Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.
Go-go music is unique to D.C., but in my book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, I explore its links to the black experience around the world. U.S. political and economic systems and urban history are all mapped onto the music of the nation's capital. Take a look at the black culture from which the live-music genre was born — local fashion lines, the dance movements, the ever-shifting constellation of venues and the new life the music is finding in the suburbs as gentrification takes over D.C. Go-go music is a metaphor for the life and death of chocolate cities all over the United States.
This 1941 photo shows life in the literal shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Both then and now, with roots in the city's history of slavery, the D.C. area is home to some of the nation's most intractable poverty.
With the help of institutions such as Howard University, the city also became home to one of the largest concentrations of black wealth. Photographer Addison N. Scurlock chronicled Washington's black "city within a city" from his U Street studio.
A shot of dancers circa 1930 at Scurlock's U Street studio, located blocks from Howard University and the precursor to black cultural establishments such as the go-go Club U. With the coming of integration, the black elite migrated out of the center of the city.
On April 4, 1968, people had gathered in Washington to participate in the Rev. Martin Luther King's Poor People's March on the Mall. This aerial view shows the riots that erupted in the city's black neighborhoods upon the news that King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
When the smoke cleared on H Street, N.E., after the riot, only storefronts remained standing. The strip was still struggling to rebuild 40 years later, when Go-Go Nico's music store opened on that corner.
At a time when federal policymakers left Washington, D.C., for dead following the 1968 MLK riots, Chuck Brown, who died May 16, 2012, and is known as the Godfather of Go-Go, created a music genre and an economy that has supported hundreds of artists, designers and entrepreneurs for the past four decades. He played his final gig at the Howard Theatre in May 2012 — a wake that drew thousands of fans.
Fans reach out for Ralph Anwar Glover, aka Ghenghis, aka Big G, aka the Ghetto Prince, in 2003. The popular lead talker of Backyard Band also had a starring role on HBO's The Wire and was a local radio personality. His dramatic life story is part Tupac, part Fela Kuti, part Bob Marley. Like his mentor Chuck Brown, Glover is known for his political activism and generosity of spirit.
Author Natalie Hopkinson and Big G after a 2006 Black History Month performance at the University of Maryland, College Park. While Chuck Brown is a go-go legend, Big G represents the next generation of go-go royalty.
Donnell Floyd, an alumnus of go-go group Rare Essence, was dapper at the 2006 Go-Go Awards at Constitution Hall, followed by the rest of his band, Familiar Faces. In a 2005 interview he told me: "That's where this whole thing comes from: Africa. Drums was used to talk from tribe to tribe. So that's basically the foundation of go-go … [on a visit to West Africa] I saw a lot of rhythmic congas and drums. A lot of call and response. They just don't call it 'go-go.' "
Suttle Thoughts lead talker Chi Ali in January of 2010. Suttle Thoughts was drawing a professional "grown and sexy" crowd at Zanzibar, a waterfront club in Southwest Washington, D.C. Their weekly gigs in Maryland still draw up to 800 fans per night.
The INI band was a go-go-reggae fusion band made up of University of Maryland, College Park students, primarily of Caribbean descent. They used Myspace at this 2006 campus performance to gather the names of fans to shout out during the show.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18, 2010, hundreds flocked to the Haiti Benefit Relief Concert at the Rev. Tony Lee's Community of Hope Church on Route 5. "We're not strangers to the pain," Peculiar People singer Mayday told the crowd. "We gon' sing this song so loud that they can hear us all the way in Haiti."
Go-go celebrity Lil' Benny strolled the red carpet outside Constitution Hall for the first annual WKYS Go-Go Awards in 2006. Four years later, he would die in his sleep the morning after sharing the stage with his mentor, go-go creator Chuck Brown.
In June of 2010, nearly 6,000 mourners filled the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for the funeral of Lil' Benny. The funeral of this go-go trumpeter became a campaign stop during the hotly contested 2010 mayoral election in the District.
Then-Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, speaking at Lil' Benny's funeral. Trailing badly in the polls among black voters, Fenty made arrangements for the city to pick up the tab for the funeral, but mourners booed him anyway.
In 2003 Backyard Band fans thrust an R.I.P. T-shirt up to get a shoutout for a departed fan, "Shake," who lived "8-4-1977 to 2-28-2002."
The 2K9 club near U Street in February of 2003. There is usually a "Polaroid" corner at every go-go to commemorate the moment.
In 2002 the "all ages" crowd at the Hot Shoppes, a go-go on Route 5-Branch Avenue in Prince George's County, screams into the microphone. In go-go, the audience is part of the band. By the early 2000s, a majority of go-gos took place outside the city in Maryland.
In 2002, then-16-year-old Donte Brooks was master of the "Beat Ya Feet" dance. He joined the Fatal Attraction band onstage at the Hot Shoppes. Far right is vocalist Wayne Mills, then 18.
While circled by a crowd of teens, Isaac "Shank" Marshall, then 19, performed the "Beat Ya Feet" dance on the floor at the Hot Shoppes in 2002.
In early 2004, 16-year-old Roderick Valentine was shot and killed after leaving a go-go show. His mother, Gwendolyn Valentine (right), and brother, Michael McDonald, wear R.I.P. T-shirts. Police could not find the police report when I inquired about the murder investigation, but a store at Iverson Mall did have his photo on record, where I was able to custom-order my own "Hot Rod R.I.P." T-shirt.
Sadly, Marvin "Slush" Taylor, the inventor of the "Beat Ya Feet" dance, was killed after leaving a go-go days after this photo was printed in the Washington Post. On the far right is Randy Danson, then 18.
In the mid-2000s, the fact that there was a go-go happening in a U Street government building called "Club U" was a very poorly kept secret. There was a live radio broadcast, as well as fliers like these advertising live albums recorded there.
Terrence Brown, 31, was killed at Club U on Feb. 13, 2005, ending more than a decade of go-gos at the government building.
In the early 2000s, wearing expensive sportswear by your neighborhood black designer was almost mandatory at a go-go. Here is Prince George's County-based designer Vusi Mchunu with one of his creations at his store in 2003.
The mascot for H.O.B.O. (Helping Our Brothas Out) the clothing line located just over the Southeast Washington border in Maryland, ubiquitous at go-gos in the early 2000s.
In the summer of 2004, go-go promoter and activist Ronald "Mo" Moten founded Unity Clothing Association, made up of black D.C. designers, to fight back against a new upstart line by a Korean manufacturer. Years later, Moten unsuccessfully tried to mobilize the go-go community to help D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's re-election bid.
The Unity Clothing Association hired a lawyer, organized a boycott and distributed fliers like these all over town to maintain black ownership of D.C. fashion lines. "We got two things in this town: urbanwear and go-go," one of the designers told me. "This is our culture. This is our identity."