A local infectious musical genre, Go-Go is key to the ‘Native Washingtonian’ identity. Despite historically being ignored by mainstream music charts and radio, the beat goes on.
On February 19, 2020, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed a bill making the city’s indigenous music, Go-Go, the official sound of the District. The bill was also unanimously passed by its City Council.
“There is no D.C. without Go-Go and there is no Go-Go without D.C.!” said Bowser.
The bill was introduced by Ward Five Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. He wrote, “Designating Go-Go the official music of the city signals to those who have been here and to those who continue to move here, that this music represents the lived experiences of native Washingtonians. It codifies into law that Go-Go will never be muted in the District of Columbia.”
To prevent the law from becoming mere words on paper, two government organizations—the D.C. Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment, and the D.C.Creative Affairs Office—including Go-Go artists and supporters, developed a “People’s Plan.” The blueprint for action lists specific ways the music can be preserved and performed going forward. As part of the plan, a museum and archive would be established. Go-Go would be taught in schools, plus be used as a significant marketing strategy in promoting tourism.
Official recognition of Go-Go as the heartbeat of the city came a year after gentrification challenged its presence. In April 2019, Metro PCS store owner Donald Campbell was playing Go-Go on loudspeakers outside of his store as he did for 25 years. Perturbed by the steady stream of drums and uptempo rhythms, a nearby luxury apartment building resident contacted the Metro PCS parent company T-Mobile to complain. Subsequently, Campbell was told that the individual would sue if he did not turn the music off.
By April 8, 2019, one hundred demonstrators supporting Campbell and Go-Go took to the streets; hence the #DontMuteDC movement emerged. It also focused on the gentrification of the city resulting in Go-Go clubs being torn down and replaced with condominiums and other new businesses that longtime D.C. residents could not afford. With the latest wave of gentrifiers, now new establishments mostly appeal to young whites with higher incomes.
“[Go-Go music] is probably one of the last things out here . . . that’s still D.C.,” rally participant Mohammed Osman told the DCist. “My barbershop plays Go-Go music. My parents met each other at the Go-Go. It’s running through my veins. It’s my culture, it’s D.C. culture.”
Councilmember Brianne Nadeau among others supported the store. Moreover, a 61,000 signature petition called for the store to reinstate the music. Not long after, T-Mobile CEO John Legere allowed the store to turn it on again.
The #DontMuteDC movement even generated national attention. That June, D.C. natives and actors Taraji P. Henson and Regina Hall performed a salute to Go-Go when they co-hosted the BET Awards.
“Wind me up Chuck!”
Writing the introduction for the Go-Go People’s Plan was Charles Stephenson, the former Legislative Director for the late Congressman Ronald Dellums (D-CA). The ex-New Yorker turned Southeast D.C community organizer and cultural archivist, co-authored “The Beat! Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C.” and forthcoming book, “Cranking: An Essential Guide to Go-Go.”
Stephenson’s involvement in Go-Go began in the 1970s after a friend invited him to an apartment-based band rehearsal. “We saw a group of teens playing music,” Stephenson told The Ark. He found out that the group was Experience Unlimited or “E.U.,” a collective of musicians who later became famous for “Da Butt,” a song featured in the Spike Lee film “School Daze.” Stephenson became E.U. ‘s manager.
In the early days of Go-Go, the music sounded like “regular R&B,” explained Stephenson. “There were groups like The Young Senators, who later left D.C. to tour and sing backup for Eddie Kendricks, formerly of The Temptations. There was The Aggression Band, The Matadors, Father’s Children. Other groups that formed included Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, and Little Benny and The Masters.”
As disco music became more popular, Stephenson said many of the early Go-Go bands broke up, unable to compete. “One of its members came to me and said, ‘We need a new [musical] style.’”
Godfather of Go-Go
Gaston, North Carolina-born “Godfather of Go-Go” Chuck Brown, and his new band, The Soul Searchers, was on the horizon with a fresh beat. The innovative tempo was driven by solid and steady conga drumming, and a horn section that rivaled those of funk bands. According to historical records, they based Go-Go on Grover Washington’s jazz instrumental, “Mr. Magic.” Gradually, E.U. and the other groups built their musical style around this new band; thus, the “Go-Go” genre was born.
Brown combined funk, Latin American salsa rhythms, R&B, conga drums and cowbells in his Go-Go beat. He also employed call-and-response, a practice in Black churches. An example is in “Bustin’ Loose,” when he called out “I say sha-la, get it!” and the audience shouted back, “Roch ‘em on down!” The name “Go-Go” is attributed to Brown, who said the music “just goes and goes.” Bands would play continuously without a break to keep audiences dancing.
Although Go-Go never received the industry support to have a consistent reach outside of its region, in 1979, Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers’ single, “Bustin’ Loose,” made the Billboard Top 40 and reached number one on the R&B charts.
Brown died on May 16, 2012, at age 75. In 2019, a petition was launched to induct him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Go-Go crack and crime…
In the 1960s and ‘70s, there were no clubs specific to Go-Go. So, managers of the earlier groups booked them in social clubs, or spaces like The Panorama Room, which belonged to a local Catholic church.
During the 1980s, more venues opened up for live Go-Go performances. But it was also the decade of the national crack epidemic. Because fights broke out at concerts, neighborhoods associated Go-Go with crack-fueled violence. At the time, Stephenson, who was manager of E.U, called on police to stand outside the clubs as “a show of force” minutes before they closed and audiences were leaving. That was enough to stop violence before it started.
Eventually, Go-Go clubs permanently closed due to crime concerns. Bands began to play at hotels and supper clubs, which attracted older patrons. “It was the ‘grown and sexy’ period of the music,” Stephenson explained.
Other promoters tried to generate a wider audience. Chris Blackwell, head of Jamaican reggae label, Island Records, claimed he could make Go-Go internationally popular. While a few bands signed with Island, they never made it big. A 1986 feature film, “Good to Go” was supposed to put Go-Go on the map. Instead it depicted Go-Go as linked to crime and drugs.
“Unfortunately, the bands, which you see for all of 10 to 15 minutes, are merely window dressing for a story that is at best, a tired yarn . . . and at worst a travesty,” wrote Washington Post film critic Paul Attanasio.
Now that Go-Go is the heartbeat of The District, some supporters feel the music should remain a local phenomenon in order to protect its authenticity and integrity. As Natalie Hopkinson, author of the book “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City,” put it, “Go-Go [is] a complex expression of cultural values masquerading as party music.”
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