Go-go Music: The Original Sound of Chocolate City

by Chanel Hardy

Blackness is rooted in the culture that we share together, which transcends into the things that make urban cities so unique. Every city has something special about it that makes it stand out. In Washington D.C., that something is the sound of Go-go music. Go-go is a subgenre of music that mixes the sounds of funk and R&B. It got its start in the late 60’s and early 70’s with bands such as Black Heat, and the legend himself, Chuck Brown. Growing up in the Washington D.C. area, I have fond memories of listening to Go-go music at just about every family function. Having Bustin’ Loose by Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers blasting through the speakers was a staple for Black family functions. As the late 80’s and early 90s approached, Go-go began to get a new, raw sound while still staying true to its original funk roots. Bands like Rare Essence gave us hits like Overnight Scenario, which goes down in history as one of the most popular Go-go songs of all time. Being born in 1990, this song is my first real memory of being introduced to Go-go music. A song about having a one-night stand, Rare Essence paved the way for the young adult crowd to dominate the music scene. But this change also planted the seeds for Go-go music to gain a bad reputation for being too raw and explicit. The once family-friendly sound was being pushed on the back burner, and the music’s effect on the upcoming generations of Black D.C. folks was changing as well.

(Album cover: Rare Essence)

The youth dominating the Go-go scene gave the genre a fresh yet familiar sound. During the early 2000s, bands began to cover popular mainstream hits like Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day and Pieces of Me by Ashlee Simpson. These urban adaptations of rock/pop songs introduced young Black kids to music outside of the Hip-Hip & R&B. Kids at school went from playing the Rare Essence version of Pieces of Me, to playing the actual version. This is one of the many things that makes Go-go music so great. It helped bridge the gap between hood and alternative, making it a little less taboo to be the alternative Black kid in school. This was also a time for women to be front and center in Go-go bands as lead singers. This music was unknowingly breaking glass ceilings and moving D.C. culture into the mainstream scene. Singer Jill Scott has used the Go-go sound in her music with hits like It’s Love (2000), which was one of my favorite songs as a kid. Rappers like Ludacris loved our sound so much that he gave the band UCB primetime exposure by performing with them at the 2009 MTV awards. This was huge news for the D.C. area and Go-go fans were excited to see our city represented at such a huge awards show. Unfortunately, not too many people outside of the D.C. community noticed this big moment, but that wouldn’t be the last time Go-go would make its way into the mainstream scene.

Getting noticed outside of the local music scene and maintaining its good reputation became an ongoing battle for Go-go music. With the change of sound and focus on catering to the younger crowd, people began to feel as though the music was attracting a bad crowd. Fights would break out at Go-go shows and clubs nearly every weekend, putting it in people’s minds that the music was the cause of this spike in violent behavior amongst the teens and young adults. This slowly started the ban of Go-go music in the city. Going against this ban could also lead to paying fines. It’s no coincidence that this ban came right around the time that gentrification was sweeping through D.C. at an alarming rate. A 2005 article from washingtonpost.com cites D.C. police blaming Go-go music for the violence that occurred at a nightclub in Northwest.

“It’s this Go-go. If you have a black-tie event, you don’t have any problem. But if you bring Go-go in, you’re going to have problems.” – Larry D. McCoy of the 3rd Police District

This comment infuriated D.C. area residents, and reeked of snobbery, racism and discrimination, something the Black community was all too familiar with. After putting Go-go music on blast, local businesses began to agree with (McCoy’s) sentiments, and banned the music from being played in their establishments. This led to local bands losing out on gig opportunities, crushing the dreams of those who had aspirations of one day starting their own band. Go-go music isn’t completely banned. It’s still allowed at plenty of places in southern Maryland and Virginia, but it’s nothing like what it used to be. Banning the music from its birthplace snatched a piece of D.C. culture that was cherished by many. It made locals feel like our art was nothing more than ghetto trash.

Local legends like Chuck Brown didn’t let this stop their shine. The seasoned artist continued to give us hits like Chuck Baby, which featured his daughter, making it known that Go-go music was, in fact, a family affair.

Still, some residents weren’t too happy about Chuck Brown having a street named after him in 2008, to honor his contributions to funk music and D.C. culture.  A few took to message boards saying things like, “This is an excellent way to trash property values. Serious house buyers don’t want to invest their life savings on Bo Diddly Street or Chuck Brown Street.”washingtonpost.com

Chuck Baby by Chuck Brown

Despite the negativity, Chuck received his honor in 2009, getting ‘Chuck Brown Way’ and leaving his mark on D.C. culture forever. Unfortunately, we lost Go-go legend Chuck Brown on May 16th, 2012 at the age of 75. His service was held at the Howard Theatre in D.C., a few blocks away from where he used to shine shoes as a kid to make a few bucks. People from all walks of life within the D.C. area came out to show their respects for the godfather of Go-go, reminding us of yet another beautiful aspect of the music and its influence on the local culture. It didn’t matter if you were Black or white, 70 or 17. Everybody loved Chuck, and Go-go music reached so many people.

As the years passed and gentrification took away more and more of the city’s culture, the colonizers made sure that Go-go music didn’t tarnish their comfortably upper-middle class living in D.C. The bans continued, and in April of this year a T-Mobile store in Northwest was forced to turn off its Go-go music after nearby residents complained. This business had been playing Go-go music on the corner of Florida Avenue & 7th Street for decades, and this petty crackdown caused locals to turn to social media in an uproar. This launched the #DontMuteDC campaign. For the first time in what seemed like forever, other businesses were uniting and taking a stand against the unfair ban and criminalization of Go-go music. Hundreds of Go-go fans showed up in front of the apartment building of the residents who got the music shutdown and put on a show in protest. Not too long after, the music returned, and the business was given the green light to turn the music back on! It was a huge slap in the face to those who move to the city, trying to force everything and everyone to adapt to them, but they learned that day that Go-go music is here to stay!

“It brings our communities together. It invented a style only dc has, and a dance that our city originated. The drums, the keyboard. Even the vocalist touch is real D.C.’s original soul.” -Greg, a born & raised D.C. native

A city with a culture like no other, Washington D.C. birthed style, originality, and soul in the form of a genre we can forever call our own.

Chanel Hardy: Born and raised in the Washington D.C. area, writing has been a passion of mine since I was young. I started writing my first book, ‘My Colorblind Rainbow’ in 2013. In 2017, I decided to continue writing, taking a leap of faith and following my dreams of publishing my first book which made the ‘In The Margins Award Long List’ for YA fiction 2018. I launched Hardy Publications in September of 2017, working as a freelance ghostwriter, author, and literary blogger. I also use my platform to raise awareness for different charities and non-profit organizations, donating a portion of my book royalties to help others in need.