That isn’t exactly how it went down, but Close and Questlove definitely helped. Truth is that go-go — Washington’s indigenous, indefatigable dialect of Black dance music — had already made plenty of national headlines in 2019 with the go-go community’s public outcry against gentrification in the District, popularized on social media as the #DontMuteDC movement, and now with this Oscars thing, the music was fresh on the hivemind of the Grammy electorate once again.
So when members of the Recording Academy convened for a big Zoom meeting back in April, Kokayi, a District-raised rapper and an awards and nominations committee member, decided to answer a call for new business by tossing up a Hail Mary: Instead of drafting a formal proposal, he suggested that go-go simply be added to the best regional roots album category where it could compete against other musical traditions from communities across the land: zydeco, Hawaiian, Cajun, Native American, polka and the like. That way, instead of underdogging it against the starriest names in R&B — like E.U. did in 1988, like Chuck Brown did in 2010 — go-go music could be recognized on Grammy night on its own terms.
“Go-go is not R&B. It’s not hip-hop. It’s not funk. It contains elements of those musics, but it’s its own art form,” Kokayi says. “So I just put it out on the table like, ‘Look, I’m not asking for a new category. I’m not asking for any of that. I just want to add go-go to regional roots . . . because there’s a whole community working on this music on the daily, but when it’s time for us to submit our music, there’s nowhere for us to go.”
More than a few celebrity academy members immediately piped up in support of the idea. “PJ Morton, Yolanda Adams, Paul Wall, Ledisi, Lalah Hathaway — all these people started speaking up for go-go,” Kokayi says. “Everybody was like, ‘We know this music. We’ve heard it [in D.C.] when we’ve been out on the road and we love it.’ ”
Like a go-go song, everything started coming together organically. And unlike a go-go song, it happened fast. Academy trustees ratified the proposal in May, the category language was changed and the window for entries opened and closed in July. On Tuesday, the Recording Academy will announce its slate of nominees for the Jan. 31 awards show — and if any go-go albums make the cut, it’s because the artists made haste.
Harlem rap pioneer Doug E. Fresh had a head start. By the time the eligibility news reached him, he’d already begun work on a tribute album dedicated to go-go’s creator. “The idea came to me in a dream to write a song about Chuck Brown,” Fresh explains over the phone. “I didn’t understand why. I just started writing because that’s the same way I wrote ‘The Show,’” his signature hit from 1985.
Fresh met Brown that same year. The two shared a bill at the Capital Centre, where Fresh remembers feeling go-go’s magnetism in an almost metaphysical way. With go-go, “the loop is hypnotic and it locks you in. It’s hard to get out of it,” Fresh says. “It says, ‘Don’t leave, don’t leave! Where you going?’ ” Then Fresh performs some metaphysics of his own, beatboxing an astonishingly crisp go-go beat over the phone line as if he has a tiny set of conga drums stashed between his teeth.
Fresh’s dream song eventually bloomed into an entire album, “This One’s for Chuck Brown: Doug E. Fresh Salutes the Godfather of Go-Go,” a culmination of decades spent working intimately with go-go musicians onstage and in the studio. Made with counsel from former Rare Essence member Donnell Floyd, the album contains musical contributions from the group Team Familiar, as well as a few go-go players who have backed DMV rap star Wale.
And while Fresh understands the potential bittersweetness of the first go-go Grammy going to a hip-hop icon, his heart is beating in the right place. “I’m doing it to honor Chuck Brown, and I’m doing it to honor all the go-go artists who need to be acknowledged,” he says. “If I’m able to open up a door or create a conversation that will expand this music . . . then we did something good!”
Back in the DMV, a mix of go-go legends and newer groups managed to hit the academy’s deadline, too — but for Rare Essence, it was close. The group hustled to assemble its aptly titled “The Official Sounds of the Capital” and submitted the recording as Rare Essence and Friends, perhaps to highlight a song featuring Snoop Dogg, a rap superstar currently holding the record for artists with the most Grammy nominations without a win — 17 in all. A win here would allow Grammy voters to correct two oversights with one trophy.
But Rare Essence bandleader Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson is more concerned with how this all shakes out back home. “The Grammys are a worldwide thing, and this helps to really legitimize go-go,” he says. “We’ve always known it as the unofficial sound of D.C., and now we know it as the official sound of Washington, D.C.” — Mayor Muriel E. Bowser signed an act to designate it as such last year — “So to have this come along so shortly after that, it’s giving everybody more inspiration to really create,” Johnson says. “And we will be submitting every year.”
Big Chess, bandleader of the Big Chess DC Music Group, knows his band’s reputation isn’t as big as Rare Essence’s, but that hasn’t stopped him from dreaming big about Tuesday’s nominee announcement. Everything about his submission, “Go-Go Love,” seems extra-large. The album is a sprawling 33 tracks, and it includes contributions from more than 40 musicians, including production partner Jacques Johnson, drummer Willie Howell, former Prince trombonist Greg Boyer and many more. For Big Chess, this is a big deal.
“Go-go music is an experience,” Big Chess says, “which is why it’s been so difficult to capture on a recording. You have to go to it to see what it is. But if you’ve gone back to the continent of Africa like I have, and you study the cadences and the rhythms there, you feel the same energy and the same vibrations. . . . So with [the Grammys], it validates our experience in this diaspora. It shines a light on a group of people who, knowingly or unknowingly, are connected to where they come from.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported D.C. rapper Kokayi’s role in the Recording Academy as a trustee. He is a former trustee and currently an awards and nominations committee member. This story has been corrected.
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