Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City
At the peak of its popularity, go-go could be heard around the US capital every night of the week, on college campuses and in crumbling historic theaters, hole-in-the-wall nightclubs, back yards, and city parks.
Excerpted from Chapter 1: A Black Body Politic (footnotes omitted) from Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City by Natalie Hopkinson. Reprinted by arrangement with Duke University Press. Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
Chapter 1: A Black Body Politic
“So . . . are you a go-go fan?”
I was just trying to make small talk with the woman sitting next me. LaTanya Anderson and I were among the thousands of mourners gathered at the Washington, D.C., Convention Center in June 2010, where the body of the legendary go-go trumpeter Anthony “Little Benny” Harley was lying in state in a baby blue casket topped by red roses. Well, the District of Columbia is not legally a state; so it was the Chocolate City equivalent of a state funeral. The mayor, city council, and the District’s representative in Congress sat on a stage above the body of the forty-six-year-old trumpeter, who had died unexpectedly in his sleep. The night before, he had played a gig with his mentor, the “Godfather of Go-Go,” Chuck Brown. Little Benny would not be recognized outside the Beltway, but inside the city limits, he was the kind of superstar who would bring out six thousand people to pay their respects in the middle of a workday.
Dead or alive, these were the kind of coattails you might want to ride if you were a politician facing a tough primary.
“Am I a fan?” repeated LaTanya, who was a forty-something government analyst, looking at me as if I had just landed from outer space. “That’s a strange thing to ask. I’m a fan of Erykah Badu. I’m a fan of Ronald Isley. To me a fan is something removed, not part of your culture, part of your blood. Something you grew up with, watched develop. That’s like asking someone from New Orleans if they like jazz. It is them. It’s the culture. It’s the food.”
It is as the ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell and the cultural activist Charles Stephenson Jr. explained in their groundbreaking ethnography, The Beat: Go-Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop: “Go-go is more than just music. It’s a complex expression of cultural values masquerading in the guise of party music in our nation’s capital.”
Indeed, three generations of Washington-area residents had been grooving to go-go, ever since the guitarist Brown had created the sound in the mid-1970s, borrowing the Caribbean flavor he had picked up playing for a Washington Top 40 band called Los Latinos. Go-go has been compared to everything from funk to hip-hop and reggae, but it is best described as popular music—party music—that can take many forms. When you hear it, you know it’s go-go by the beat: slow-boiling congas, bass drums, timbales, cowbells, and rototoms layered with synthesizers and a horn section. You also know it’s go-go because the audience is part of the band. Together the musicians onstage and the people below it create the music live—always live—through a dialogue of sounds, movements, and chants.
Go-go comes with distinctive dance moves, slang, hand-signs, and clothing—all customized and unique to life in the area surrounding the U.S. capital city. A so-called lead talker presides over the show as emcee, calling out fans and rhyming free-style. There is also usually a rapper and an R&B vocalist singing original compositions and covering pop artists from Ashlee Simpson to Ludacris. Much like jazz artists, the D.C. musicians completely transform popular standards in the live environment, funking them up with the heavily percussive go-go swing.
At Little Benny’s funeral, Brown collapsed at the dais, breaking into tears mid-note during an emotional rendition of “A Closer Walk to Thee.” Until his unexpected death in May 2010, the diminutive Little Benny was both a bandleader and trumpeter (sometimes blazing two trumpets simultaneously). He and some buddies at his Southeast Washington elementary school had started the seminal go-go band Rare Essence. At the time of his death, go-go had still not much broken out of the D.C. area; there were only some crossover hits from Brown, EU, Trouble Funk, Wale, dj Kool, and others. There was also a national film release, Good to Go, by Chris Blackwell’s Island Visual Arts (a spinoff of Island Records) in the late 1980s, followed by a memorable go-go scene in Spike Lee’s musical School Daze of 1987, which spawned EU’s Billboard hit “Da Butt.”
Go-go did not stay outside D.C. for very long. But there was plenty of work for go-go musicians in the Chocolate City. Hundreds of musicians played go-go in the D.C. region seven nights a week anywhere the genre’s musicians and audience gathered—backyards, street corners, high school proms, firehouses, community centers, parks, government buildings, restaurants, skating rinks, corner stores, nightclubs, and college campuses. The most popular go-go bands, such as TCB, still played four gigs a week, drawing anywhere from two hundred to one thousand fans per night, with clubs turning people away at the door on a good night. The foundation of go-go was a large, extended network of local and almost exclusively black-owned businesses. Mom and pop storefronts sold local clothing lines of urban wear, live recordings, and concert tickets. Graphic design firms created and printed advertisements. The city’s most popular FM stations (WKYS 93.9 FM and WPGC 95.5 FM) had nightly go-go hours devoted to the music. Then there were security companies and club and restaurant owners. By the early 2000s, as gentrification steamrolled the city core, much of the go-go industry had been shoved deeper and deeper into exurban Maryland.
