Musicians, city council members and community activists assembled Tuesday at the foot of the John A. Wilson Building to let District residents know go-go isn’t going anywhere.
A new bill, introduced by D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), seeks to enshrine go-go as the “official music of the District of Columbia.”
It’s a step activists said would better shield go-go music from the forces of gentrification in a rapidly changing city by signaling to newcomers the importance of the genre.
“This idea to make it official, it’s a great thing,” community activist Ron L. Moten said. “When people come here, they don’t know D.C., they don’t know our culture. It’s that ignorance that causes people to disrespect our culture. So if we make it law, if we protect it, they’ll start to understand.”
Of course, go-go is already the unofficial music of the District of Columbia.
Born in the District’s live-music scene of the 1970s, go-go earned its name from one of the genre’s founders, the late Chuck Brown, who said he was trying to keep people on the dance floor with a beat that “just goes and goes.”
The genre’s distinct blend of percussive funk, blues, salsa, gospel and soul music has for decades pulsed through the air at block parties, concerts and on a street corner where a neighborhood electronics shop doubles as a go-go hotspot.
In April, the store — a Metro PCS vendor in the Shaw neighborhood that has been playing go-go from outdoor speakers since 1995 — suddenly went quiet.
A resident of the luxury apartments down the block complained about the neighborhood’s signature soundtrack, eventually prompting T-Mobile to ask owner Donald Campbell to silence the congas and timbales.
Many in the neighborhood were incensed. Customers wondered if the store had closed. Politicians and musicians rallied to the cause, giving rise to days of protest concerts and a new rallying cry: #DontMuteDC.
Even after Campbell’s music returned days later, the slogan remains a stand against the changing face of D.C. and a battle cry for Washingtonians struggling to maintain their culture and identity amid an influx of newcomers.
“What was great about ‘Don’t Mute D.C.’ is you really saw what that go-go beat can do,” said Moten, who attended a news conference on the steps of the Wilson building Tuesday wearing a hat emblazoned with the hashtag and the D.C. flag. “It started a movement.”
McDuffie said he found it inspiring.
“It’s important for people to not have to wonder or guess about how important go-go is to the District of Columbia,” McDuffie said. “Especially with the anxiety right now with black people and people of color being displaced, it’s important that we take the steps we can take to enshrine this history. This is part of our culture.”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and several D.C. Council members jumped in to support the #DontMuteDC effort in April.
While some community members were grateful for the extra weight behind their pressure campaign, others criticized officials for supporting go-go when it was trendy to do so.
“Go-go culture, to be frank, was historically created by people who came from neighborhoods that are often overlooked,” said Aja Taylor, director of advocacy and organizing for the nonprofit Bread for the City. “When you look at displacement that’s happening in the city, these are the same neighborhoods. Black and brown people who are living on low income, who created this culture and made D.C. what it is today are being pushed out.”
For the past decade, go-go has been in decline.
Violent neighborhood disputes led to clashes at concert venues and gave the music a bad reputation among city officials, eventually leading D.C. police to circulate a “go-go report” that listed upcoming go-go performances the department planned to patrol more heavily.
Eventually, said TCB band member Black Bo, climbing rents shuttered some go-go venues, while others began to turn away go-go bands, saying the violence and policing had become more trouble than it was worth.
But go-go aficionados said they hope that by making go-go the District’s official jam, the music and the culture that surrounds it may see a revival. McDuffie’s legislation would “require the mayor to implement a program to support, preserve and archive go-go music and its history.”
Moten already has begun drafting plans for a go-go museum in Southeast Washington. Campbell, who runs a go-go music shop in the back of his cellphone store, has been creating an online streaming service for go-go music that he hopes will bring the music to“people worldwide” — not just his loyal base of D.C. customers.
“It has galvanized young people across the District of Columbia, so it shouldn’t be targeted because that’s not what it’s about. That shouldn’t be what it’s about,” McDuffie said. “Go-go music is about unity. Go-go music is about bringing people together.”