Sometimes, all you need is the right beat. A strong, pulsating, vibrating rhythm from a percussionist will make heads nod and people forget about their problems — rent that is not yet paid, loans that won’t go away or worse. For those that love go-go music, like me, it’s this beat that consumes your attention, engloves your heart and makes you believe that music breeds serenity, peace, joy.
The power of the conga, the heartbeat of go-go music, had this effect on people Sunday night at the first King of Congas battle.
“They normally give you the beat that makes everybody move,” says Brion “BeeJay” Scott, a member of the L.O.U.D. band and the son of go-go legend Milton “Go-Go Mickey” Freeman.
This same beat though can sometimes lead to beef, and ugly acts of violence that make go-go fans stay away. Organizers of the show wanted to put together event that would remove the stigma of violence and bring the community together.
“What I’m trying to do is unify everybody,” says Hosea Williams II, an organizer for the event, in a phone interview before the competition. He says there’s been some division in the community since the godfather of go-go, Chuck Brown, died in May: A stabbing at Club Elite in August is just one of what he considers too many incidents. “We’re doing this in memory of pop.”
In a concert hall at the La Fontaine Bleue in Lanham, Scott, 23, was one of 32 players who competed to be King.
“I’ve been involved in go-go myself since 1980. I’m still amazed at the skill and the precision [needed] to do what the conga players do,” says Nico “The Gogo-ologist” Hobson, a co-organizer for King of Congas and co-owner of Gogoradio.com. “This has never been done before.”
There were go-go lovers of all ages, from all corners of D.C.’s metropolitan region, to hear performances by their favorite conga players.
Tairahn McBride came to support his friend, Kermit, who was competing as a member of Ms Yendy & the Affliliated Project.
“I’m 48. So I’ve been around go-go all my life,” McBride said. He watches live performances by the Be’la Dona band about twice a month. “I’m biased for females,” said Remona Davis, who was torn between rooting for old-school conga players, such as Lil Beats, and new-school, female percussionists such as RE Angie.
“I want the old to win, but I want the females to be at the top.”
Divided by region into four brackets — Northwest, Southwest, Northeast and Southeast — players were paired up into groups of two. Each contestant had 90 seconds to mesmerize the crowd and massage the congas with their hands while a band (the player could choose to bring on a preferred drummer or lead mike) played in the background.
“I think I need a hand clap after that one,” says Williams, after Craig the Clipper performs. Next it’s BJ’s turn at four ruby red congas on the stage. “He’s RGIII, the future,” Williams screams.
Williams daps up almost every player and encourages the crowd to applaud after each set. Even when newbies such as Virginia player Good to Go perform with a bib and pacifier around his neck, and fails to wow the crowd, Williams doesn’t miss a beat. Everyone still deserves a hand clap. Unity is the goal.
“Since Pop died, it’s like the dad died and all the kids are for self now,” he says days before the show. “I’m just happy to get everybody in one spot.”
Williams is using the event to jump start a new nonprofit organization called Congo Players United (CPU) to help underprivileged families in the D.C. region.
When I asked Davis and McBride about this underlying feeling of disunity blanketing the community, they didn’t echo Williams’ feelings but they did agree that the time is always now to bring together fans of all ages in a safe atmosphere to party.
My feelings lie somewhere in the middle.
Sunday was the closest I’d been to a go-go in almost 10 years. I’d spent almost a decade running from the music I’d love, believing it was safer to love it from a distance.
My journey began on Georgia Avenue Day in 2001. After years of listening to Backyard Band shows on cassette, I would finally see my favorite go-go band live. Surrounded by an army of teens in Banneker field, my friend, Ameera, and I waited. I zoned out while OP Tribe warmed up the crowd, day dreaming about the rush of ecstasy I would soon feel when Big G grabbed the mike to perform crowd favorites such as “Pretty Girls” and “Thug Passion.”
And then there they were, on stage. I could finally see the artists that I listened to each morning while putting on my uniform before heading to school. G’s raspy voice commanded the crowd, but before anyone could beat their feet — BANG! One shot caused pandemonium.
I quickly decided that running would be safer than hiding under the bleachers as I saw one girl do. And so I ran, and ran, and ran, down Georgia Avenue. Away from my friend. Away from my band. Away from my music.
Thankfully, I ran into Ameera some blocks away from the performance. We caught the green line back to her house in silence.
After that day, I went to a few more go-gos, but it was never quite the same. Despite hearing about violence in many a go-go tune, I had always been removed from that reality. Now my romanticizing of the music as simply a way to party and let loose had crashed into the real-life challenges many band members sang about: shoot-outs, stabbings and violent acts that could never be forgotten.
Talking to Williams about what happened at Club Elite reminded me of why I had stayed away from live shows for so long and chosen to instead follow the music through YouTube, Twitter and the go-go mixes played each week night on radio station WKYS.
But going to the King of Congas show made me think that it may be time to make a U-turn. Davis’s friend, Gina Reed, spoke of a maturity that comes with an older clientele.
At La Fontaine Bleue, I didn’t have to remove my shoes, turn them upside down, and bang them together to prove to security that I wasn’t hiding a weapon. I didn’t have to wear a bra that didn’t have an underwire, as that could also be used as a weapon. And I didn’t worry about a brawl breaking out because someone accidentally stepped on the wrong tennis shoe.
A feeling of togetherness was in the room. Even when Hot Sauce got booed when the crowd believed the judges unfairly awarded him winner of his battle against Supa Dave, the boos didn’t lead to fights.
But I know they sometimes do. With go-go, much like hip-hop, unity is a lifelong struggle, one that each generation must battle.
I haven’t yet decided whether I’m truly ready to join, but hearing the beat of the congas live, feeling the crowd’s euphoria and witnessing history in the making give me reason to re-think my relationship.
I left after the Northeast Bracket played, but my heart stayed. Soon, the rest of me may come back to once again enjoy the power of the percussions.
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