The majority of go-go enthusiasts were black. But blacks do not make up a monolith, especially in the Chocolate City. Not all black Washingtonians liked, or even supported, go-go. As Lornell and Stephenson noted, go-go “wears the mantel of low-class or blue-collar music.” It would be rare to find go-go music on, say, the campus of historically black Howard University. Club owners of various races and ethnicities openly banned the music, keeping deejays from playing the rump-shaking music and turning away bands that carried the telltale conga drum sets. D.C. politicians often railed against the music as a magnet for violence and illicit activity. A few politicians in Maryland and the District pursued aggressive campaigns to yank the liquor licenses of venues hosting go-go music. In early 2010, the District of Columbia police force boasted at a news conference about an initiative called the “Go-Go Report,” designed to keep tabs on what band was playing where and when. Officers credited this surveillance of conga players with the falling murder rate and with changing D.C.’s reputation as the “Murder Capital.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, hip-hop artists were subject to some of the same police scrutiny after a spate of well-publicized killings, including the deaths of the rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. After years of denying rumors of a “hip-hop task force,” New York and Miami police admitted to the Village Voice in 2004 that they had units keeping tabs on hip-hop artists. This revelation sent everyone from the rap mogul Russell Simmons to the former NAACP leader Ben Chavis Muhammad and Georgetown University law professors howling. “Hip-Hop behind Bars” blared a Source magazine cover. In the Chocolate City, however, there were few political consequences for disparaging go-go, as class often trumped race—except, of course, during an election year.
Yet at the time the city made arrangements to pay for Little Benny’s funeral, black working- and middle-class D.C. voters were united around one sentiment: the mayor, Adrian Fenty, had become a problem. Polls showed Fenty to be in deep political trouble, losing support to his rival, the sixty-seven-year-old city council chairman named Vincent Gray. True, Fenty, a hard-charging thirty-nine-year-old triathlete, kept the trains running. Under his watch, the renaissance of the city raced ahead, with new doggy parks, renovated schools and recreation centers, and sparkling new libraries. But Fenty seemed to relish any opportunity to defy establishment elders as he made an aggressive show of remaking D.C. into what he called a “world-class city.” In a city that often communicated via subtext, many wondered if by “world-class” the mayor meant the opposite of “Chocolate.”
As the city gentrified, it grew more diverse, but it remained far from a postracial melting pot. In fact, the influx of wealth into the city made the economic disparities between white and black residents in the city even more dramatic. Much like the rest of the country, D.C. was in the midst of heated class warfare about how public resources should be spent. Whites in the District had a median household income of $92,000, while blacks earned a median income of $34,000. (Latino and Asian D.C. residents also out-earned blacks, with a median household income of $44,000 and 84,000, respectively.)
When Fenty was sworn in as mayor in 2007, D.C. had a higher concentration of people living in extreme poverty—10.8 percent—than any of the fifty states, including even Mississippi and Louisiana, the latter still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Four years later, as Fenty campaigned for reelection, the increase in poverty among the city’s black children was even more breathtaking: it had shot up to 43 percent, from 36 percent in 2008 and 31 percent in 2007, according to an analysis of U.S. census data. By comparison, the white median income had grown, and the number of white children living in poverty was 3 percent at the time of Little Benny’s funeral.
The bottom line was that D.C. remained a Chocolate City, and black residents still outnumbered white residents by a margin of one hundred thousand. Black residents were more likely to look to the city to provide a social safety net, while white residents looked to the city to provide the perks, brick sidewalks, bike lanes, and doggy parks now available thanks in part to the extra taxes they had brought into the city.
D.C.’s large and politically active black middle class could have provided a swing vote for Fenty, especially since the mayor was one of them, a D.C. native; member of a black fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi; and a graduate of Howard University. As his London-raised wife Michelle Fenty said in an interview, “He doesn’t just care; he grew up with these people.” But Fenty had antagonized many black middle-class voters, too, with his aggressive overhaul of city agencies, whose jobs and contracts had helped to produce the black middle class in the first place. Fenty appointed few black faces to the upper levels of his administration. This would not seem odd if the city were not home to the most educated, accomplished concentration of black talent in the country, many of whom knew their way around D.C.’s odd, quasi-colonial government structure. Then there were the mass firings of veteran black public school teachers, replaced en masse by young, often white, Teach for America temporary workers recruited by his schools chancellor, a young education entrepreneur named Michelle Rhee.
Few things infuriated black voters of all income levels more than Fenty’s scorched-earth, erase-everything attitude toward their schools. Parents in the District had spent a generation learning how to navigate the resource-starved public school system, which had, for at least a century, been a plaything of Congress. Like the rest of the city services that took a hit during the lean years when the city experienced a shrinking tax base and deteriorating infrastructure, the schools were far from ideal. But instead of leaving the city for greener suburban pastures, generations of Washingtonians had stayed loyal and learned to make do. Now, thanks to a booming local economy and skyrocketing real-estate values, the city finally had the resources to do more. Public school parents—three-fourths of them black—resented the disparate impact of school “reform” that eradicated neighborhood schools in some black communities. While traditional public schools in majority-white neighborhoods were largely left alone, black neighborhood schools were allowed to wither on the vine before being closed. (In the rash of 2008 closures that followed Fenty’s election, the city’s green, leafy, and majority black Ward 5 community, for instance, was left without a single freestanding neighborhood middle school.) They also resented the implication of Rhee’s portrait in Time magazine, on whose cover she appeared wearing a grim expression and wielding a broom. Did “reform” mean that black people were the dirt being swept away? They did not believe there were no qualified black professionals available to run schools. They also balked at Fenty’s and Rhee’s statements—often to national corporate audiences they courted for donations—that the system was such a morally decrepit wasteland that parents and teachers should have no input in their reform.