Go-go icon Lil' Benny could teach some politicians about character

A crowd turns out at the Washington Convention Center to memorialize one of the founding fathers of a music scene native to D.C.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010

Anthony "Lil' Benny" Harley had a band that played go-go music. That's D.C.'s homegrown yard song, with echoes of African drumming that drives free-form hip-hop horns. It'll make you dance until your clothes are wringing wet.

So why did so many button-down, necktied D.C. politicians turn Benny's memorial service Friday into a city version of a state funeral -- going so far as to help foot the bill for a venue at the Washington Convention Center?

Let's stipulate up front that they went to pay their respects. Benny, 46, died in his sleep May 30. A heartbreaking loss, apparently due to complications from a recent surgery. The young man was, in fact, a cultural icon, a founding father of the uniquely D.C. go-go beat, a son of Southeast whose creative spirit enriched the soul of the city.

Benny began making his mark in 1974 when, at age 10, he joined the Young Dynamos, which became the popular Rare Essence Band and Show. He played flute, drums, saxophone and trumpet -- two at one time -- and performed with Chuck "King of Go Go" Brown before starting Lil' Benny and the Masters.

Heartfelt testimonials about his gifts and talents poured forth at the funeral, with special presentations by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Council Chairman Vincent Gray, among other elected officials.

But a motive for some of them was surely more than altruism.

The Democratic mayoral primary is in September, and a knock-down, drag-out fight is shaping up between Fenty and Gray. Only the most tone-deaf politician would have missed such a voter-rich memorial.

Two lines of mourners, each more than two blocks long, began forming at 7 a.m. and seemed to grow throughout the morning. The room where the service was held seated 5,000, a space that might be used for, say, a sprawling auto show. (By comparison, the chapel at Washington National Cathedral, where memorial services are held for presidents and other nationally known dignitaries, seats 3,200.)

There was lots of love shown for the dearly departed Benny. As a politician, though, one has to figure that anyone who will stand in line for more than an hour to get into a funeral might also be inclined to stand in line to vote -- if also duly inspired.

And therein lies the rub. For who among the mayoral candidates has the gift of inspiration the way Benny did?

The go-go crowd, which spans generations as well as all corners of the city, tends to be passionate and energetic but not easily excited or fooled. Just because you attend the funeral of someone they respect does not mean they will respect you.

One of the things I heard again and again about Benny -- and it's a little thing that meant a lot -- was that he spoke to you, said hello even if he'd never laid eyes on you before. He was down to earth, not a snob -- he didn't ride on a high horse looking down his nose at the common folk, an affliction that some say Fenty suffers from.

There were no "strangers" in Benny's world. He liked helping people, especially children. He could sew and swim, make bread pudding and cook up a mean pot of greens and beans. He taught others how to do those things as well.

Benny attended Ballou Senior High in Southeast and played drums in the marching band. After graduating, he became an electrician, married and had six children.

His musical career took him to gigs in London, Japan and New Orleans and on several Caribbean cruises sponsored by radio personality Tom Joyner. Never forgetting where he came from, Benny would return home and tell youngsters about the wonderful world that existed beyond the confines of their isolated neighborhoods, just waiting for them to step into it.

Benny was loved for his community spirit as much as his music. To him, we were all doing the dance of life together. If somebody stumbles, we don't trample him but pause to lift him up.

Any politician who lacked such heart and soul might as well leave go-go alone -- and just be gone.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company