On a bitter cold night in December at the Valero station in Northeast D.C., a car drives by blasting music, a syncopated rhythm and deep bass groove—the unmistakable rhythm of go-go, the sound of this city.
Go-go rose to prominence in the 70s as a crowd-moving hybrid of funk, rhythm and blues, Caribbean and West African music. Underscored with conga drums, rototoms, timbales and cowbells, its addictive beats and call and response vocals have been part of the aural fabric of this town for decades. Yet in a city that’s rapidly changing, any conversation about go-go doubles as a conversation about gentrification, with long-time fans, usually long-time residents, wondering if the beats will go on.
From the 70s up until recent years, D.C. was known as the “Chocolate City,” with African-Americans accounting for approximately 70% of the population. For many Black D.C. residents, go-go shows were where they could go to escape from—as well as celebrate—the world they lived in. A live performance by the guitarist Chuck Brown (widely known as “The Godfather of Go-Go”) and his band, The Soul Searchers, or a show featuring Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, Experience Unlimited (EU to fans), Northeast Groovers, Junkyard Band, Backyard Band, Mambo Sauce or countless others was more than just a party: it was a landmark in fans’ lives.
“I see my experience with go-go as being synonymous with my coming of age,” says Dominique Cauley-Butler, 30. Cauley-Butler was born in D.C., went to public school in the city before going on to study at Georgetown and is now an assistant principal at Jefferson Middle School, in the southwest quadrant of the city. “I celebrated my 13th birthday in the go-go, my 16th and my 25th. My college graduation, getting my master’s degree. Nearly every milestone in my life was celebrated inside a go-go with live music.”
She’s not alone. “I been listening to go-go since I was a teenager,” says Calvin Thomas, 53. Thomas was raised in the Trinidad neighborhood, and lives in Northeast D.C. and has been driving for Uber for just over a year. “Go-go was just the truth.”
Go-go was also a way of life for David “Super Dave” Mitchell, 30, who has been driving with Uber for two years. Mitchell played keyboard for several bands, including his high school band, Pitch Black, and the band Envious, during his time on the Eastern Shore. Mitchell’s earliest memory of “going to the go-go” was when a friend took him to an all-ages show at the Ibex, a nightclub that stood near Georgia and Missouri avenues NW. The Ibex was closed down in 1997 after an off-duty police officer was shot outside, one of many go-go venues that were shuttered or had their liquor licenses revoked by the city following an incident or code violation. Go-go was stigmatized. Shows turned from family affairs to events parents forbade their children from attending.
Some fans believe that go-go was unfairly criminalized, a target of racial profiling in a city where high-priced condo development was pushing out longtime haunts, as well as many longtime residents. As Chocolate City changed, some began to see go-go as a throwback to an older, more violent D.C. “Go-go has been demonized,” says Cauley-Butler. “Many of the folks that I grew up with don’t understand why go-go isn’t as prevalent as it once was, why you can’t go to multiple clubs or all-age go-gos like you used to. They don’t understand that those were intentional choices to appease a new Washington that came in, a Washington that doesn’t look like me, that doesn’t care to pass on many of the traditions that we had, and have been cultivating since many of our families got here in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”
Chuck Brown passed away in 2012. Brown’s death brought people out in a way that mirrored his life, with go-go music spilling onto the streets. “You hear Chuck and everyone start dancing,” recalls Thomas. “Chuck could shut the whole city down. They say at a spot, ‘Chuck Brown coming,’ then you knew everyone was coming.”
Brown was memorialized in early 2014, when the western section of Langdon Park in Northeast was renamed the Chuck Brown Memorial Park. Inside, you’ll find Wind Me Up Chuck!, an interactive art installation created by D.C. artist Jackie L. Braitman. There are murals of Brown on the walls of Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Sweet Mango Cafe on Georgia Avenue. The clubs may have closed—the Ibex is now a luxury condo building; the Washington Coliseum an REI—but go-go’s imprint is still here.
There are still go-gos (Aqua lounge on New York Avenue NE hosts bands like Backyard and Rare Essence), but the big shows are harder to find. Go-go CDs can be purchased at a Metro PCS store on 7th Street NW, where an entire wall is given over to recordings from shows going back all the way to 1986. And it still bumps out of car stereos, but the younger generation is less moved by the old beats.
“It is fading,” says Thomas. “Slow but surely. There is nothing you can do about it.”
“Everything is due for a change,” he continues, sounding now like he’s talking about the city as a whole. “We tried to pass go-go down to the younger generation, but they are into something else.”
“It’s fading,” he says again, letting the thought sink in. “It is, but old heads ain’t gonna let it fade away.”
Koye Oyedeji is a D.C.-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction. He has contributed pieces to BBC Online, ARISE, and The Believer.