Go-Go Music as a Rallying Call to Resist Gentrification
The percussive, funk-inspired, call-and-response style of music known as go-go is the sound of black Washington, D.C., a homegrown genre that seeped into the city’s bloodstream in the mid-sixties and still pulses through its streets today. The uninitiated may know the swing of go-go when they hear older hits, such as E.U.’s “Da Butt,” Rare Essence’s “Overnight Scenario,” and UCB’s “Sexy Lady.” But, like any genre, it changes with successive generations; younger ears may recognize its bounce-beat textures in, say, the rapper Wale’s hit “Bait.”
Go-go (which takes its name from the party-show hybrids where it evolved) is best experienced live, and its hold on the region was once so dominant that concert promoters, seemingly both out of a sense of respect and as a ticket-sales insurance policy, often booked local go-go bands to perform alongside visiting acts. Even now, it’s not unusual to see a go-go stalwart like Backyard Band sharing a bill with artists as disparate as Scarface, Uncle Luke, and Young M.A. Go-go bands often cover the hits of the day (New Impressionz, for instance, recently did a take on Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”), adding congas or timbales or a go-go pocket; if the remix hits just right, for go-go fans, the original might as well not exist. But it’s the local specificity of the music that really gives go-go its heart; neighborhoods and cliques get personal shout-outs, or “stamped,” and thus are immortalized as a geographic imprint in the song’s recording.
The owner of a MetroPCS at the intersection of Florida and Georgia avenues regaled the corners with go-go for twenty-four years. The music that blared through his speakers had become a satisfying D.C. staple in itself. So when a senior at Howard University tweeted that the storefront had gone silent because of noise complaints from the neighbors, the reaction was swift. The thought that go-go music would no longer be heard on a block with the commemorative name Chuck Brown Way, for the late Godfather of Go-Go, was jarring. The hashtag #DontMuteDC trended on social media; the act of muting spoke to the actual music, of course, but also to the sanitization of Washington, D.C., through rapid gentrification.
On the night following the tweet, April 8th, the storefront became the site of a peaceful protest. The next evening, supporters made an even bigger statement: the intersection at Fourteenth and U, about seven blocks away, was transformed into a go-go headlined by the legendary band TOB. (Two weeks later, organizers put on another neighborhood go-go, this time with New Impressionz and TCB.) In videos of the first event, kineticism radiates through the screen. There’s no sitting still through go-go’s bounce beat, as distinct as it is contagious. Within a day, the C.E.O. of T-Mobile, John Legere, tweeted that the store’s music would continue to play and that he’d be in discussions with the neighbors about controlling the volume.
Still, the reality that it took thousands of people mobilizing to undo the actions of a few disgruntled people is a sinister tell about who matters most in our society and who is considered entitled to public expression and public space. The storefront playing go-go recordings was a symbolic and largely innocuous display—a simple reminder of where you were as you passed by the intersection. The Shaw and U Street areas, near Howard University, in the city’s northwest quadrant, are historically black cultural centers where gentrification has divided the community. Last week, reports of new residents walking their dogs on the campus drew the ire of students and D.C. natives; one pet owner, in response, flippantly suggested that the school be moved. Two NPR stories, from 2017, documented growing tensions between longtime residents and newcomers in the area, citing reports that the neighborhood had been seventy-eight per cent black in 1980 and was only forty-four per cent black in 2010, with the proportion still dropping. This trend mirrors the rest of D.C., where, in 1970, the over-all population was seventy-one per cent black in 1970, and, in 2017, fell out of the majority for the first time, to forty-seven per cent.
In an article for The Atlantic, the former federal prosecutor Paul Butler is quoted describing the primary difference between neighbor and gentrifier as “the gentrifiers are not wanting to share—they’re wanting to take over.” Gentrifiers expect, or demand, that the environment adapt to their rules and desires, and many cities and landlords are often happy to oblige. Forcing people to leave their homes is heinous on its own, but threatening the music of a people and censoring it from the very blocks that have helped sustain it is a violent act of cultural erasure. Music, like literature or visual art, is what remains long after our bodies have gone; it’s the essence of its creators, captured in sound so that it may live forever, telling us about what—and who—came before.
For the inhabitants of a place once lovingly nicknamed Chocolate City, the vanilla-ing of the cultural fabric is grim. As the writer and editor Willy Staley wrote, in an essay for the Times, last year, “The poor are still gentrification’s victims, but in this new meaning, the harm is not rent increases and displacement—it’s something psychic, a theft of pride.” Any version of D.C. that doesn’t embrace go-go is one that denies a half century of the city’s lived history and tacitly rejects the value of its people and their contributions. The community may have won this recent, short-lived tussle, but the war on black expression—and, indeed, on the residents themselves—remains. If there’s a glimmer of optimism to be found, it’s in the jubilant display of an impromptu Tuesday-night go-go. It’s in how a city came together to save the intangible remains of itself. The people of D.C. showed that they, quite literally, will not be silenced, and, as long as that remains true, neither will go-go.