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.
The Black CNN
Fenty, who had a white mother and a black father, had attended D.C. public schools during the “Murder Capital” 1980s. He also attended Oberlin, and then the Howard University School of Law. So he could not pretend to be naïve about the racial undertones governing change in D.C. The city was replacing public housing projects located on prime real estate with so-called mixed-income housing. The scarcity of affordable housing disproportionately hit the poorest—and blackest—corners of the city. Construction and other blue-collar jobs once held by blacks were now going to Latino immigrants. The black middle class was feeling the squeeze too. Far from reflecting a postracial meritocracy, the city’s elite institutions in academia, in the think tank, the nonprofit organization, on Capitol Hill, and in the media were generally whiter than a Sarah Palin rally, even in 2010. Now their grip on the Chocolate City institutions that provided them professional and economic refuge was slipping away.
There were a few notable black exceptions to Fenty’s colorblind hiring policies. A few of Fenty’s fraternity brothers got multimillion-dollar no-bid parks contracts at greatly inflated rates, which raised the ire of government watchdogs and the city council. And Ronald “Mo” Moten, an ex-con turned go-go promoter and antiviolence activist, got $10 million in no-bid city contracts for working with “at-risk” youth. Yet for the most part the young mayor charged ahead with a racially blind overhaul of what many were calling the “new D.C.” As Fenty “classed” up the joint, the subtext was clear: black meant decline, white meant progress. Census projections showed that black voters would soon be a minority of the city’s population. But Fenty, along with almost the entire establishment news media, governed the city as if black people were dead weight—or worse, already gone.
When the voices of angry black citizens from across the city became too loud to ignore as his reelection campaign was well under way, Fenty turned to the go-go community for help—in particular to one associate, Moten. With Mo at his side, Fenty hosted go-go concerts, code-switched, spoke Ebonics from park stages, and did old-school go-go dances at rallies. He put out a video, “Go-Go 4 Fenty: We Got the Facts, Not Fiction,” featuring endorsements from popular go-go artists including Chi Ali of Suttle Thoughts, Big G of Backyard Band, and Sugarbear of EU.
And, of course, Moten—and Fenty—were front and center at Little Benny’s funeral. Among the audience in the Convention Center, filled with customized “rip Little Benny” T-shirts and embroidered work uniforms, there were plenty of sighs, whispers, and eye rolls at the spectacle of Fenty and the rest of the city’s political brass shamelessly standing above the trumpeter’s dead body, giving what amounted to stump speeches. As the mayor took his turn at the dais, a string of boos rang out from among the mourners, many of whom had already moved to Maryland. Reverend Deron Cloud, who had delivered a eulogy backed by a go-go band, jumped to the microphone to chastise the crowd for spurning the mayor as though he had just sung off-key at the Apollo. “This is the house of the Lord,” he snapped. “We are not here for that, family.”
Well, not exactly. This was not the house of the Lord. And they were not “family.” The Convention Center was the $800 million house of District taxpayers. Even so, as Little Benny was laid to rest that June, it was Fenty who quickly arranged for the public to pick up the tab.
A Black Public Sphere
Little Benny’s funeral was just one example of how go-go embodied a certain racialized part of the public in the nation’s capital. The centrality of music to Washington’s local political scene is a throwback to the African oral tradition that puts music at the center of all things. But go-go also hearkens back to the Western notion of the public as described by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. In his seminal book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas traced the origins of the modern idea of a public to feudal Europe. Because commoners rarely had the opportunity to enjoy music outside of church or noble society, the first music concerts constituted an early form of publicity: “For the first time an audience gathered to listen to music as such—a public of music lovers to which anyone who was propertied and educated was admitted... within a public everyone was entitled to judge,” Habermas writes.
While music played a small early role, to Habermas, the eighteenth-century culture of the European coffee house was the ultimate expression of the public sphere. These cafés were the physical locus of critical debate about the people’s business. In the first decade of eighteenth-century London alone, Habermas notes the operation of three thousand coffee houses, each with its core group of regulars who debated individual and collective issues face to face.
Over time, technology allowed these discussions to move to the realm of mass communication—newspapers and magazines, radio and television. Independent journalism replaced the coffee house and salon scene as the primary vehicle to challenge and criticize the government. But Habermas believed something vital was lost when discussions stopped happening face to face. Their public purpose became muddled as the mass media became increasingly commercialized. Advertising-supported journalism focused less on informing the public and on criticizing leaders and more on promoting consumer culture and consensus. “Along with its communal basis, the public sphere lost its place,” and no longer presented a transparent, comprehensive view, Habermas writes.
