For 2½ hours, nearly 50 musicians, activists and D.C. residents testified Wednesday about the music genre’s impact on the city and its people. They called go-go the heartbeat of the city, the root from which D.C. culture grows.
The go-go bill introduced by D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) — and co-sponsored by all 13 D.C. council members — also would create education campaigns and a program to archive and preserve the music’s history.
Angie M. Gates, director of the D.C. Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment, declined to estimate how much it might cost to create and maintain a historical go-go archive.
“Independent resources and infrastructure will be required,” she told lawmakers. “I don’t want to give a premature number, but what I can say is if we’re going to do something, let’s do it right and let’s do it great. And if we’re going to go, let’s go big.”
McDuffie said the D.C. government might take its support one step further by establishing artist residencies and creating funds that support go-go performances at D.C. agency events or public libraries.
He said he envisions a D.C. where go-go plays a role in tourism and job creation.
“You can’t go to New Orleans without hearing jazz,” he said in an interview. “If you come to the nation’s capital, you’re going to hear go-go music.”
Originating 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.”
Its unique blend of percussive funk, salsa, blues, gospel and soul has for decades been the soundtrack of D.C. block parties, community events, parades and whole neighborhoods.
“I think that this conversation is not even about love, it is about — and not questioning — the right for our art and our culture to exist. Go-go is a particular African American cultural expression,” Cam Poles, a musician with D.C.-based band Black Alley, said at the hearing.
Thirty years ago, the notion of city officials lending universal support to a go-go preservation bill — or the sight of a go-go band playing inside the Wilson building — might have been unthinkable.
Lawmakers of the time instituted strict curfews on D.C. youths who attended go-go concerts and openly blamed them for contributing to a number of social ills, including drug use and escalating violence.
Since the turn of the century, city schools have shut down music education programs, and go-go clubs have closed because of mounting fines and police raids targeting such gatherings. At the same time, the genre has struggled to win over new fans, said Natalie Hopkinson, a Howard University professor and author of the book, “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.”
“This is just the beginning of what needs to be done to push back on the muting that powerful people have done to our culture for centuries,” Hopkinson told the council. “But I’m really, really excited for the first time in history to see American lawmakers move with the beat and not against it.”
Activists and lawmakers credit the recent momentum of the #DontMuteDC movement for changing the way D.C. treats its native sound.
In April, a Shaw electronics store that doubles as a go-go hot spot known for its constant stream of music pouring into the street suddenly went silent.
A resident of nearby luxury apartments had complained about the Metro PCS vendor’s music — first to city officials, then to the store’s parent company — which prompted T-Mobile to ask the store’s owner to mute the music.
Many Washingtonians were incensed. Politicians and community activists held rallies with live music and slogans of support. The #DontMuteDC hashtag, coined by a Howard University student, took off.
Though the store’s music returned days later, with the support of T-Mobile’s CEO, the slogan has endured.
It has been used to decry dog-walking on Howard University’s campus, issues of gentrification and displacement, and a feeling that D.C. culture is being eroded as the District’s black and native-born population shrinks.
On Wednesday, the crowd was buoyant as the Black Passion Band broke out the tambourine and bass guitar.
McDuffie said it reminded him of growing up in the District, jamming to the sound of groups like the Junkyard Band and Rare Essence, or listening to his father’s Trouble Funk records.
As a native Washingtonian who grew up in go-go’s heyday, McDuffie said, his relationship to the genre is different — and more intimate — than those of D.C. lawmakers of yesteryear.
“My experiences were of go-gos bringing people together,” McDuffie said in an interview. “It was about messages of unity and love and the feeling of hearing the different instruments all come together. It was a beautiful thing.”
Public comment on the bill will be accepted until Nov. 13, with a vote expected early next year.