That was the fundamental idea being celebrated in the auditorium of Ballou High School in Southeast Washington at Sunday night’s Go-Go Awards, a community-organized ceremony commemorating a momentous year for Washington’s indigenous and embattled dance music. Accepting a prize for his genius on the conga drums, Keith “Sauce” Robinson of Backyard Band declared, “Go-go for life, man!”
For generations of native Washingtonians, go-go is life. The music’s indestructible pulse serves as a model for black perseverance, which can make a noise complaint feel like an existential threat. That’s how this proudly local folk-funk percolated into the digital news cycle earlier this year. After years of pumping live go-go recordings from his storefront on the corner of Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW, the owner of Central Communications, a MetroPCS vendor, was asked to turn the music off when a resident in a nearby luxury apartment building complained.
News of his compliance quickly spread across social media through the #DontMuteDC hashtag, triggering an 80,000-signature petition, numerous street concerts and a burst of national media attention around black erasure in what used to be called “Chocolate City.” A recent study showed that Washington experienced the greatest “intensity of gentrification” of any American city between 2000 and 2013, with more than 20,000 black residents being displaced during that span. #DontMuteDC wouldn’t bring those residents back into the city, but it did get the music at Seventh and Florida switched back on.
And this music was designed to continue. When the late guitarist Chuck Brown invented go-go in the 1970s, he said he was chasing an everlasting beat that “just goes and goes” — one that could keep the citizens of the nightlife out on the dance floor as time melted away. Using Afro-Latin percussion to connect disparate puzzle pieces of funk and jazz, he created luxuriant, unbroken ribbons of music that felt as if they had no beginning and no end. Percussive euphoria would become go-go’s hallmark, but that profound sensation of endlessness is what gives the music its meaning. It keeps coming, it keeps going, it doesn’t resolve. Go-go for life.
Across the next three decades, local authorities began to think they were hearing something criminal in that heartbeat. Neighborhood violence occasionally followed fans into the city’s go-go clubs, and in 2010, D.C. police began circulating an internal “go-go report,” a biweekly bulletin targeting upcoming go-go performances in the District. Intensified policing resulted in fewer go-go concerts, and then-Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier touted the go-go report when announcing a drop in D.C. homicides that year. The silencing had become systemic.
Years of pressure had already seemed to generate an aesthetic adaptation in go-go music that younger players called “the bounce beat” — a style that allowed bands to swivel out of a grooving, conga-stippled backbeat into a pulverizing, half-time downbeat accented with timbales and rototoms. It sounded like a cataclysm. Or maybe an alarm.
At Sunday night’s Go-Go Awards, an all-star group of bounce beat players delivered a medley where the concussive clamor transmitted unfettered joy. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had just appeared onstage to declare the next seven days Go-Go Awareness Week. “We have a special responsibility to this music — to celebrate it, to preserve it,” Bowser said, all but promising that a bill recently introduced in the city council to make go-go the official music of the District would soon pass.
If one way to secure go-go’s future is to canonize go-go’s history, these felt like fine first steps. And when the members of Rare Essence (many of whom got their respective starts in the music classrooms of Ballou) took the stage for their centerpiece performance, they seemed to be looking in both directions, too. Over a playful beat, vocalist James “Funk” Thomas shouted a profound refrain: “Take care of our elders! And take care of our babies! Take care of our elders! And take care of our babies!”
In the aisles, go-go faithful danced alongside their children. Memories of yesterday danced alongside visions for tomorrow. The beat kept going.