Twenty years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates — then a budding journalist, today a MacArthur “genius,” cultural critic and public intellectual — wrote a defining perspective for the Washington City Paper on what has become the official music of D.C.: an oral history of go-go, told through its key players, including the late, legendary musician Chuck Brown.
On Wednesday, during a Facebook Live conversation looking back on that article with Don’t Mute D.C. activist (and former Washington Post reporter) Natalie Hopkinson, Coates offered up his guiding philosophy for the piece, and its implicit tragic conflict, still resonant in demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd that have roiled the country: “Art is the most consistent argument in American history for black humanity.”
As the name and spirit of go-go implies, the community may take a hit, but it gets right back up and keeps going.
A little over a year ago, go-go was thrust into an unwanted spotlight when Central Communications, a business in Shaw that sells cellphones and go-go CDs, was temporarily forced to silence the go-go music it was famous for pumping out of its storefront at 7th Street and Florida Avenue NW, after a complaint from a neighboring luxury apartment complex.
Hopkinson and others rallied the city around the hashtag #DontMuteDC, resulting in an array of ongoing block parties — the most prominent of which shut down major intersections for hours — highlighted by a who’s who of go-go bands past and present. It seemed that go-go was primed for another ascendancy.
That is, until the novel coronavirus forced the cancellation of performances everywhere. Go-go overcame one direct challenge, but can it survive the music industry’s larger battle to persuade fans to return to live music venues? That very question hung in the air during an hour-long virtual concert that followed the discussion between Coates and Hopkinson.
Challenges are nothing new for go-go. As Coates and Hopkinson noted, There’s a long history of demonizing the music, by such institutions as the D.C. police, who, in weekly “go-go reports,” once targeted music venues presenting go-go shows in an effort to predict where violent crimes might occur. The media, according to Coates and Hopkinson, mostly reported uncritically on police fears of violence at shows.
But look no further than to Coates’s 2000 article for a prescient vision of go-go’s current dilemma. As George Washington University professor Christopher “Kip” Lornell (co-author of “The Beat: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C.”) told Coates, “People who don’t live in D.C. don’t understand that go-go is a musical event that you may not be able to capture in the digital and analog realm. But it’s not easy to translate go-go into the recorded medium. When I teach at GW, I try to explain what it’s like to be in a Pentecostal church by playing recordings, and it just doesn’t convey the experience. Go-go is the same.” In the Facebook Live interview, Coates repeated that sentiment, describing go-go as being “such a live art form that you’ve got to feel it.”
During the Facebook Live concert, go-go mainstay Frank Sirius and his band, Sirius Company, held down the stage as a rotating cast of cameo performers — including Leroy “Weensey” Brandon Jr. and Anwan “Big G” Glover of the Backyard Band — closed the festivities. But the show’s best moments — including a particularly telling and serendipitous one — came by way of the aptly named First Ladies of Go-Go, featuring Takesa “KK” Donelson, daughter of Chuck Brown.
As Donelson was wrapping up a rousing cover of Lizzo’s chart-topping “Truth Hurts,” Sirius and his band began to transition to the next performer, when all of a sudden the sound cut out.
Viewers could see the ensemble strumming guitars, tapping the keyboard or slapping conga drums, but no matter how much they tried to adjust the volume or frantically hit refresh, go-go was, well, muted.
The go-go community’s understanding of time, place and essence has allowed the art form to evolve, not just through onstage call-and-response, but in the streets — and, even more importantly, to be understood by those who wouldn’t otherwise listen. For as long as go-go has been around, we have gotten a sense of what our city would look and sound like in these moments of silence: inadequate.
Thankfully, the technical glitch lasted just over a minute. Some of the next lyrics to grace listeners’ ears — courtesy of Backyard Band vocalist Sweet Thang, covering Adele’s “Hello” — were both the refrain of a pop hit and a forceful proclamation of a new chapter in a long tradition of getting back up and making the beat go on: Hello from the other side.
Where to watch: The conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Natalie Hopkinson and the concert can be viewed at facebook.com/makegogoforeverdc/.