A little less than a year ago, Pat Nugent learned to love go-go.
His enchantment began last August when he bought a ticket for Chuck Brown’s 75th birthday party at the 9:30 Club. He fell in love with the crowd’s pulsing energy, the call-and-response ditties and the larger feeling of togetherness in a city that can seem so isolated.
"I always had a tough time describing what go-go was and couldn’t really until I saw it live,” said Nugent, a 31-year-old graduate student who grew up in Columbia and now lives in Bloomingdale. "To experience it is to experience so much about D.C.”
There are essentially two people who live in this area: Washingtonians and those who don’t get go-go.
For people like Nugent, who were compelled to pay their respects at Brown’s public viewing Tuesday, finding go-go was like finding their personal D.C. rhythm. It was one of those small moments usually described in tomes about New York or California, a time when you’re original sense of home becomes overshadowed by your embrace of a new land.
Call me an emerging Washingtonian. I moved here nearly 18 months ago, and since then, go-go has fascinated me. I was flummoxed when a DJ at a street dance party in Dupont Circle recently stopped playing 90s pop, my wheelhouse, to close out his set with Chuck Brown. I swayed unpersuasively until my friend admonished me.
"You’re dancing to it all wrong,” he said, bouncing up and down. "You have to get down on your knees.”
Here I was, a black kid from the Bronx, being told how to dance from a white kid from Bethesda. Go-go apparently does things like that.
"How do you know how to dance this?” I asked.
"This is the music we played when we were kids. I didn’t realize it was a D.C. thing until I went to college.”
I was grateful for the lesson; the godfather of go-go died days later. His death made thousands of people shake — literally. Indeed, a church in Forestville held an impromptu dance party honoring Brown after Bible study and 2,000 people showed up to shimmie.
As I weaved through the crowd to cull interviews at Brown’s wake on Tuesday, I asked the partiers/churchgoers why this music was so important. James Means, a 56-year-old who grew up in Northeast, tried to persuade me of the music’s power by telling me a story about seeing Brown perform on a boat called the called the Wilson Line.
"Makes sure you put Wilson Line in the article," Means told me. "If you put it in, all the black people will know what I’m talking about.”A woman overheard the conversation. "You remember the Wilson Line?” she said. "I was just talking about that.”
The three of us talked about Chuck Brown being imbued in their memory of an older, blacker Washington. Brown’s music was heard in so many places that were vestiges of the past, clubs that were wiped away by drugs and blight or scraped clean by gentrification and suburban sprawl.
Brown wasn’t just their music, he was a part of their Washington. And now, it seems less and less like their Washington anymore. The Chocolate City is no longer majority black; the streets they’d encountered Brown’s music are rapidly becoming the playgrounds of young professionals who did not grow up here. But Brown played on.
Go-go music, they hope, will be the glue. As it was for Nugent, it was for Melodye Robinson, 53, who moved to the District 30 years ago after growing up in Alabama and New Jersey. She loved funk and soon was persuaded by the go-go percussion.
After work at Howard University Hospital, she too came to the Howard Theatre to pay her last respects. She thanked Brown for making her feel a little more at home.
"Just look at how many people love him and loved his music,” she said, looking at the hundreds milling around in the street festival and hundreds more still on the line. "Young and old, they’re all here.”
And perhaps it is the glue for me, too. I felt sadness when the crowd, whittled down to about 100, applauded as Brown’s hearse was escorted from the Howard Theatre late Tuesday night. As I walked home, I found myself trying to remember the beat to "It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Go-Go Swing.” I chuckled to myself. I was finding my D.C .rhythm.
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