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  The Meanings of Funk

By Kenneth Carroll
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 1, 1998


"You will not refer to the nation's capital as D.C. in my classroom," screamed Mrs. Hillman to the 25 brown faces populating her third-grade class at the Lucy D. Stowe Elementary School in Northeast. Had I not been 8 years old and a coward, I would have told Mrs. Hillman that for us, Washington and D.C. were entities separate and apart. Washington was the White House, monuments, slick museums, ornate embassies; it was where our parents worked. D.C. was neighborhoods, playgrounds, stores, churches and relatives. It was where we lived.

After April 4, 1968, not even Mrs. Hillman could put Washington and D.C. back together again. If the city had been two distinct places for us before the riots, then afterward it became many Washingtons and multiple D.C.'s. In the mid-'70s, however, black Washington coalesced around an idea voiced by the glib tongue of a funk maestro, a idea that momentarily fused D.C's divisions with a vision:

We didn't get our forty acres and a mule,
but we did get you CC . . .
A Chocolate City is no dream,
it's my piece of the rock and I love you CC.

FACES IN THE CROWD
Lavell Merritt
(By Todd Buchanan)
Maj. Lavell Merritt took off his Army uniform for good shortly after that day in December 1968, retiring after 18 years' service that included two tours in Vietnam. "I had been a true-blue American boy," he says. "But around 1966 I came into an awareness that things were terribly wrong in the military." He was waiting for his wife at the supper club when Ed Murphy asked him if he wanted to sit with the members of the Black United Front. "I said what a wonderful idea,' Merritt says. ". . . The next day, the Army was very uncomfortable, but they didn't do anything to me." After he resigned, he got into economic issues, including minority hiring. In 1983, he returned to his native Chicago, where he lives today. "I appreciate the things that Clinton is trying to do in getting his race initiative started," he says. "The people — especially elected officials — need to understand what's going on."
When Parliament-Funkadelic founder George Clinton uttered, "What's hap'nin' CC?," on his 1975 album "Chocolate City," he might as well have said, "Watson, come here." Clinton's cool, didactic diatribe, buoyed by five minutes of chitlin-cleaning funk, became the allegory that linked black Washingtonians regardless of caste, class or politics. Even before it Clinton put a beat to it, Chocolate City was a metaphorical utopia where black folks' majority status was translated into an assertion of self-consciousness, self-determination and self-confidence.

Walk up to any black person who was in D.C. in the '70s and ask if they remember Chocolate City. If they stare at you blankly or mention Hershey, Pa., you know you are dealing with a mutant strain of squareness or, God forbid, a 'bama-an individual rank and unrepentant in his or her backwardness. But the reaction is likely to be a smile and shared memories of Parliament-Funkadelic, the struggle for home rule, whist games and the hand dance called the bop. People might talk about old hairdos, blowout kits, the Flagg Bros. shoe store on 10th and F, Chuck Taylor sneakers, quarter parties, waist parties, graduations at Constitution Hall, the back of the bus on the X lines and picnics at Hains Point.

Chocolate City was a cultural muscularity flexing itself in images like Gaston Neal and the New School of African American Thought hosting Sun Ra in the middle of 14th Street. It was Robert Hooks and the D.C. Black Repertory Theater. It was Shirley Horne, Buck Hill and Carter Jefferson on sax, Bobby Sanchez on trumpet and Fred Foss on alto at Twins. It was Bill Harris on guitar at the Pigfoot, Butch Warren on bass anywhere; it was Chuck Brown at the Maverick Room on Wednesday night; Billy Stewart at the Koko Club at 8th and H; Trouble Funk at the Coliseum, Experience Unlimited at the Panorama Room, and Gil Scott-Heron's "H2O Watergate Blues" in regular rotation on black radio. It was a pop cultural expression of hope.

Chocolate City rose from the ashes of 1968 along with black people's hopes for self-determination, whether it took the form of home rule or statehood or something else. My family lived at Montana Terrace in Northeast, the last major public housing built by the city. When the city government announced that it was going to take over the Terrace from the private firm that was managing it, an ad hoc tenants organization sprang up almost overnight. Many of the folks who lived at the Terrace had moved in from other projects, and knew how poorly the city had managed them. They were not about to be "taken for bad," which in D.C. slang is the worst thing that can happen to you.

Miss King, Mrs. Teensy and Mrs. Richmond, whose sons I played ball with and whose daughter I fell in love with, went down to the D.C. Housing Authority and demanded to speak not to the petty bureaucrats assigned to run the city, but to the head of the federal government's Department of Housing and Urban Development. Their demand: Keep the private management while you pay to train us to run our complex. Without college degrees, money or experience, they got what they asked for. They had made it clear that poverty didn't necessarily mean powerlessness, which was a funky idea.

Can you feel my breath
All up around your neck
What's hap'nin' CC?

DJs were the founding fathers and propagandists of Chocolate City. The two black AM radio stations, WOL and WOOK, were driven by personality jocks-the Nighthawk, Sonny Jim Kelso, Mr. C., Soul Poppa the Be-boppa, Big Bill Haywood, Leon "The Lover" Isaacs and others-men who were almost as big as the stars whose music they played. According to Bobby "The Mighty Burner" Bennett, who started a legendary career at WOL in 1968, the DJs had been calling D.C. Chocolate City for three or four years before George Clinton.

