Go-go's Fight Against its Own City
WASHINGTON -- The percussive, syncopated and continuous beat that has pulsated through the nation’s capital since the 1970s remains a lifeline for homegrown culture in the city. Within the last year, the District saw a spiked interest in efforts to preserve and protect go-go music and Black culture.
The city’s efforts amplified its way to the 2019 BET Awards. Actresses Regina Hall and Taraji P. Henson - both D.C. natives - spoofed Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance into a go-go homecoming of their own. Titled “Homegrown”, the three-minute opening act celebrated and honored the genre with special appearances from go-go bands Experience Unlimited and Rare Essence.
In support of protests against silencing Black culture, Black expression, Black music and Black history, #DontMuteDC flashed on the screen behind the stage - sending a clear message to millions of viewers that go-go is here to stay.
“When BET asked me to host this year’s BET Awards, I immediately thought ‘no,’” Hall said in the video. “Then I thought about it. Why not? It would be a chance for me to teach people, especially the younger generations about Washington, D.C. The Washington, D.C. I grew up in.”
The awards show was not the first time go-go made national headlines.
In 1987, BET aired “Go-Go -- Live at the Capital Centre” - a 100-minute live recorded concert featuring prominent go-go acts.
Since the 2019 BET Awards, the city has seen a robust amount of programming to revive and inform residents of the music and moments that shaped and continue to shape the genre. GIRLAAA’s Go-Go 101: Monthly Series at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, curated by Dominique Wells and Kelcie Glass, is one of many that have highlighted go-go’s historic path.
Like Genius, the panelists brought “the meaning and the knowledge behind the music.”
“This #DontMuteDC thing, it just opened everybody’s eyes. A lot of people have moved into our city due to gentrification. They’re kind of paying attention now. So we have our foot on the gas and we stopping at no stop signs,” said Glover.
Following a noise complaint and a potential lawsuit from a neighboring resident, Shaw’s MetroPCS on “Chuck Brown Way” was forced to turn off its blaring go-go beats -- which had been cranking from speakers outside the store for nearly 25 years -- last March.
As news broke, outrage from local residents, students and elected officials poured into the metropolitan area in forms of traditional and musical protests, online petitions and a rallying cry - #DontMuteDC. The viral hashtag, created by then Howard University senior Julien Broomfield, sparked a movement to bring back the sound of Washington on the corner of Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW.
The neighborhood backlash prompted T-Mobile (MetroPCS’ parent company) to intervene. CEO John Legere tweeted “I’ve looked into this issue myself and the music should NOT stop in D.C.!”
#DontMuteDC was not go-go’s first fight. The city has tried to suppress go-go since its inception. Withstanding decades of institutionalized surveillance, prejudice and criminalization, go-go was used as a scapegoat for violence, crime and drugs between the 1980s and 1990s. As officials closed go-go venues and revoked liquor licenses to go-go clubs that they held accountable for excessive violence, go-go eventually downsized with fewer bands, fewer venues and fewer shows.
The tactics used to push go-go underground had a major impact on how different generations experienced and engaged in go-go.
As Blackwell put it, “a lot of young people are not picking up instruments the way they used to. They were systematically kept out of go-go for 10 years. Bills like the Prince George’s County dance hall license restricted 90 percent of bands and closed almost every club that we were allowed to play.”
The 2011 emergency bill was a “public safety initiative” designed to “reduce violent crimes at adult and teen dance halls or nightclubs.” Police blamed the venues for more than 60 homicides between 2005 and 2011, reported The Washington Times.
Any facility that allowed dancing was required to obtain a dance hall permit which consequently prohibited venues from showcasing musical acts such as go-go bands. The license triggered protests and petitions from owners claiming “go-go is a style of music and cannot be blamed for senseless murders.”
“It's this go-go,” a D.C. police commander said at a 2005 hearing over nightclub violence. “If you have a black-tie event, you don't have any problem. But if you bring go-go in, you're going to have problems.”
“The dance hall license pretty much wiped out every opportunity. If you cut an entire generation off for 10 years, and look 10 years later and wonder why young people are not involved, it’s because they did not experience go-go the way we did. They were not allowed to be apart of the culture because city administrators cut them out,” said Blackwell.
According to Glover, school budget cuts were also a factor that took a serious toll on go-go. “They took [music education] out of the schools as well.” He says this also limited young people’s exposure to go-go.
Hip-Hop’s Prominence Over Go-go
For a genre that has been intentionally undermined, propelling go-go to new heights may be difficult as younger generations aspire to be professional rappers Johnson noted. As the local rap scene garnered more attraction through artists like Shy Glizzy, Fat Trel, YBN Cordae, Rico Nasty and Wale, attention toward go-go began to subside.
“With go-go and hip-hop you gotta bring up Wale. When me and him met at PG Plaza, we never would have thought that hip-hop would take people out of go-go. People were kind of like ‘oh, you could be a rapper now?’” said Alizay, who helped Wale emerge into the hip-hop scene as his former manager.
“Once Wale broke and he got big, it was cool to be a rapper for the younger generations. A lot of them weren’t trying to play instruments like before. It was everything to be in the band and now it’s everything to be a rapper,” Johnson explained.
Blackwell agreed. “Wale was the first real example of a hip-hop artist and something in this area people could aspire to. Prior to him, we didn’t really have a lot of hip-hop artists that blew up.”
Although hip-hop may have overshadowed go-go, Glover was quick to point out “once upon a time, hip-hop had that go-go swing.” Alizay and Glover cited Salt-N-Pepa’s “It’s Your Thang” featuring E.U. and Kid ‘N Play’s “Rolling with Kid ‘N Play” as a few of the many rap hits that were influenced by go-go.
