Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: How Go-Go Music Became Kryptonite for Gentrification in D.C.

On June 5, Washington, D.C. council member Kenyan McDuffie introduced the Go-Go Official Music of the District of Columbia Designation Act of 2019. Go-go is the heavily percussive music-culture begun by the inimitable musician Chuck Brown in the 1970s that quickly became the quintessential element of D.C.’s Chocolate City era, right alongside Ben’s Chili Bowl, mumbo sauce, and Madness shirts. Why the district is just now officially recognizing it has everything to do with how it tried to bury the culture for decades, due to a perception that it bred violence.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, D.C.’s city council passed curfew laws, levied heavy business property taxes, issued liquor board violations, and intensified law enforcement around go-go venues, which nearly eviscerated go-go culture from Washington’s landscape. But go-go stood its ground this past spring, when a resident of a luxury apartment building tried to stamp it out.

The story is already legend: In D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, Donald Campbell had been cranking go-go music from the speakers of his store at the corner of 7th and Florida Street since 1995, and it had been one of the few places one could still hear go-go in a public space in the city in recent years. But, in April, a tenant of a nearby luxury condo threatened to sue Campbell if he didn’t turn the music off. So Campbell let the streets decide, putting the call out to local media, social media, college networks—whoever would listen—that go-go was once again under attack.

The response: Thousands of people flooded Shaw’s streets and thousands more signed a petition (80,329 to be exact) demanding that Campbell be allowed to keep playing go-go at his corner, all done under the banner #Don’tMuteDC, which was to say “don’t mute—or erase—black people in D.C.” … which was to say, “don’t let gentrification have the final say.”  And it didn’t. Several forces converged—including the CEO of T-Mobile, which owns the Metro PCS cell phones and service Campbell sold at his store—to declare that “the music will go on,” which led to the condo tenant dropping the complaint and acquiescing to the will of the streets.

This was a win for go-go with a message for anyone working to declare it deceased: As T’Challa told Killmonger in the movie Black Panther: “I never yielded, and as you can see, I am not dead.”

Go-go has undoubtedly been Chocolate City D.C.’s vibranium, the power source indigenous and exclusive to black Washingtonians, rarely shared with people outside of what the cultural critic Fred Moten calls “the undercommons.” However, in this holy war against gentrification, the culture’s leaders have decided that they are ready to share their power source with the world.

What that looks like: Go-go musicians and activists working on an oral history project with the Smithsonian, a Don’t Mute DC Call to Action Conference on November 16 that centered around using go-go culture to influence public policy, plans for a go-go museum, and the go-go bill introduced by McDuffie.

“Designating go-go the official music of the city signals to those who have been here and to those who continue to move here, that this music represents the lived experiences of native Washingtonians,” said McDuffie. “It codifies into law that go-go will never be muted in the District of Columbia.”

Howard professor Natalie Hopkinson, author of the 2012 book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, says that the legislation “can’t just be some symbolic thing,” but rather something that yields real material, intellectual, and financial outcomes. In a New York Times op-ed, she lists several ideas: a go-go culture archive, mandatory go-go curriculum in public schools—even a “Chuck Brown Endowed Chair in Digital and Cultural Studies” for one of D.C.’s local universities. Equally important, there has to be funding behind it, and a commitment from the council to fix what its policies broke in the culture, she says. It has to be reparations.  

“I feel like [ D.C. government] owes go-go after what they did, all the damage that the council has done, from the curfew laws to how the [Alcohol Beverage Control] board targeted businesses that supported go-go,” says Hopkinson. “I don’t want to limit what the ask is. I want to keep adding to the ask because I feel like there isn’t enough that they can do. In New Orleans, the music is not a secret, right? It’s integrated into its tourism and almost everything that they do. But here, go-go music has been criminalized.”

It wasn’t the Metro PCS protest event alone that led activists to realize go-go’s political potential. That was a critical moment, and one that launched the “Don’t Mute D.C.” hashtag, establishing it as a full movement. But another happening the following month helped show how powerful the movement had become when, in late May, go-go artists rallied in the streets again, this time to save the United Medical Center, the public hospital in southeast D.C. where most of the district’s lowest-income, African-American neighborhoods are concentrated. It is, in fact, the only general hospital in southeast D.C.

With the United Medical Center (UMC) hospital hampered by dwindling patient volume, nearly bankrupt, and suffering a scandal concerning a patient death, the district council proposed earlier this year to slash its funding to $15 million—far from the $40 million the hospital needed to stay open. The council has proposed permanently shutting the hospital down by 2023. But go-go activists, many of whom live in the often-marginalized “east of the river” neighborhoods where UMC stands and who had been born and treated at that hospital, mobilized in its defense.

