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  • Writer's pictureJacinth Jones

Rare Essence Celebrates 45 Years at the Kennedy Center

WASHINGTON -- As Black History Month came to a close, GIRLAAA’s Go-Go 101: Monthly Series at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts featured one of go-go’s premier bands who is credited for contributing to the early evolutions of the genre. 

“February is Black History Month and we wanted to recognize the history and legacy of go-go music. With that being said, there was no other band we could have had here,” said event curator Dominique Wells. 

Dubbed the “wickedest band alive,” Rare Essence spans over four decades and is recognized as one of go-go’s earliest trail blazers. Known as RE by their most loving fans, the band first came together in 1976 as students at St. Thomas More Academy in Southeast Washington, D.C. 

“Things started to sound like something and we stuck with it. Here we are today 45 years later,” reminisced guitarist and founding member Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson on Friday.

Over the years, Rare Essence has collaborated with many prominent acts. Johnson recalled working with Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Raheem DeVaughn and Biz Markie. The group was also featured in Aretha Franklin’s 1986 “Jimmy Lee” music video. 

Their undeniable impact on D.C's Black culture and community - which spans over multiple generations - unified the city “and kept neighborhoods bonded,” noted vocalist James “Jas. Funk” Thomas. 

Inundated with decades of commercial success, the group remains humble and acknowledges all Chuck Brown, the "godfather of go-go," did to pave the way for the genre's national and cultural recognition. Peaking briefly at No. 75 on Billboard’s Soul Singles charts, the band’s first recorded debut, “Body Moves,” was co-produced by Brown in 1981. 

Although it took the city nearly 50 years to make go-go the official music of D.C., Thomas emphasized it could not have come at a better time.

“It started in Black culture. I want to thank my heavenly Father that a Black man created [go-go] and it was signed [into law] in the month of February which happens to be Black History Month, ” said Thomas, prompting the audience to applaud. 

Despite the city’s recent recognition of the genre, the District has tried to suppress go-go since its inception. The bill comes roughly one year after #DontMuteDC - go-go’s most recent fight against the city last spring.

The viral hashtag was in response to a noise complaint and a potential lawsuit that prompted Shaw’s MetroPCS to turn off the go-go music which had been blasting from speakers outside the store for nearly 25 years. 

Outrage from students, local residents, activists, elected officials and prominent members of the go-go community transformed into traditional protests, musical rallies and online petitions to bring back the sound of Washington.

Eventually, the music returned to “Chuck Brown Way” and the city’s effort to protect go-go music took center stage at the 2019 BET Awards featuring Thomas as a guest performer. 

Citing #DontMuteDC as a plus for the go-go scene, Thomas says “now what it’s doing is bringing more people to [go-go]. About 60 percent of the people here may have heard of go-go, but not particularly heard go-go. All these new races coming into the city is a plus for us.”

But #DontMuteDC was and still is much more than just go-go. 

“It wasn’t just about the music. It was about the disconnection between a city and its natives. It was the outcry of those people showing that this isn’t okay. That’s why we are seeing this rally behind go-go music now which is great. How we pivot it to make sure there is funding and policy to protect the people first is what will lead to protecting the culture. It’s not the other way around,” said Wells. 

The monthly series, curated by Wells and Kelcie Glass, is one of many events aimed at educating and informing residents of the history, legacy and culture go-go brings to D.C. The third installment of the series will highlight the vital role women play in the go-go community on March 27 as a tribute to Women's History Month.



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