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.”