Natalie Hopkinson is a journalist, founding editor of The Root and a distinguished scholar of go-go, D.C.’s homegrown brand of funk music.
So when she planned a reading from her new book, “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City,” at Politics and Prose Monday, she thought it might be a good idea to play a few examples of the music she’d be talking about — some Trouble Funk, a little Backyard and a lot of Chuck Brown.
But Hopkinson says her playlist didn’t get nearly that far.
A few bars into her warm-up track — Parliament’s 1975 classic “Chocolate City” — a patron complained about the tune playing on the bookstore PA, and management eventually shut the music off completely. Hopkinson described the incident, which took place in a veritable temple of upper Northwest Washington culture, in a blog post Tuesday on her personal Web site.
The patron believed the song was racist, a Politics and Prose employee told Hopkinson. “I was completely shocked,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I never expected it to happen, even there.”
But the bookstore’s owners said the music was stopped only briefly while management spoke to the unhappy patron. The music continued playing later in the evening, they said.
The song — which, among other things, sketches out an alternative federal government populated by prominent black Americans — certainly deals with race: “They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition,” the opening line goes.
But is it racist?
That apparently never got discussed. The reading was about to start when the patron complained, and the woman left the store a few minutes after Hopkinson started her presentation.
”I don’t know how you can get that it’s racist 30 seconds into the song,” she said.
Setting aside the profound ironies at stake here — including this happening during a discussion of how the city is increasingly unfriendly to its native music style — Hopkinson said she was most disappointed not by the aggrieved patron, but by the bookstore’s decision to bow to her wishes.
“Race makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I get that, but for them to say, let’s just shut the whole thing down — that’s just ridiculous,” she said. “We really could have had a bigger conversation on why is that so offensive to her. But we didn’t get a chance to have that conversation.”
Politics and Prose owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine issued a statement Tuesday saying the incident has been “widely distorted in the blogosphere.”
The music, they wrote, was “turned off for a few minutes immediately before the event while we conferred with a customer who had complained,” and later was turned back on.
“Politics & Prose does not censor or ban music or books, nor does the store allow one person’s point of view to silence a group discussion,” they continued. “This would contradict everything P&P has stood for throughout its 28 years. We regret that the music was turned off, however briefly, and that the interruption in any way detracted from an event that the author herself has described on her blog today as a ‘great reading’ and ‘a truly wonderful dialogue about go-go music and the history of the Chocolate City.’”