DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Getting Down with Go-Go

It's the live sound of the Chocolate City. It's been called the history of the culture of D.C. masquerading as party music. It's virtually unknown outside of the Washington Beltway, but it's so big in the district and adjacent communities that the death of its creator last Spring sent thousands into the street to mourn and flags to fly at half-staff throughout the area.

It's Go-Go and last night Washington Post contributing editor and Georgetown University Journalism Professor Natalie Hopkinson appeared at Politics and Prose to discuss her new book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.

Go-Go not only has been vital to Black D.C. as music, but it has proven over 4 decades to be a major economic provider to that community, Hopkinson says.

"It's a local thing. It's part of the culture; it's part of the blood, but it's also a huge, multi-million dollar industry," Hopkinson said. "The music has created Black businesses selling stuff from tickets to tapes to T-shirts. Imagine if New Orleans got to keep jazz or the Bronx got to keep hip hop? Here you got to create a music with the culture and history on your own terms and not have to answer to anyone else."

So how did Go-Go originate? The credit goes to Chuck Brown, who was so idolized by D.C.'s Black community that his viewing last May had to be held at The Howard Theater and his funeral at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. In the 1970s, right before the advent of disco, Brown, affectionately known as the "Godfather of Go-Go" took elements of African call and response, spoken word, jazz, funk, and heavy Latin/Caribbean percussion and came up with Go-Go. From its 1st days, the music was meant to be experienced live. In Go-Go, the dancers and the audience are as much a part of the performance as are the musicians providing the music.

Hopkinson said one of the recurring motifs in her book is the intersection between Go-Go as music and its influence in politics.

As an example, she cites not only the impact of Brown's death, but that of "Little Benny," one of the founders of Rare Essence (another huge Go-Go band), a few years earlier. At that time, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, who was trailing badly in the polls, was trying to use Go-Go as a way to spur his staggering re-election campaign. He began making Go-Go a staple of his stump speeches and, at Little Benny's funeral, the crowd of more than 6,000 fans, disgusted that politicians were trying to ride the coattails of their beloved indigenous music,  booed the mayor "as if he had just sung off-key at the Apollo," Hopkinson said.

Another example Hopkinson explores in her book is the story of Club U, one of the most legendary of the Go-Go venues. Located at the intersection of U and 14th Street, the site functioned during the day as a government office filled with bureaucrats. At night, however, for 12 years until it was closed, it turned into one of D.C.'s most packed Go-Go dance venues.

But today, Washington is undergoing an ethnic change. In the 1970s, the city was 71 percent Black (thus, the name Chocolate City). In 2001, however, the percentage of Black residents dipped under 50 percent, a reduction that has only grown in the past decade.

So what has gentrification meant for the music? Hopkinson said the scene has moved - from U Street to 8th Street to Branch Avenue (a Maryland suburb). "The Chocolate City is still alive. It's just been pushed over the line."

Not a native of D.C., Hopkinson says she 1st experienced Go-Go music and Chocolate City culture during her years as an undergraduate at historic Howard University. She became an ardent fan, leading to a doctorate in the subject and her latest book. "When you live in a world that's not designed for you, it's very delicious when you discover one," she said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As with all Black music, race and racism play a part in Go-Go. Not everyone is a fan. An incident last night just before Hopkinson's talk underscored that point. To set the stage, Politics and Prose began playing a related P-Funk tune to be followed by some classic Go-Go tracks as a warmup to Hopkinson's talk. However, at least one patron, apparently offended, complained and demanded that the music be silenced. Hopkinson began her presentation by commenting on that incident. Obviously, there are some people who want to obliterate the entire idea of Chocolate City, to make it a thing of the past. The safe assumption is that the majority of those people are white. The woman who complained might have been objecting to the vocal stylings of  George Clinton or the rhythms of Chuck Brown, but I doubt that. Chances are pretty good that she objected on racial grounds.  "There's no greater reminder of that than just what happened 5 minutes ago," Hopkinson said. "The music isn't hateful. It's a celebration."

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