Many critics have rightly pointed out that Habermas’s idea of “comprehensive” excluded many people. Women, people of color, the poor, anyone not a landholding white man. And of course, Habermas’s definition of the public sphere does not exactly explain the kind of public found in a Chocolate City. In the mid-1990s, a group of black scholars called the Black Public Sphere Collective explored this glaring oversight:
The black public sphere—as a critical social imaginary—does not centrally rely on the world of magazines and coffee shops, salons and high-brow tracts. It draws energy from the vernacular practices of street talk and new musics, radio shows and church voices, entrepreneurship and circulation. Its task is not the provision of security for the freedom of conversation among intellectuals, as was the case with the bourgeois public spheres of earlier centuries. Rather it marks a wider sphere of critical practice and visionary politics, in which intellectuals can join with the energies of the street, the school, the church, and the city to constitute a challenge to the exclusionary violence of much public space in the United States.
In his book What the Music Said, the culture critic Mark Anthony Neal noted that after the dismantling of chattel slavery, a black “public” emerged in the form of several institutions: the black church, the black press (newspapers and magazines), and black music. These institutions constituted the primary sites of public expression and vehicles to critique the black experience. Neal noted that black music venues, such as the so-called chitlin’ circuit of black nightclubs, juke joints, and after-hours clubs, helped create common aesthetic values throughout the black diaspora.
Bars, dance halls, blues clubs, barbershops, beauty salons, and street corners offered a window into what Robin D. G. Kelley called “the private worlds of black working people where thoughts, dreams, and actions that were otherwise choked back in public could find expression.” Even as American blacks scattered and migrated after the Second World War, these segregated black institutions helped knit together a black public, according to Neal. During the civil rights movement, music became its own form of cultural and leadership capital in and outside the black church, as Houston A. Baker has explained. The music became the soundtrack for the freedom struggle.
In the post–civil rights era, the black community became even more dispersed as desegregation opened up suburban neighborhoods and regions previously unavailable to them. In the era of black middle-class flight from formerly segregated urban communities, black music continued to function as the glue that held the black body politic together. Still, a sizeable number of black Americans remained in the urban core, both in residential neighborhoods, in public housing, and in the mayor’s office of places like Detroit, Cleveland, Newark, and Washington, D.C. These are the communities George Clinton called Chocolate Cities, and they became hotbeds of cultural innovation. This social, political, and economic transformation of postindustrial urban centers in the 1970s allowed for the emergence of new kinds of public spheres. White and black middle-class flight and the abandonment of the city left a power vacuum in the United States. This allowed for the rise of underground economies that snatched their own cultural and economic power. In the Bronx in the mid-1970s, that was hip-hop. In Washington, D.C., during the same time, it came in the form of go-go.
In their first decade of life go-go and hip-hop cultures developed along roughly parallel tracks as communicative mediums knitting their respective local urban communities together. Chuck D (né Carlton Ridenhour) of the hip-hop group Public Enemy described the early days of rap as a “Black CNN.” He claimed the rapper or emcee would paint a visual picture with his words to describe the life of the community for those outside it, so that “people all over could get informed about black life in those areas without checking the [mainstream] news. Every time we checked for ourselves on the news they were locking us up anyway, so the interpretation coming from Rap was a lot clearer.”
Hip-hop began as a community-based art form that included deejaying, emceeing or rapping, breakdancing, and graffiti. But its geographic location in New York and then Los Angeles proved critical to deciding its future trajectory. The economy of New York, the U.S. financial capital, and that of Los Angeles, the entertainment capital, made it possible for private companies to co-opt and globalize hip-hop. Cable television promoted the music; multinational corporations signed and promoted artists. Hip-hop eventually became a dominant expression of youth culture worldwide.
In its divergent path go-go can be viewed as a kind of cultural and economic counterdiscourse to hip-hop. In chapter 4 I discuss how live go-go performances remain faithful to a centuries-old cross-Atlantic dialogue between West Africa and the black diaspora. Economically, the go-go public sphere is black-owned and heavily guarded, a possibility that only exists because of the cultural geography of Washington, D.C. The metropolitan area is a recession-proof government town that boasts the largest, best-educated, and most prosperous black economic base in the country. I discuss the historic and political roots of the concentration of black wealth in the U.S. capital in chapter 2.
