For a moment, things weren’t exactly going to plan at the main stage of the Funk Parade music festival. Rain was in the forecast. And because of glitches with some speakers, the live musical performances were delayed.
But on Saturday afternoon, none of that stopped the crowd from dancing.
The granite-paved plaza by the U Street Metro station became the center of attention, and a booty-shaking dance circle formed as “Give Up the Funk” blasted from a speaker on the ground.
“That’s funk,” said Jennifer Queen, one of the event’s hosts. “It’s about going with the flow of things.”
That’s the spirit of the Funk Parade, an annual festival meant to celebrate the rich history of live music and arts in Washington’s U Street neighborhood. And this year, that message felt more urgent — and timely — than ever.
The sixth annual Funk Parade came after thousands of Washingtonians took to the streets in recent weeks to protest a local dispute that began as a noise complaint and ultimately became a national symbol of America’s rapidly changing cities.
Last month, a landmark electronics store in Shaw, known and beloved for blasting go-go beats from its storefront, was forced to briefly silence its music after a resident of the Shay, a nearby luxury apartment complex, complained. The tunes returned after days of protests from residents and elected officials. But the controversy prompted a much larger movement — to preserve not only go-go music, considered the heartbeat of D.C., but the broader culture of the city in the face of gentrification.
For many of the people who showed up to dance and sing and march Saturday, the day was not only a party but a call to action.
“It’s about taking a stand in the musical tradition of the city,” Queen said. “It’s about saying we’re here, and we’re not going to go anywhere.”
For the first time, this year’s Funk Parade festivities included not only its usual live music performances, but also a conference propelling forward the movement dubbed #Don’tMuteDC. In the morning, local activists and musicians gathered at the U Street Music Hall, a dimly lit basement club, to talk about next steps.
“We’d be naive to think that music is the only thing that matters,” said Jeffery Tribble Jr., executive director of the MusicianShip, a D.C. youth music education nonprofit that took charge of Funk Parade this year. “It’s also about gentrification, it’s housing, it’s culture.”
One of four panelists, Kymone Freeman, an activist and co-founder of We Act Radio, spoke of the need to form a retention plan for longtime residents and businesses at risk of being pushed out of the District.
“There’s a reason why D.C. has the most rapid rate of gentrification and displacement in the country,” Freeman said. “We are in the position to create a national model. That’s how serious this is.”
He listed off priorities, such as pushing for rent control and fully funded community land trusts. He suggested calculating area median incomes for specific neighborhoods, such as the wards east of the Anacostia River, and detaching property taxes from determining school funding.
Wearing a shirt that read, “I’m not a gentrifier. I’ve been here,” D.C. activist Ronald L. Moten talked about the need to support young black business owners.
“There are so many young entrepreneurs. The problem is, they can’t afford brick and mortar. If you can’t get brick and mortar, how are you going to be the next Busboys and Poets?” he said, in reference to the popular D.C. restaurants.
“I have no problem with my city changing,” Moten also said. “I have no problem with crime going away. I have no problem with new buildings. I have a problem with not being a part of it.”
Toward the end of the discussion, a woman in the audience took to the microphone. E. Gail Anderson Holness, a longtime resident of the surrounding neighborhood and a graduate of the Howard University School of Law, spoke of her frustrations with the changes she’s seen in her community.
Anderson Holness lives next door to the nearby Benjamin Banneker Academic High School and used to run and walk in the school’s park, she said.
“Now I’ve got to look down when I’m walking because I might step on something that’s infiltrating the community we’re living in,” she said.
Her comment touched on another recent local controversy, in which Howard University students asked neighboring residents to stop walking their dogs across their prestigious campus as if it were a public park.
“When you move into a neighborhood that already has a culture, you don’t come in to change the culture,” Anderson Holness said. “We need to change that, we need to educate, we need workshops like this.”
She pointed out the sweatshirt she was wearing, which displayed an image of a broken chain. She bought it from a slavery museum in Montgomery, Ala., she said.
“We need to break some chains,” Anderson Holness said. “I came from segregation. I desegregated the schools in Columbia, South Carolina. I didn’t start today. I’m in here for the long haul.”
Later in the afternoon, the focus was less on the recent controversies and more on celebration. In the plaza by the “Spirit of Freedom” monument, performers from the Soka Tribe, a Caribbean-inspired workout class, danced in the center of a growing crowd, wearing red and purple feathers around their necks. Watching from the edge of the circle, Spencer Gopaul, 29, swayed from side to side with his 2-year-old niece on his shoulders, wearing a pink tiara and shaking a maraca.
James Sutton Jr. watched the dancing alongside his wife and four children, reminiscing on the neighborhood he grew up in. Before Sutton, 69, moved out to Frederick, Md., he lived in the U Street area for about four decades, he said.
He came out with his family to the Funk Parade to show his children the culture of his childhood, the funk and go-go music that was in his blood.
“The core culture is still here. Go-go is still here. The dancing is still here,” he said. “People still make noise.”