Ghetto. Ratchet. Amateur.
Frank “Scooby” Sirius and his band, Sirius Company, say they’ve heard this all before. These are just some of the insults that have been pelted at D.C.’s go-go community for years by its critics, a weapon used by the city’s transplants to undermine the District’s homegrown sound. But now, silencing go-go just got a lot harder.
The #DontMuteDC movement has amplified the music in a way that hasn’t been seen in recent history — if at all. The social media hashtag surfaced in April, after Central Communications, a MetroPCS vendor on the corner of Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW, was forced by parent company T-Mobile to turn off the go-go music playing through its outdoor speakers following a complaint from a resident at luxury apartment building The Shay, located a block away. After a protest outside the store and a #DontMuteDC petition garnering thousands of signatures, Central Communications was given the green light by T-Mobile to turn the music back on. The incident ignited a movement, built around #DontMuteDC, to keep go-go alive in a gentrifying city — a movement that’s just getting started.
“I thought it was kind of ironic the way that it happened, with the complaining over the music outside the store,” Sirius says. “We’ve never stopped pushing our music, so to have somebody from somewhere else kind of push us to the forefront is kind of surreal.”
Go-go, the percussion-driven genre that fuses funk, R&B and hip-hop, originated in D.C. in the ’70s, with Chuck Brown and other pioneers propelling it to new heights. These days, bands including Sirius Company are refreshing the sound for a new generation and introducing it to new spaces: Each Wednesday, the group brings its pop-and jazz-infused go-go to Ivy City’s City Winery and demonstrates that no, go-go isn’t “ghetto,” “ratchet” or using “pots and pans” to play music — another misconception the band members say they’ve heard.
“It’s important that people just bring a sense of open-mindedness to our shows,” says Sirius Company saxophonist Jon Williams. “When we played at the French Embassy, Scooby did a rendition of a Phil Collins song and we had people say, ‘Man, that was the best rendition of Phil Collins I had ever heard!’ ”
Go-go’s migration to more D.C. venues in recent years is a major win in a long battle against displacement, say anti-violence activist Ronald Moten and Howard University assistant professor Natalie Hopkinson, who are leading the charge for the #DontMuteDC movement. For years, go-go venues disappeared in the city due to gentrification and the Metropolitan Police Department cracking down on club violence. In 2010, Washington City Paper revealed that the police prepared a biweekly “go-go report” to keep tabs on the community and upcoming concerts.
“Displacement has been a fight for me since 1995,” Moten says. “Don [Campbell], who owns the MetroPCS in Shaw, had called me several times in the past when he owned a club off of U Street, Club 1919. They were trying to shut him down with all the other go-go clubs in D.C.”
So when the Central Communications incident happened, it wasn’t all that shocking to Moten and Hopkinson. But it was the moment that brought the fight for go-go to a fever pitch. Once the #DontMuteDC hashtag took off, the duo started a Change.org petition to bring those lively sounds back to Campbell’s storefront. That’s when things got interesting.
“We had over 80,000 people sign the petition, and thousands of people take to the streets for musical demonstrations,” Hopkinson says. “And to see all the comments on the petition, people putting their heart into saying what go-go meant to them, that’s really important. That’s our history, that’s our culture and that’s our identity as a city.”
This outpouring of support went national last month when the BET Awards and host Regina Hall, a D.C. native, dedicated the show’s opening number to the city. The musical tribute featured appearances from go-go legends James Funk of Rare Essence and Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott of Experience Unlimited. At the end, a screen flashed the emblematic hashtag #DontMuteDC to millions of viewers.
“My phone started buzzing and ringing off the hook when it happened,” Hopkinson says. “People were sending me texts from all over. I have friends in Brooklyn, friends in London, and people were saying, ‘Thank you, D.C., for holding down the line because gentrification is out of hand here too.’ ”
So how can the city preserve go-go while undergoing rapid change? For starters, #DontMuteDC has biweekly policy strategy meetings at Southeast clothing store Check It Enterprises to educate the public on current issues. Other movements, including Long Live GoGo — which predates #DontMuteDC — are hosting protests and regular music events to keep up the energy surrounding go-go.
“The go-go music that’s played outside [Central Communications] adds a vibrant energy to that area — it’s the heartbeat of that area,” says Long Live GoGo founder Justin Johnson, a musician who performs under the name Yaddiya. Johnson has led a series of Moechella musical demonstrations over the past year (the name is a nod to the regional slang term “moe,” used to reference a friend or acquaintance, and the music festival Coachella) to bring attention to go-go’s displacement.
Within the go-go community itself, musicians such as saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed, 29, of jazz-go-go band JoGo Project and the Chuck Brown Band, say the music’s longevity also depends on local artists working hand in hand with city officials.
“I think more artists can take it upon themselves to get involved politically and advocate for themselves as well as others,” Balbed says, citing the recent DC Music Census, which was launched by the city in June to gather information about the local music scene.
The fight to preserve go-go against gentrification takes a village — and it’s a challenge Moten embraces.
“We just got to keep it going. And it’s hard, because there are always going to be people who come in and try to infiltrate it and tear it down because they don’t want to see your mission accomplished,” he says. “But our goal is to see this mission through.”
5 ways to add more go-go to your life this month
‘Take Me Out to the Go-Go: The Autobiography of Kato Hammond’
Solid State Books, 600F H St. NE; Thu., 7 p.m., free.
Musician Kato Hammond, formerly of bands Pure Elegance and Proper Utensils, shares news updates and information about community events through his website tmottgogo.com. But Hammond also has an interesting story of his own, which he revealed in “Take Me Out to the Go-Go.” Thursday’s discussion of the 2015 book, which traces Hammond’s formative years in the early days of D.C.’s go-go scene, is part of the DC Public Library’s ongoing Go-Go Book Club series that began last month.
Chuck Brown Band
Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, 7719 Wisconsin Ave, Bethesda; Fri., 8 p.m., $30.
Since the Godfather of Go-Go passed away in 2012, a group of dedicated musicians has kept his legacy alive through his project, the Chuck Brown Band. With a driving horn section and layers of throbbing percussion, the band brings the music and spirit of the D.C. icon to a new generation of fans.
Sugar Bear Birthday Celebration
Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, 7719 Wisconsin Ave, Bethesda; July 27, 8 p.m., $30, July 28, 7 p.m., $30.
When Experience Unlimited (aka E.U.) released “Da Butt” in 1988 as part of Spike Lee’s “School Daze” soundtrack, the song became a cultural phenomenon that garnered the group a Grammy nod. Three decades later, the band is still an active force in the world of go-go. Frontman Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott, above, will host not one but two birthday parties at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club that promise a bevy of surprise guests.
City Winery, 1350 Okie St. NE; July 29, 7:30 p.m., $22.
The rapid-fire energy of Team Familiar has kept D.C. dancing since the early 2000s. The group is fronted by veteran musician Donnell Floyd, who performed with go-go greats Rare Essence for almost two decades before starting several projects of his own. Floyd is set to retire at the end of the year, so if you have yet to see him with Team Familiar, this is the time to do so.
City Winery, 1350 Okie St. NE; Wednesdays, 9 p.m., $22-$25.
Sirius Company keeps you on your toes — not just on the dance floor, but also through its expansive sound. With Kim “Ms. Kim” Michelle and Frank “Scooby” Sirius of the Chuck Brown Band at the helm, the band reimagines traditional go-go by adding pop and jazz influences.