In the 1980s, when go-go was at the height of its popularity, Washington, D.C., was also home to a specific underground economy: one of the nation’s most lucrative crack cocaine markets. With the economic support of what Patillo-McCoy called either “decent” or “street” elements of the black community, the go-go industry managed to survive as a cultural and economic island in the nation’s capital.
Long after mainstream hip-hop ceased to serve this function, live go-go performances are still a “Black CNN.” Go-go has guarded this network by stubbornly resisting the standardization of youth culture via hip-hop. There are of course hip-hop fans and artists in the District, but in Washington go-go has remained the dominant manifestation of black youth culture, with locally rooted fashion styles, slang, and dance.
Go-go has accomplished this position by relentless innovation, constantly adapting its business, aesthetic, and production models. Rare Essence, the band founded by Little Benny and his elementary school friends, offers a perfect example. Although most of the founding members had moved on, Rare Essence remained a marquee brand in go-go known for its constantly changing lineup. “Rare Essence is not a band,” Kevin “Kato” Hammond, the editor of Take Me Out to the Go-Go, a web magazine he founded in 1996, told me in 2006. “It’s a company that employs musicians.”
Through constant evolution, go-go remained an authentic place to communicate and share the reality of life in Washington, D.C. It has also grown into an industry that has capitalized on the links among consumption, identity, and economic power. “We got two things in this town, urban wear and go-go,” Steve Briscoe, a local black clothing line owner, told me. “This is our culture, our identity.” In 2004, he organized with dozens of other District-based black colleagues in the garment industry to fend off piracy from a Korean competitor. Preserving and protecting this market allowed the same dollar to circle endlessly through a single community. This in itself is a statement that is deeply political in a way that Booker T. Washington would appreciate—if not Habermas.
Washington’s “two cities” are a cliché commonly invoked by both the media and residents to describe the geographic and psychological divisions between mostly black D.C. residents and Washington, D.C., the seat of world power. Indeed, the body politic on view at Little Benny’s funeral looked much different than the national public conversation taking place blocks away in Congress and the White House. However, as I will argue in this book, federal Washington and the Chocolate City share the same geography, the same history, the same values, and often quite literally the same space. They are two sides of the same coin rapidly fusing into something brand new while the Chocolate City fades away.
The boos among the mourners at Little Benny’s funeral died down as Fenty took the microphone. He announced a plan to rename a street off the historically black U Street corridor “Lil’ Benny Way.” No one in the room could have missed the symbolism of this proclamation. U Street had once been the city’s segregated black entertainment district, a city within a city, or “Black Broadway.” By the time Little Benny died, it had become a racial melting pot. Hipster publications had declared the neighborhood the cutting edge of urban cool. On any given day you might find tour buses, which before 2000 would have never crossed the city’s racial boundary of Fourteenth Street. Shortly after his 2008 election, Barack Obama became the first president to patronize the iconic U Street greasy spoon, Ben’s Chili Bowl. When the French president Nicolas Sarkozy visited the White House in 2010, he did the same.
“Lil’ Benny Way” would be located steps from The Spirit of Freedom, a ten-feet-tall sculpture of uniformed black soldiers that died in the Civil War. The go-go trumpeter’s name could be seen alongside a memorial listing the names of each of the 209,145 U.S. Colored Troops. His musical contributions would be commemorated right there, next to his ancestors who fought to prevent the country from cannibalizing itself over the issue of slavery.
His announcement earned Mayor Fenty a hearty round of applause. But sitting next to me, LaTanya Anderson just rolled her eyes. She knew the (sort of ) state funeral and the permanent memorial to her childhood friend would not have happened if not for the political currents swirling in the melting Chocolate City. Most white voters praised Fenty’s work “cleaning things up.” Black voters were equally passionately against Fenty, finding him the perfect vessel to carry their resentment and bitterness about rising racial inequalities in the city. White minority public opinion was just as plainly racialized as black majority opinion. At a time when gentrification and governance decisions created clear winners and losers, few national and local observers of the 2010 mayoral election problemaized the benefits and privileges that drove white perceptions of the city’s leadership. Little Benny’s funeral was yet another example of how go-go provided a forum, a physical space, to provide an alternate interpretation. By September 2010, the city may have been getting whiter, but black voters remained the majority in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, representing 63 percent of likely Democratic primary voters. If they spoke with one voice, black voters could easily take Fenty out—a final exercise of black privilege. Sitting next to me, LaTanya just shrugged: “Election year, sweetie.”