Go-go is many things. Dance music, party music, proudly local community music, black music, sacred music. And when it feels like all of those things at once, it’s a model of everlasting life.
For decades in Washington, go-go bands have been blending songs into songs, stitching them together with congas and timbales, building a rhythm that feels indestructible and infinite. It’s all by design. When the late Chuck Brown minted this music back in the 1970s, he said he was trying to keep people on the dance floor with a nonstop beat that “just goes and goes.”
In 2019, the metaphor couldn’t feel more urgent: In a white America that still wants black people silenced, removed, jailed and erased, go-go says, “Continue.” So when thousands of Washingtonians assembled beneath the orange sodium-vapor light of 14th and U Street NW on Tuesday evening, the beat went on, ecstatic and triumphant. It had to.
This was the third protest concert held at this very spot since a noise dispute seven blocks away first made national headlines back in April. If you missed it: Central Communications, a MetroPCS vendor in Shaw, had long been a local landmark, famous for pumping go-go tunes from its storefront on 7th Street and Florida Avenue NW, but was recently forced to nix the music after a single complaint from a resident of the Shay, a neighboring luxury apartment complex. Rightfully outraged, the community rallied around the social media hashtag #DontMuteDC, and before long, the District’s indigenous funk music was percolating outside Central Communications again.
But that wasn’t the end of it. With the District ranking as the most aggressively gentrified city in the country, #DontMuteDC has become a national news story, with the New Yorker, NPR, the Atlantic and Slate collectively giving go-go music the most media attention it has received in years. The go-go community knows that the country is still listening, so on Tuesday night, District natives assembled en masse to hear the music of go-go greats Backyard Band and ABM at a protest concert that organizers had playfully dubbed “Moechella” — a nod to the Coachella music festival, hybridized with some local slang.
The bands set up their drums right there on the sidewalk — no stage, no risers — but the bad sightlines made for good times. You could see only the people around you, which meant you could see the city: women in lawn chairs, babies in strollers, 20-somethings in “RESPECT THE LOCALS” T-shirts, shirtless teenagers on skateboards and straight-from-the-office types in pleats and pumps, SmartTrip cards swinging from their lanyards as they swayed to the rhythm. Black Washington was making itself seen — and when Backyard Band launched into its anthemic “Pretty Girls,” it was making itself heard, too. This had to be one of the most astonishing singalongs to ever shake the walls of the city.
And in that indelible moment, it was hard to remember how go-go’s stature had ever been tarnished in the first place. But since the 1980s, neighborhood feuds have occasionally seeped into the city’s nightspots, giving the music a reputation it never deserved. In 2010, D.C. police began circulating a “go-go report,” highlighting upcoming go-go performances for tighter policing, essentially criminalizing the music itself. Venues began to shutter, and bands took the District’s signature music out to the suburbs. Go-go was “violent.” And then it was gone.
How can a vibration of air be violent? How do you criminalize a sound? I once put these questions to Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, leader of go-go veterans Rare Essence. He said that in the District, violence was most likely to erupt in places where young people from different neighborhoods tended to cross paths: at school, on the Metro, at shopping centers and inside (or outside) the go-go. “And they’re not shutting down the first three,” he said.
Back in 2005, Rare Essence lost its legendary Saturday night residency at Club U — a venue tucked inside the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center on 14th and U — when a deadly assault in the building finally forced the club to close permanently. Rapid gentrification had already been sweeping go-go venues out of the city, but in that instant, “Black Broadway” seemingly transformed into “The New U” for good.
So for Tuesday night’s protest concert to shut down traffic at that very intersection felt momentous in and of itself — like a reclamation. But there were still reminders of what go-go is up against. All you had to do was look up — into the wide-open windows of the neighboring Louis Apartments where a few residents chose to spend the night watching television instead of coming downstairs to meet their neighbors.
But if you looked around, you saw young people everywhere, which hopefully dismantled any ideas that young Washingtonians have abandoned go-go as their parents’ — or grandparents’ — music.
Despite more than a decade in the game, ABM still counts as a younger go-go band, and they’ve clearly mastered the fine art of go-go alchemy, absorbing music from the outside world and translating it into go-go’s hyper-communal rhythm. When the band covered Mariah Carey’s “Obsessed,” it didn’t sound like a Mariah song anymore. It was go-go. Same for Backyard’s pummeling set-opener, “Hello.” For many Washingtonians, it used to be a ballad by a British lady named Adele.
When the drums finally went quiet about 9 p.m., Backyard bandleader Anwan “Big G” Glover seemed as enchanted as everyone else on the block. “It’s beautiful to see all our people out here like this,” he said in his serrated baritone. Then, he encouraged his fellow Washingtonians to lobby local lawmakers for better schools, better health care, more affordable housing.
As euphoric as the past three hours had felt, he knew this wasn’t a victory lap. D.C. natives still have so much more to fight for. It goes and goes.