The wave of anti-police-brutality protests these past few weeks, though, has upended the usual dynamic of Madison summers in a powerful and healthy way, especially in central places like the Capitol Square, State Street, and James Madison Park. Music and the arts are often part of that, whether it’s the variety of MCs and spoken-word artists who’ve performed on Wednesday nights at the Capitol, or last Friday’s Pride dance party on MLK Drive. Dz hopes these events will prompt more local venues to get serious about booking inclusive lineups when they start to reopen.

“If you look at any historical movement, music and arts have been key,” Dz says. “Just look at State Street. There are way more non-people of color that are now seeing the Black and Brown experience that probably have never even tried to understand it. Art and music opens up that possibility to understand, understand?”

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