At Chuck Brown’s memorial service last May, city officials spoke lovingly of the Godfather’s creation — perhaps unaware that Washington’s heartbeat had been exiled to the suburbs years ago.
Go-go music has helped define life in Washington for more than three decades, but in a city continuously transformed by spasms of gentrification, dozens of go-go clubs have been closed, shuttered, razed or condo-fied.
Now, a year after the his death, the style of music Brown invented appears to be trickling back into the District. In the U Street corridor, go-go bands have been keeping the beat going at Liv, Indulj, Dynasty, Martin’s Lounge and the gleaming Howard Theatre, where the Chuck Brown All-Star Go-Go Tribute Band will perform Thursday night — the first anniversary of Brown’s death.
“I guess it’s kind of ironic that the scene that was pushed out is now being welcomed back,” says Michelle Blackwell, vocalist for the group Chocolate City and former manager of W.H.A.T.?! Band. “D.C. has become a little more band-friendly.”
But only a little. After hearing such high-hearted speechifying at Brown’s homegoing last year, the go-go community walked out of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center hoping the city might finally put some muscle into supporting its most neglected musical treasure. Mayor Vincent C. Gray promised to name a park after Brown that could host go-go music — “A place where we can back it on up!” — but the creation of Chuck Brown Park in Northeast has been controversial and slow-moving. Meanwhile, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities has organized a few events and education programs celebrating go-go. That’s about it.
“His music embodied the best of what our city could be,” Gray declared at Brown’s memorial service.
Is this the best our city can do to support it?
Go-go’s future has felt perilous ever since the 1980s, when the violence of the crack trade began spilling onto Washington’s dance floors. As the city’s new, percussive, proudly local brand of funk music came into bloom, the scene made its biggest headlines when the music overlapped with fights and shootings. This created an unshakable reputation that was reinforced just last week when a 19-year-old was stabbed at Fur Nightclub on Patterson Street NE during a concert by TCB — a go-go band that performed at a campaign event for Gray in 2010.
Go-go music itself isn’t necessarily violent — it’s dance music, party music, come-together music, can’t-sit-still music — but its gravity draws young fans from rival neighborhoods into the same sweaty, crowded spaces. In the end, go-go bands are often forced to answer for the behavior of their audiences, which has led many musicians to feel scapegoated and unfairly targeted by the authorities.
When D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier ordered Fur to close for 96 hours after the May 6 attack, the club’s owner, Ahmed Shah, responded by simply firing TCB.
The band’s manager, Ben Abba, says he’s frustrated. “We want people to come in, respect the club, have a good time,” he says. “You’re going to have fights at any club where you’re gonna have a whole lot of people.”
Lanier touted her ability to curb that kind of violence in January 2010 when she revealed the existence of the “go-go report,” a biweekly bulletin alerting her top staff of upcoming go-go concerts in the District.
When asked if the go-go report still exists, Metropolitan Police Department communications director Gwendolyn Crump replied via e-mail, “We continuously monitor various events that may draw large crowds for safety reasons and situational awareness.” Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Gray, says the city currently takes a “music-neutral approach” when enforcing the law at area nightclubs.
Things are different in Prince George’s County. In July 2011, after a spike in homicides linked to area clubs, the county council passed an emergency bill that gave officials broad authority to shut down dance halls deemed a threat to public safety. Most go-go venues vanished.
“Those kinds of bands are still a concern to us,” says Lt. William Alexander, a Prince George’s police spokesman. “If we find that a particular band is drawing a crowd that tends to lead toward violent incidents either during or after the show, then we try to find ways to limit the access of that band to come into the county and play.”
Alexander says that before the bill was passed, Prince George’s police circulated a regular internal e-mail that “would list the dates and times and locations of the prominent [go-go] bands that were playing” across the county. It sounds similar to the District’s go-go report, but Alexander says he doesn’t know if the two bulletins were linked.
Meanwhile, the crackdown in Prince George’s has pushed go-go farther south to Waldorf, where bands still perform regularly at the Icon nightclub, and back across the Anacostia River to go-go’s birthplace.
“My band has gone from playing in the city once or twice a month to six times a month,” says Dawayne Nutt, manager of Da Mixx Band. “We’ve been forced to come back into the city, and the [fans have] truly embraced us.”
But the resurgence on U Street NW and in other parts of the District largely favors smaller go-go troupes that cater to older, self-described “grown and sexy” audiences. Younger, noisier bands that built younger, livelier followings in now-closed Prince George’s nightspots are facing extinction.
“There’s nowhere to play,” says Mikey Harrison, manager of XIB, a band that specializes in a younger style of go-go called bounce beat. Harrison says that these days, XIB scores a gig once every three months — shocking when you consider how many go-go bands spent the ’80s and ’90s working nearly seven nights a week.
And while some veteran bandleaders say it’s difficult to stick up for the younger acts when they’re busy fighting for their own survival, everyone seems to agree that the community needs the kind of leadership and unity that Brown epitomized.
“The sound doesn’t really have that one ambassador, that one guy who can go on Channel 9,” says Frank “Scooby” Marshall, who will play guitar in Thursday’s tribute concert to Brown at the Howard. “But I’m optimistic. . . . I think it’ll be more of a collective effort. You have more than enough bands capable of championing this music.”
Few are counting on the city to step up and get behind go-go. It’ll have to happen from within the scene, and across generations.
“The young bands — they need a voice, they need venues and they need opportunities to grow,” Blackwell says. “There’s no way to pass the music down if there’s no one to pass it down to.”