Carl Gray Jr. stood on the makeshift stage at the African American Civil War Memorial by the U Street Metro station, hyping up the crowd between sets from a lineup of funk bands.
“It’s not about loot-y, it’s about shaking your booty,” he shouted, referring to the protests in Baltimore that turned violent last Monday night in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray from injuries he suffered while in police custody.
Carl Gray Jr. was participating in the District’s second annual Funk Parade, which featured a street fair and concerts in the U Street area throughout the day, highlighted by a parade at 5 p.m. that started at the Howard Theatre in Shaw and ended at the Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW.
“Understanding brings us together to change the system; the lyrics and the music does that,” said Gray, a videographer for the Funk Parade who was 14 and living in Northwest when rioters burned down much of the U Street Corridor after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. “[The District] looked like a war zone. . . . How are we going to fight when we’re grooving?”
And, in many ways, that was the point of the day. The parade was intended to bring together people from all walks of the D.C. community to celebrate the city’s music history and the cultural significance of the famous street.
The parade and the accompanying events harkened back to the days when the corridor was known as the Black Broadway. D.C. native Duke Ellington was a fixture in the music venues that lined the street in the 1920s, and in the ’80s and ’90s, go-go bands could always be heard playing in the area.
“U Street Northwest is really picking up its musical activity,” said Keith Richardson, who plays in a funk band and came in from Bowie to attend the parade. “It’s very nice.”
Thousands of people attended the parade, which featured local marching bands, dance troupes, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), and anyone else who wanted to jump in.
Bowser marched with a crew of supporters, chucking green bead necklaces at people who lined the streets on every jammed sidewalk, stoop, restaurant patio, fire escape, balcony and rooftop with a sliver of space.
“Since we live in D.C., you expect everyone to be all business-y and serious,” said 15-year-old Eowyn Sherrer, who dressed up like a robot and marched in the parade with her parents and 8-year-old brother. “So it’s fun to see everyone dress up all crazy, wearing whatever they want.”
In January, organizers petitioned Bowser to allow them to close off U Street for the parade, which they were unable to do in 2014, forcing the parade onto a shorter and more claustrophobic route along V Street NW.
This year, organizers received permission, and D.C. police helped block off portions of T Street, Vermont Avenue and U Street. After the parade, 14 venues in the area, including U Street Music Hall and DC9, hosted free concerts.
“It feels very unifying,” said Jason Goldrosen. “You get a sense of a D.C. identity that I don’t always see.”