"Chocolate City for me was the expression of D.C.'s classy funk and confident blackness," says Bennett, who still plays music from the period on WPFW-FM. "D.C. was a major market, and the record companies knew that their acts had to come through here to prove their worth in the black community. This is not to criticize young cats today, but in the '70s black artists like Earth, Wind & Fire, all the Philly International groups, Kool & the Gang, etc., had messages in their music. It was more substantial and added to the idea of cultural awareness."

At the same time, D.C. was producing home-grown musicians who were part of the trend Bennett describes. Bands like Brute, Sir Joe and the Free Souls, 100 Years Time, Osiris, Osibisa, Black Heat and the Soul Searchers dominated our musical consciousness. The Recreation Department's Showmobile, one of the post-riot programs that was intended to bring culture to poorer neighborhoods, gave them a stage to play on, as did private promoters. Bill Washington, who founded Dimension Unlimited (now Dimensions Entertainment), started a series of large concerts at RFK Stadium called the Dimensions Unlimited Freedom Festival. The name itself asserted a kind of social importance that had not been given to black shows before. Wilmer's Park and Summer in the Parks jams also brought black D.C. together for mini-Woodstocks. Through the mid-'70s, as Washington struggled toward home rule and the city's black majority peaked out at roughly 73 percent, Chocolate City prevailed on the streets and resonated out to other American cities.

But by the end of the decade, Chocolate City was losing its magic for much of the aspiring black middle class. Reality was not measuring up to the vision. The city's black elected officials were finding Congress a mighty hindrance in running things, and the black voters were finding that those black elected officials were only slightly better than the former appointees.

Black working-class neighborhoods clung fiercely to the idea of community, but they were fighting stiff odds. Montana Terrace, my neighborhood, was eventually taken over by the city and began a decline as a result of shoddy construction, poor screening of applicants and the arrival of drug addicts. In 1980, we moved to Brookland.

By then go-go, the percussive, rhythm-obsessed music started in the late '70s by Chuck Brown, dominated D.C.'s musical scene. It arose out of Anacostia-it remains D.C.'s only indigenous musical form-and it relied not on recordings, but on live performances and the idea of putting the audience on "display," of the bands' engaging the audience in a vigorous call and response. In the late '70s and early '80s, go-go could be heard in its natural element, live, on any night of the week at a number of venues.

It provided the soundtrack for the dispersion of black Washingtonians to the Maryland suburbs.

Go-go drew negative publicity, much of it hyperbole from folks who simply couldn't get with the music (my high school music teacher called it "jungle music"), some of it deserved. As cocaine and violence began overwhelming D.C., some knuckleheads used go-go shows to settle petty arguments or develop reputations for themselves. Drug dealers set up open-air bazaars outside, and some bands often glorified these hustlers. By the mid-'80s, go-go – which could cram hundreds of sweaty, dancing youths into a venue and keep them grooving peacefully all night – was identified with the violence that occurred after the shows.

The bands did their best to quell it. They would stop the music during fights and refuse to play until the rumbling stopped, thus making everyone in the room responsible for keeping the peace. Chuck Brown would demand that any "young 'uns" who fought during his shows hug each other before he would continue. In 1988, Brown and an assemblage of go-go stars even recorded a single titled "D.C. Don't Stand for Dodge City."

Go-go even found itself a respectable and formidable advocate in Charles Stephenson, an aide to Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.) who now serves as chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and a board member of the Washington Area Music Association. "I felt this music was more than just entertainment," Stephenson says. "It was a tool for empowerment for many of the youth who played it. It provided jobs, musical training, and steady income for many of these young men and women who didn't have other outlets."

And if cocaine and violence have persisted, so has go-go. Radio stations that used to ignore the music are featuring it nightly, and performers like D.J. Kool are keeping go-go in the national limelight. And this music, like the funk that preceded it, still lends a sense of identity and a note of hope to D.C., even if it is smaller and more fragmented than it used to be. While accepting a certified gold single last July for his hit, "Let Me Clear My Throat," D.J. Kool said, "I tell people everywhere I go I'm from Southeast D.C. because I love this city and can't nobody make me give up on it."

They say you jive and game and can't be changed,
but on the positive side, you're my piece of the rock
and I dig ya CC

Today, the most common question for successful black Washingtonians is, "Why are you still in D.C.?" The answers vary, but they rest on the same vision that had us proudly claiming CC as our home in the '70s. We remain audacious and optimistic, believing that we are about to bring our city out of the morass.

Chocolate City lives on in the community activism of Brenda Jones, who supports families and individuals at Parklands Community Center in Southeast. It lives on in the commitment of Dera Tompkins, who has advocated for the reggae and world music communities to be recognized as part of D.C.'s expanding black demographics. It lives on in the continued presence of poets like A.B. Spellman and E. Ethelbert Miller and Joy Jones, of writers like Eloise Greenfield and Brian Gilmore and Jennifer Smith and Bijan Bayne, of sax player Antonio Parker and jazz singer Sunny Sumter and painter and sculptor Renee Stout and others, all of whom have continued to make D.C. the place where they create.

Though the New School of African American Thought is long gone, Gaston Neal, a Pittsburgh native, is still here. "I'm here because, like in the glory days of Pittsburgh's Hill District, I can take you neighborhood by neighborhood and block by block and show you the homes of black artists, musicians, writers, scholars, activists and politicians," he says. "D.C. has what I want my children to have access to – a community that cares, that still looks out for each other, and is still willing to challenge the backward tendencies that are present."

Kenneth Carroll, author of So What – For the White Dude Who Said This Ain't Poetry, is editing an anthology of black writers from Washington titled D.ark C.ity.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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