Washington’s newest museum hasn’t yet opened its doors, but already Ron Moten is thinking about the people who will walk out of them.
"When you leave the African American Museum, no matter what color you are, you leave feeling differently," Moten says. "Whether your grandmother was a slave owner or a slave, you leave there different. It makes you think; it activates your mind."
Comparing the African American Museum with the one that Moten and others are aiming to open this spring may seem like a stretch when you look at their construction budgets.
One cost $540 million to build. The other is being put together with about $60,000, or maybe $85,000, or maybe more. Moten can’t say for sure because he is still trying to raise the funds.
What he can say is why the new museum is needed, what it will look like when it’s finished and what he hopes it will accomplish for Washington — and when he’s talking about all of that, the project suddenly starts to feel much larger than its small, uncertain budget.
“I just want it to be something that people from around the world will want to see and something that our children can say, ‘This is ours,’ ” the fifth-generation Washingtonian says. “The one thing about go-go that makes it special is that it’s ours. It doesn’t even matter if they live here anymore. People are reaching back and saying, ‘This is mine.’ ”
That’s right, the museum will be dedicated to go-go music, or as Moten describes it, “our existence, our soul, our history.”
The museum is not for the Washington that the world usually sees on its screens, the one that wears suits and speaks in sound bites.
The museum will honor the other Washington, the one filled with people who don’t leave when sessions and administrations end. The Washington that groans in unison when local leaders are caught in shady deals and that mourns together when beloved businesses shutter. The Washington that moves to its own unique soundtrack.
On Tuesday, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to support a bill that would make go-go the “official music of the District of Columbia.”
It may seem a trivial vote, especially in the shadow of those bigger decisions waiting to be made in the other Washington. But that united embrace by the city’s leaders matters, because in the last year, go-go has become something more than just music. It’s become a stance.
It’s become a way to bring people together to discuss how the city is changing and what (and more importantly, who) is being lost with those changes.
The genre’s founder, Chuck Brown, described the music as getting its name because it “just goes and goes.” But the District is no longer Chocolate City, and now the name could just as easily serve as a chant by African Americans who are tired of seeing people who look like them pushed out: “We won’t go (go)!”
An event last April both revitalized go-go in the city and made it a symbol for pushing back against unchecked gentrification. A Shaw electronics store known for blasting the music into the street went silent after a resident in a nearby luxury condo complained.
From that grew protests and the #DontMuteDC movement. It also led to a recognition that if you don’t deliberately try to hold on to something, you might not realize you’ve lost it until it’s too late to get it back.
That’s where the museum comes in. It will offer exhibits, but it will also have a stage for live performances, a studio for bands to record music and a cafe with food items named in honor of go-go and D.C. icons. The public will be asked to help pick those names, but one has already been chosen. The brownie ice cream will be named for Chuck Brown, of course.
Organizers are also hoping go-go brings more tourism to the city. To meet the demand of any new jobs it might create, the museum will serve as a vocational training ground. Plans call for space to be dedicated to classes for culinary arts, hospitality and cultural tourism. In an engineering class, participants can learn how to work a sound board.
In that way, the museum is both about the past and the future. It doesn’t just want to preserve go-go. It also wants to use the music to build up the community.
“It’s about fixing the problem, not just talking about the problem,” says Moten, a longtime city activist who started the anti-violence youth mentoring group Peaceoholics after serving time in prison on a drug charge. Protesting isn’t enough, he says. “If it’s just about getting 10,000 people in the street and not educating the people and moving them along, then we weren’t doing nothing.”
What has become clear since the protests is that black D.C. natives are not the only ones who feel that way. In the past year, Moten says, residents who are white, black and other races and ethnicities have come together regularly to talk about gentrification and discuss how to preserve what makes the District unique. After all, no one voluntarily moves to a city hoping to scrub it of its identity. No one settles in New Orleans and expects not to hear jazz.
“When I started seeing all these white people and other people say, ‘We got to save the music, save the culture,’ it gave me so much hope,” Moten says. “All of this is coming from music, and that’s big.”
The goal is to open the museum, which is located near the Anacostia Metro station, by the end of April.
It will be located in a building that has housed Check It Enterprises, which describes itself as a gang turned business. Moten, who works with Check It and was one of the organizers for #DontMuteDC, says that when they were looking for locations, they decided it should be in Southeast Washington because “most of the go-go artists came from this side of the river.”
The renovations, which are nearly finished, were covered by a $50,000 grant from the city. A GoFundMe account was created to raise the rest. That goal was set at $25,000.
On Friday, only a fraction of that amount had been raised, but Moten wasn’t discouraged. A message from one donor showed that those who were giving realized they were investing in more than a museum. They were investing in Washington. Our Washington.
The comment read, “Preserving living culture is essential to keeping DC alive.”
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