Cities with sizable Black populations throughout the United States have something in common – music genres created by groups of Black residents that became their respective hometown sounds. Baltimore Club, Chicago House, Detroit Techno, Miami Bass, New Orleans Jazz (and now “Bounce Music”), and New York Hip-Hop are all sounds that have made a global impact in popular music over many decades. One genre also deserving of a place on this list is DC Go-Go. The genre, per Wikipedia, is defined as a blend of funk, rhythm and blues, and old school hip-hop, with a focus on lo-fi percussion instruments and funk-style jamming in place of dance tracks, although some sampling is used. As such, it is primarily a dance hall music with an emphasis on live audience call and response. If you know Chuck Brown’s “Bustin Loose,” Experience Unlimited’s “Da Butt,” Rare Essence’s “Overnight Scenario,” then you know go-go. If you remember Amerie’s “One Thing,” Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” or any of these Wale hits (1st, 2nd, 3rd), you witnessed how the go-go sound permeated hip-hop and R&B for all to enjoy.
Call and response, heard frequently throughout Black music, is a core element of go-go music. The practice keeps the crowd engaged and lets the lead talker, or frontman/woman, know when to transition into another song. It’s hard to imagine a go-go concert without the rhythmic back and forth. Unfortunately for go-go fans, however, a recent call-to-action to save the sound of DC has been made and the sense of urgency to respond is quite high. Earlier this year, a final blow to go-go music’s existence in DC was almost delivered when a resident of The Shay Apartments in the Shaw neighborhood of northwest Washington made a noise complaint against a nearby MetroPCS store. The exact complaint? To turn off the [go-go] music playing from the speaker sitting outside the store. A quick history of the store – This MetroPCS store, formerly known as Central Communications, is a family-owned business that has been at the corner of 7th Street and Florida Avenue NW for almost 25 years. Along with providing mobile communications services, it also sells what’s known in go-go as P.A. CDs and cassette tapes. These are live recordings of go-go shows. Whether you’re a resident of the neighborhood, a Howard University student, or just passing through, everyone has come to know the speaker playing go-go music, old and new, that sits outside this store. After the store owner was forced to unplug the speaker due to the threat of a lawsuit against MetroPCS parent company T-Mobile, the public outcry opposing the decision made its way to T-Mobile CEO John Legere, he tweeted that the music will go on. On June 4, 2019, proposed legislation for the Go-Go Official Music of the District of Columbia Designation Act of 2019 was submitted by DC Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie.
A public hearing held inside the John A. Wilson Building, DC’s city hall, on October 30, 2019, to testify in support of passing the legislation. I joined the ranks of many directly involved in or willfully aligned with DC’s Go-Go community to show support for a culture that played a pivotal role in my love for urban culture. Because the majority of my creative work is focused on highlighting urban culture + lifestyle, it would’ve been disingenuous for me to not have testified, as you’ll hear at the beginning of my statement. An excerpt from my testimony:
Being present at this hearing is important to me because it would otherwise have been disingenuous. And to that, I say this – Go-Go Music is Black culture. The social culture created by go-go music is one of many genres within Black music, all derived from a DNA code reaching back farther than most history books will ever mention. Go-Go from its inception has been and remains influential and transformational. It has inspired countless youth from the city and beyond its borders over the past 40+ years to pick up everything from brass instruments to plastic buckets to perform the city’s sound.
Leading up to the hearing, I saw several people I follow on social media saying “go-go has been the official music of DC.” While true, these same people should also be able to say they’d have a hard time finding a one-stop-shop to learn the history of the genre or point to a go-go music exploration program in DC public schools.
VBH’s founder and CEO, Sophia V. Nelson, explained why having Bill 23-0317 on the books is important because it’s a good way to maintain control of your community’s cultural heritage. What’s morally right and what makes good business sense doesn’t often go hand-in-hand when dealing with the powers-that-be. As we all know, you get what you negotiate, not what you deserve. The bill is currently under DC Council review. As we wait for the final decision, you can show your support for the cause by listening to go-go music, attending a show whenever you’re in the DMV (or when a band comes to a town near you), and sharing this with anyone who understands the meaning of cultural erasure.