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Go-go music is the soul of Washington, but it's slipping away
As with many nonnative Washingtonians, my introduction to the genre came from Spike Lee's 1988 film "School Daze," which spawned one of the few mainstream go-go hits, "Da Butt" by the band E.U. I started hanging out on the go-go scene a decade ago, first as a youth-culture writer for The Washington Post and then as an ethnographer earning my doctorate at the University of Maryland. Go-go is played on D.C. hip-hop stations such as WPGC and WKYS (93.9 FM), but the recordings don't come close to translating the joyous, infectious energy of the live shows.
You know it's go-go by its signature, slow-driving conga beat. The music sounds like a grittier kind of funk, with a "lead talker" calling out fans, a rapper and an R&B vocalist singing original songs and go-go versions of hits by artists from Ashlee Simpson to Ludacris. The most popular go-go bands, such as TCB -- a fixture since the early 2000s -- play as many as four gigs a week and easily draw 500 to 1,000 fans per night, with clubs turning people away at the door.
Nico "the Go-Go-ologist" Hobson, a music historian and collector who is a fixture on the scene, says there are more new bands forming than ever. While not a route to the high life or visits to the White House, for many local artists, becoming a go-go superstar is a more attainable goal than being the next Jay-Z.
But Hobson says keeping the music alive is an uphill battle. Not only is go-go fighting economic and political pressures, it is also suffering from self-inflicted wounds. Violence surged around go-go with the crack trade in the 1980s and 1990s, and over the years, several high-profile tragedies have taken place near the clubs.
Marvin "Slush" Taylor, who invented the "Beat Your Feet" dance craze (and inspired the recent MTV reality show stars Beat Ya Feet Kings) was killed at age 19 after leaving a go-go in 2002. In 1997, D.C. police officer Brian T. Gibson was killed outside Ibex on Georgia Avenue. In 2007, high school cheerleader Taleshia Ford, 17, was killed inside a U Street area go-go by a stray bullet.
Ford's death was the fourth killing connected to dance clubs around U Street within three years, and some clubs were eventually shut down. Among them was Club U, at 14th and U streets, which had helped rejuvenate the neighborhood beginning in the early 1990s, transforming the Reeves Municipal Center into a go-go at night. After a fatal stabbing in 2005, the club lost its liquor license and closed.
Go-go music is not any more violent than, say, punk music. But it does reflect what is going on in a neighborhood. Fans sometimes bring their turf battles, which can include neighborhood rivalries, to concerts. These are exacerbated by the competition to see whose crew or neighborhood will be acknowledged on the mike. As one D.C. police officer once said, it's often simply a matter of youth, immaturity and too much alcohol coming together.
Go-go also channels much of the grief experienced in too many parts of our city. At a Haiti benefit concert in January, Peculiar People Band lead vocalist Dre MayDay, 22, explained how people at the show could relate to the hopelessness on the island since the earthquake. "I know we are not strangers to the pain," he said to the audience filled with teens, many of them hoisting "R.I.P." T-shirts to honor fallen friends. "We are not strangers to the struggle. We gon' sing this song so loud that they can hear us all the way in Haiti. We're dancing in the rain. We're dancing through the struggle and our pain."
Such grim eulogies were not what Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go, had in mind when he invented the sound around 1976. A jazz guitarist, Brown borrowed some elements from the Los Latinos band he played with, giving the music a Caribbean feel with conga drums, timbales, cow bells and a horn section. (The genre was named after a 1965 Smokey Robinson song, "Going to a Go-Go.")
Go-go helped rejuvenate areas such as U Street that for years were deeply scarred by the riots that erupted in 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Charred and abandoned buildings around the Howard Theatre near Georgia Avenue came back to life as the area filled with go-go shows.
Now, as the city's renaissance approaches full tilt, those venues are being replaced with a new kind of nightlife. The natural ebb and flow of business, fickle youth tastes and the growing incursion of hip-hop are all playing a part. But there is more to it than that: Go-go is also a victim of changing perceptions of what kind of nightlife Washington -- and its developers, business leaders and politicians -- want to have. There is little desire on their part to work with the young, black, sometimes-marginal community that supports go-go. As the authors Kip Lornell and Charles Stephenson wrote in their 2001 book on Washington's go-go scene, "The Beat," the music "wears the mantle of low-class or blue-collar music" and "remains ghettoized."
That's why the D.C. police "go-go report," and the police presence at many clubs, say so much to me about the direction in which this city is pushing the music.