Like any genre, go-go has evolved over time and younger ears still interested in pursuing go-go are tapping into a relatively new variant - bounce beat.
Reginald “Polo” Burwell and his band TCB were known as the pioneers of bounce beat. The group won best band at the inaugural DMV Bounce Beat Teen Awards in 2011. The departure from go-go’s traditional percussive groove to a more thundering aggressive beat is heard in TCB’s “Bait” which was interpolated into Wale’s 2011 track of the same name.
“Bounce beat also had a tough time getting back into dance halls and clubs after the dance hall license went into effect. It was so bad for bounce beat that they literally for the past almost 10 years did not have any place to play.” noted Blackwell.
The creative switch from traditional go-go had what some would consider a strong and malign influence.
“Bounce beat is also a reflection of how people view trap music and what they call mumble rap. A lot of old school hip-hop artists look down on them in a sense,” Blackwell added. “They feel like they don’t get it. A lot of old school go-go artists, people in the culture and fans also give bounce beat that same stigma.”
As a city in the midst of cultural shifts and rapid gentrification, go-go’s longevity comes into question. D.C. is a city with an influx of newcomers and the fight MetroPCS put last spring indicates the city may continue to impede upon go-go’s growth.
“It’s a genre that hasn’t really reached the world yet. So we need to get back to what was going on in the ‘80s when Trouble Funk and Chuck [Berry] was making records. It’s up to us to make records because that’s how we can penetrate more markets,” said Johnson, founder of go-go band UCB.
The accomplished go-go star knows exactly how far a record can take you. Before UCB disbanded in 2011, the group was established on local and national stages. UCB was the official house band at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, accompanied Wale on BET’s ‘Rising Icons’ in the same year and released their hit single “Sexy Lady” in 2005.
Johnson is currently the lead vocalist of Wale’s touring group - Tre And The Ppl. In February, he performed with Wale on The Daily Show and NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert in December. He also has writing credits for Wale’s “Lotus Flower Bomb” which was nominated for Best Rap Song at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards in 2013.
“The record is what’s gonna take you and make people come to your live shows outside the DMV area,” Johnson added.
Even with records, Glover mentioned that getting go-go on the radio was another challenge. During his time at 93.9 WKYS and 95.5 WPGC, Glover emphasized that “nobody was in position of power from my city. We had a million songs and the [program and music directors] would never play our original music.”
“There's a wall that we hit even after we’ve spent thousands of dollars on producing music,” said Blackwell. “D.C. does not have an industry behind it like Sony so we’ve been navigating our way through this situation for the past 30 or 40 years without any industry backing.”
Back in the ‘80s, go-go pioneer and record producer Carl “Maxx” Kidd saw that wall early on and decided to take matters into his own hands by creating a record label, T.T.E.D.
Referred to as the “Berry Gordy of Washington” by Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott of E.U., Kidd spearheaded go-go’s growth and exposure to domestic and international mainstream audiences. Elliott credits Kidd for pushing go-go to radio and television as well.
Between 1983 and 1988, T.T.E.D. released records by go-go bands E.U., Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, Mass Extinction, Redds and the Boys and Chuck Brown. In 1985, Kidd’s efforts landed him a distribution deal with Island Records for seven acts including E.U. and Trouble Funk.
“While I was offered some nice financial deals, I was never convinced they felt or understood the movement that made the music. I’ve worked too hard to sell this music to a company that didn’t know what to do with it,” Kidd told Billboard in 1985. “There has been so much negative stuff written about go-go...saying that go-go causes violence and use of angle dust that I wanted to let people know what it is really about and educate them about the music. I’m trying to show that go-go is good for D.C.”
Since Kidd’s death in 2017, parts of the wall have quickly returned and are being rebuilt.
“It’s gonna be up to some of these djs to go around the program directors,” Johnson told Blackwell as he nodded toward Alizay. Both Glover and Johnson cite Alizay -- who also worked for WKYS -- as one of the main djs that played go-go on the radio.
Even with pull, Alizay says it’s harder to have go-go played in larger social settings like clubs. “We got D.C. club owners that don’t want go-go.”
Preserving Go-go’s Legacy
Go-go finally received the cultural recognition it deserved in February as the official music of D.C. The bill - which comes almost a year after #DontMuteDC - requires the mayor’s office to “create and submit a plan to support, preserve, and archive go-go music and its history.” The celebratory event featured performances from DJ Supa Dan and Backyard Band.
Following in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s footsteps to elevate go-go’s historical significance, the District’s first go-go museum is expected to open in Anacostia this spring. Since 2008, community activist Ronald Moten, Check It Enterprises and leaders in the go-go community have paved the way for the two-story Go-Go Music Museum and Café which will include an outdoor garden and a performance space.
The museum will also have an advisory committee of go-go musicians, scholars and historians to help preserve, protect and uplift go-go’s music, culture and legacy. Organizers still need roughly $8,000 to complete the museum by late spring.
GIRLAAA will continue their Go-Go 101: Monthly Series through September to emphasize why protecting go-go, D.C. culture and people of color is important. Their next discussion topics include the next generation of go-go and policy/legislation.
As a rarefied art form that has held cultural significance in the capital for generations, go-go’s current status is not what it once was. But members of the movement and natives to the area understand the few steps residents -- both new and old -- can take to elevate the genre to unseen heights.
Through all go-go has endured, those who understand its impact refuse to let the soul and heartbeat of D.C. die out.