Go-go music is the soul of Washington, but it's slipping away

A night exploring D.C'.s home-grown music scene.
By Natalie Hopkinson
Sunday, April 11, 2010

It was just another gig at a D.C. area nightclub, one of several shows the band Suttle Thoughts plays each week, drawing hundreds of young professionals in their 20s and 30s -- a self-proclaimed "grown and sexy" crowd. But a club manager stopped the band at the door when he noticed one of the musicians bringing in a set of conga drums, bandleader Chi Ali told me.

If you are in or near the District and you see a young black bandleader trailed by a horn section, guitars, keyboards, cow bells and congas, that can only mean one thing: They play go-go music, the area's unique style of funk. And if you run a club, having a go-go band perform can be complicated. On the upside, the place is going to be packed, and you will rake it in at the bar. On the downside, the crowds can get volatile, drawing extra police scrutiny.

On that day early this year, the club manager didn't want to bother. So he told the band to get its things and go.

This is what it has come to: one of the city's only true indigenous art forms -- the one generations of Washingtonians have grooved to -- unceremoniously cast away. Not only is go-go being shut out from clubs that could still support it, the retail stores that nurtured the music are fading away.

Cities change all the time, but this is about more than mourning what's gone. As go-go shifts to the margins in the District, we are losing something bigger. Go-go may be invisible to much of white Washington, but it's as much a part of the city as the pillars and monuments of its federal face. On any given day, in any number of clubs, parks, community centers, schools and back yards throughout the region, you can find up to a dozen young musicians on a stage, playing before ecstatic, sweaty crowds.

Go-go is Washington. The music never made a real national splash, but it has come to reflect this city, its artistic pulse and the often painful reality of life for many of its black residents.

Now the place that created go-go is shoving it aside.

The U Street NW and H Street NE corridors have gone upscale, pushing out the places where you could buy tickets, hear go-go music live and purchase your neighborhood's unique brand of embroidered sweats. Ibex, a popular Georgia Avenue NW go-go club, has been transformed into luxury condos. The flagship store for local urbanwear designer We R One on Florida Avenue NW went out of business a couple of summers ago. I-Hip-Hop and Go-Go, a store on H Street NE, has been shuttered. The flagship location of P.A. Palace, a chain of go-go stores, has been bulldozed to make way for a Wal-Mart in Landover Hills.

Before the drive-by shooting in Southeast last month -- one of the deadliest shootings in the District in years -- the city was touting the progress it had made in curbing crime. The murder rate was at a 45-year low. When crime statistics were released in January, one of the factors that D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier credited for the reduction in violence was her department's "go-go report," a list of all the concerts going on around the city. When I asked a police spokeswoman to explain how the "go-go report" works -- and how monitoring cuts down on crime -- she refused to comment, citing "law enforcement sensitive information."

Of course a police presence is needed at any activity that draws big crowds. But how else to interpret Lanier's comments to reporters, other than that the city is safer because it is reining in the music?

"I can't imagine my life without go-go," said DJ Flexx of WPGC (95.5 FM), a popular hip-hop station. But the music "is on life support," he said.

The city needs to be throwing out an oxygen mask. Without go-go, Washington loses part of its soul and continues its steady march toward becoming richer, whiter -- less funktified.

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