On May 25, they held a daylong go-go concert rally in front of the hospital featuring artists and community members telling the crowds about the various ways the UMC served them and their family members. The Washington Post reported that only “two dozen demonstrators” turned out to discourage the council from slashing the hospital’s budget. It left out that, according to the organizers, several thousand demonstrators were at the May 25 rally to save UMC that was conducted under the banner of “Don’t Mute DC.” Ultimately the council members, some of whom appeared and spoke at the May 25 rally, voted to increase their budget allocation to $22.1 million dollars—still short of what UMC needed, but enough to give it a little breathing room.

Hopkinson, who helped organize the event, spoke to Ivory Logan, one of the disabled residents of the UMC, at the event. He expressed dismay that the district was prepared to essentially render him and hundreds of other disabled residents homeless by closing the hospital, saying that “for them [the council] a dollar is more important than a human life.”

“This used to be unheard of in district politics: That they would defund the only hospital in Southeast is completely unheard of,” says Hopkinson. “But even if we didn't get the vote, the outpouring from the community and the sort of solidarity we saw—like we had the nurses giving these amazing speeches about trying to serve these patients and not having the resources to properly serve them. And the janitors and the patients came out. It was just a beautiful event.”

Hopkinson found out about the hospital crisis through her teenage daughter, who was helping lead her own protest action against the council to save her high school, Banneker—a storied school that also historically served D.C.’s black communities—from budget cuts. Go-go artists included the “Save Banneker” cause in their rally in front of the hospital. The council ultimately voted to grant Banneker a new, expansive site, again, swayed in part by the go-go rallies. The proposed closure of the hospital and the budget slashes to the school were both part of a narrative that these were efforts to further “mute” or erase black D.C.

“The rally for the hospital and the possible school closings—this is something that has happened before in history where go-go was used as a primary vehicle for organizing and getting policy demands met,” says Ronald “Mo” Moten, a political fixture in the go-go arena who helped organize some of the rallies. “We've used it for peace marches and things of that nature, but I don't think it’s ever been used to this magnitude where we got instant results. It put the world on notice.”

The “Don’t Mute D.C.” Call to Action Conference this past weekend was created to build off the political momentum from the efforts to save the UMC, Banneker High School, and go-go music itself, in the wake of the Metro PCS controversy. The participants brainstormed and planned around how to make the go-go legislation as effective as possible, and how to save black anchoring businesses and institutions from getting deleted by gentrification.

For his own efforts, Moten is working to purchase buildings in his neighborhood to preserve black businesses there including his own Check It Enterprises. Fellow D.C. activist Justin “Yaddya” Johnson produced a few of D.C.’s largest go-go gatherings this year, including the Million Moe March in September and the Moechella rally in May, which brought thousands of people to the historic 14th and U Street intersection, in front of the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center after the Metro PCS controversy. Hopkinson has been conducting trainings with companies such as Google and Nextdoor to develop ways that new and indigenous residents can better get along as neighbors.

The trainings are part of the development of a project called “Communicating Across Cultures in a Changing City,” which will be a toolkit of sorts sent to other cities to help people manage gentrification in their communities. It will be released next year and is based in large part on Hopkinson’s experiences helping to politically mobilize the go-go community and her own research as a professor in Howard University’s Department of Communication, Culture and Media Studies.

“Anybody can use this toolkit, but the thing about D.C. is that there are some universal themes that spring from, like, the conflict over the Metro PCS store,” says Hopkinson. “The very first video that we produced and the toolkit dealt with that directly, because it was just so on the nose for clashing black history and gentrification. Different people can look at the same corner and see different things. So the whole crux of it is that people coming from different cultural perspectives have different cultural lenses and also different ways of communicating.”

The collective “Don’t Mute” successes are already making impressions on places outside of D.C. In New Orleans this past summer, when word spread in about police harassment of black brass band player Eugene Grant, local music cognoscente Melissa “DJ Soul Sister” Weber rallied the brass band community together via social media to come to Grant’s defense. Grant was apprehended by police, based on a noise complaint, from his band playing on Frenchman Street, where many of the city’s jazz clubs are clustered. The rally led to Grant’s charges getting dropped. Weber made the call under the banner of “Don’t Mute NOLA” and cited D.C. as her inspiration. Organizers officially joined forces in September for a “DontMuteDC meets DontMuteNOLA” event in DC which featured a friendly battle of the bands between go-go and brass band performers.

“People initially thought it was just about being out in the streets, but people were coming together to address an issue that is affecting the whole world,” says Moten. “People are watching us and studying what happens to us here, so for us to stand up, that’s great because the whole world will try to do the same thing. If we were out here doing something crazy in the streets, then they would be focusing on how go-go is bringing the city down. But we are changing the whole lens on gentrification.”