Washington DC’s go-go music returns in the fight against gentrification | washington d.c.


It’s been the African-American rhythmic underbelly of Washington DC for half a century, as culturally important as jazz in New Orleans, country music in Nashville or rock’n’roll in Memphis.

Yet go-go, a drum-based fusion of funk, rap, and R&B, was rarely heard outside of clubs, churches, and the streets. corners of his DC heart. That is, until now.

In an unprecedented piece of legislation, go-go music will be recognized next year as the official sound of America’s capital – meaning new investment, grassroots support and a potentially much larger audience.

“Generations of people have grown up with go-go – it’s in our blood,” says Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, a go-go musician for more than four decades.

Washington may be a place many associate with the White House and not much else, but Johnson insists the city has always been a hub of “exceptional communities and exceptional music.” His band, Rare Essence, is one of the frontrunners on the circuit, playing at least three gigs a week. They learned their craft, he says, from the “go-go godfather” himself, the late Chuck Brown.

Brown didn’t just invent the go-go, Johnson says, he reinvented what dance groups do. “It’s non-stop. We go from song to song – there is no pause,” he says.

That’s where the name go-go comes from – it’s music with a rhythm that comes and goes. Percussive solos are his signature – conga drums, cowbells, timpani, anything with rhythm. These transitions between songs turn into crescendos that rock the dance floor. “He was Brown’s genius,” Johnson said.

It’s these thrilling connections between songs that elevate go-go to an almost religious live experience, he says.

“We make dedications to the public. It’s exhausting, hot, sweaty, but it’s an incredible party.

Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, left, and his band Rare Essence. Photography: Brian Liu

Not everyone saw it that way. In the early 1990s, when Washington was America’s murder capital, the go-go scene gained a reputation — unfairly, many insist — for violence. Most notoriously, a man was shot and killed at a Chuck Brown concert in 1992. Police cracked down, introducing curfews and alcohol bans in clubs. Sites were shut down if there was even a hint of a problem.

“Go-go has been criminalized,” says Natalie Hopkinson, who wrote the book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate Town. She says gender has been a scapegoat because some of the violence has happened around venues. “But the violence happened everywhere – the guns had nothing to do with the congas, the bells, the horn section, the main speaker, the dancing, all those beautiful things that make music go- go.”

The crackdown has forced the music into hiding, Hopkinson says. But go-go never went away. “What’s really amazing is his strength, his vitality despite all these challenges,” she says.

Around the turn of the century, the drug battles died down and Washington lost much of its bad boy image. A new contingent of well-heeled Americans moved into town, driving up real estate prices and “making DC the most gentrified place in America,” according to Hopkinson. This would become the next new threat to go-go.

“Gentrification is one of those areas where you can see some of the old fault lines coming back,” Hopkinson says. The once staunchly African-American communities, the spiritual center of go-go music, were gradually “whitening out”.

“Where a go-go club used to be, there used to be a high-rise condo or a designer donut shop, that’s how it worked,” says Johnson of Rare Essence. “They were trying to push go-go out.”

Things came to a head in the spring of this year, when a resident of a new condo in the Shaw neighborhood – a former poor area of ​​the city – complained that the go-go music played by a local convenience store was too much. strong. The owner had been promoting his store for 25 years by playing go-go, Johnson says. When he was forced to turn it off, “all hell broke loose”.

A DontMuteDC protest in Washington.
A DontMuteDC protest in Washington. Photography: Don’t Cut DC

Go-go fans from all over DC converged on the area to protest, and the battle cry DontMuteDC was born as a social media hashtag.

“It became a movement that looked at the issue of displacement,” says Sojin Kim, curator at the Smithsonian Museums.

People who had never heard of go-go, let alone listened to, suddenly wanted to know all about it, she says. It became a campaign that other gentrified cities could identify with – New Orleans and Los Angeles in particular. “It put the go-go on the map.”

At the 2019 BET Awards, a massive national TV event in America, Washington DC-born actress and comedian Regina Hall, who hosted the event, paid tribute to the go-go by spoofing a video of Beyoncé.

They threw the hashtag DontMuteDC on the screen. “It was phenomenal,” says Kim, who is currently working on an oral history of go-go and the DontMuteDC movement to be featured by the Smithsonian next year.

For Johnson, national recognition is a long time coming, but it’s still “a very big deal.” His band is collaborating next year with rapper Snoop Dogg – another indication of how the go-go is gaining new friends.

“It’s crazy to think that people wanted to shut us up,” he says. “That could never happen. Go-go is the soul of this city.


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