By EMMIE Magazine Staff
UW-Madison alumnus Michael Penn II returned to the Memorial Union Terrace for a live performance in September. Known by his stage name CRASHprez, Penn is a 2015 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, former staff writer at the Daily Cardinal and a member of the fifth cohort of the First Wave Spoken Word and Hip Hop Arts Learning Community, and is now based in Minneapolis.
The day after his set at the Terrace that September night, video circulated on social media of the crowd at the show all on their knees, prompted by CRASHprez. What came next probably didn’t wasn’t shocking to those in attendance — the national anthem began to play.
The intersection of politics and art traces a long history far beyond the show at the Terrace. Art, and especially music, has been used as a powerful form of protest for as long as each has existed. From Dylan and Picasso to graffiti and performance art, the instances of political activism interacting with creative works are numerous, and CRASHprez — the music, certainly, but even as a concept — follows that legacy. For CRASHprez (and Penn), the music he makes and his identity as a black man are inseparable.
The Emmie magazine staff spoke with Penn about his time at UW-Madison, his music’s message, what he’s planning for 2017 and more.
EMMIE: For your show at the Terrace, did you plan ahead to have people kneel and then play the national anthem?
CRASHprez: Things like that are just me doing bullshit. Like, “You know what would be funny? This.” I thought of that one in particular for about a week or so beforehand. I didn’t want it to be boring. I try to be very cognizant of what statements I’m making and how predictable it can be, and try to subvert my own predictability as much as possible.
What statement does your music make?
I just say it’s hip-hop. I don’t say it’s political, I don’t say it’s socially conscious. I think a lot of [those labels] are inherently classist. I don’t like a lot of those labels; I try not to even preface [my music]. I also don’t speak for anyone but me. I speak a lot about what people like me are going through, but I’m just one person. I don’t try to put myself on a pedestal to make huge grandiose statements about anything, it’s just me trying to process shit, like looking around like, “What the fuck is going on?”
Would you say there’s a difference between Michael as a person and CRASHprez?
Almost no I’m pretty sure. For Michael the person to survive planet earth in the U.S. context, I can’t say all the shit that CRASHprez says all the time. But in spaces where I’m comfortable, and even in spaces where I’m uncomfortable it’s damn near no different. White friends have grown accustomed to how I process this type of shit, and recognize that it’s the same brain across me in person, on record, in 140 characters or in essays.
You talk about expressing yourself across multiple platforms including music, writing and even social media. Is this something you’ve always done to process life, or did it develop over time?
It definitely developed over time, because I said some dumb shit in high school. I was emulating what everyone else displayed as OK and nobody would check me on it, and I lacked the capacity, the tools to check myself on the dumb shit I was saying. I hope I’m in a better place now, but if someone wanted to dig through Michael 2011 Twitter, I’m not proud of that shit, I don’t cosign that. There was a lot I had to unlearn before I got here. Thankfully I was around people who would not only call me on my bullshit, but donate their time to help me grow. Now I try to play that role when I can… helping people maneuver through the world and not be stupid. Especially dudes.
For this story, you’re wearing and displaying statements that some people may take offense to. What do the two statements mean to you personally, as opposed to how they might be perceived by others?
CRASHprez: The state of Wisconsin imprisons more Black men per capita than anywhere else in the country. Its police forces, not unlike anywhere else in our country, executes Black people. A brief look into the Race to Equity report finds just how much the city of Madison in particular has laid the framework to disenfranchise its Black youth, poor Black folks, all Black folks in one way or another.
Speaking to my own half-decade of residency as a UW-Madison student, and then a freelance writer, my time at UW-Madison, as well as all of my associates, involved several smaller deaths, political deaths, the idea of killing one’s soul rather than one’s body. They expect us to do their work: to learn and educate when we’re neither salaried nor working for tenure, to facilitate dialogues involving the safety and sanctity of our bodies, to observe blatant exhibitions of white-supremacist nature and pass them as pieces of discourse that deserve validity.
My experience wasn’t an absolute negative, but this is the lens of [modifying the Wisconsin shirt]. Lincoln wasn’t as fond of Negroes as our country lets on; I damn sure didn’t know that until I inquired for myself. It’s sitting atop the grandest view of our campus, our city, on Native ground nonetheless, but we’re supposed to rub [Lincoln’s foot] for good luck and celebrate with diploma and degree in hand? Dead that.
As for the [All White People Are Racist] hoodie, it’s a simple fact of the world created for us. Eneale [Pickett, creator of the hoodie] has spoken at length about it, and I personally don’t wish to edify confused parties any further, for fear of repeating myself as I — as we do — in times like these. If we can validate a noose around an Obama mask, we can damn sure validate that. [At an October Badger football game, a fan wore a mask of President Barack Obama, with a noose around his neck held by another fan in a Donald Trump mask.]
How do the messages depicted in the shirts (and your wearing of them) tie into your music?
I know my music reaches a white majority as of now. If you’re white and a fan of mine, you already know what it is. I don’t care which Black kid was your next-door neighbor, I don’t care if common sense costs me a Pepsi sponsorship or a daytime TV slot, and believe it or not, I’m not an entertainer. I don’t intend on entertaining anyone with my work; rather, it’s not the primary vehicle of how I express myself. Once I turn the track off, I’m endangered. Once I leave the stage, my body can be claimed. If you can’t fathom any reiteration of this phenomena via the way I present myself, you can leave me now. You weren’t listening.
What do you hope to achieve by wearing them? What message would you want people to take away from them?
I definitely have an intention with utilizing this [apparel] in this location, on this magazine in this time, but I want to leave the mystery there. I’d rather people process the work on their own terms.
What do you have planned coming up in terms of releasing music?
I’m so… disillusioned with how things are, because I realized I dropped an hour long album and it kind of didn’t work. I feel like I’m going to make a million songs and just drop them all. As far as formal bodies of work, I’ll probably drop two EPs next year.
What artists would you want to collaborate with?
I tweeted a few days ago that I’m going to collab with Fall Out Boy and told people to favorite the tweet. And then when it happens, I can go back and say, “I told y’all!” I gotta get Childish [Gambino] on a track and fuck him up off principle. I gotta get Kendrick [Lamar] on a track and fuck him up off principle. I gotta get Thom Yorke on a track off principle. Lil Wayne, Ed Droste, Vince Staples.
Would you rather fight one 20-foot tall Michael Jackson, or 100 one-foot Princes?
I’d rather fight MJ. Prince would just shade the shit out of me.
Photography by Kenneth La’ron