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For the longest time, the Go-Go Live concert at the old Capital Centre was considered go-go culture’s proudest moment. That may have changed with last week’s Moechella, the latest musical rally inspired by the burgeoning #DontMuteDC movement. Headlined by Backyard Band, the event drew so many people into the area around the Reeves Center that someone made a graphic comparing the aerial view to Trump’s sparsely populated inauguration crowd.
Presiding over it all was Backyard Band bandleader and unofficial prince of the city Anwan “Big G” Glover, who at one point held a large D.C. flag aloft before wrapping it around his shoulders, creating an instantly iconic image representing both resolute pride and resistance to the inexorable advance of gentrification.
“It brought chills through my body to see the culture and how our city came out in those record numbers,” says Big G. “We had people we grew up with; we had Council people, police officers, firefighters, and business owners. We had the new generation and the old generation, people in wheelchairs and kids in strollers, babies and grandmothers and aunties. It was such a beautiful thing.”
The remarkable gathering served as a powerful reminder of go-go’s tenacity. The size of the turnout, which stretched for blocks, surprised even the music’s long-time supporters.
“Looking at all those pictures, I was in awe, because it speaks volumes about the longevity of go-go,” says TMOTTGOGO’s Kevin “Kato” Hammond. “With the bird’s-eye view showing how large the crowd was, my first thought was, ‘Boy, I wonder what the neighbors think now?’”
The neighbors he’s referring to live in a luxury high-rise down the street from Central Communications, the Metro PCS store at 7th Street and Florida Avenue NW; some residents complained to T-Mobile, which owns Metro PCS, about the go-go that store owner Donald Campbell has played on speakers outside the shop for years. After T-Mobile instructed Campbell to bring the music inside, the outcry was loud enough—and racially charged enough—for T-Mobile to quickly rescind that order. Still, the #DontMuteDC movement continued to gain traction, and the news that gentrifiers were walking their dogs on the Howard University campus furthered the outrage of locals who have had enough of the frequently rude interlopers they sometimes refer to as “colonizers.” (Anyone who doubts the odiousness of at least some of those colonizers need only visit the comments section of an item PoPville ran on Moechella.)
And so #DontMuteDC continues to tap into resentment resulting from decades of gentrification and neglect. To be sure, this is not just about physical displacement; it’s also about validation of the music that has been the soundtrack of D.C.’s Chocolate City for generations.
“They’ve been holding us back for so long,” says Big G. “Now these new people are coming in and trying to stop our culture, and we’re not just going to sit by and watch. I think we’ve showed them that.”
Like the previous #DontMuteDC rallies, Moechella drew attention far beyond the DMV, with stories appearing in national blogs and news sources. It now seems that moving forward, go-go will be linked with resistance to the whitening of African-American cities.
If Moechella’s organizer, Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson, looks familiar, it’s because he emceed nightly “Kremlin Annex” protests at the White House for much of last year. Now the 32-year-old activist is using the lessons he learned in Lafayette Park to help energize the go-go community with the movement he has dubbed #LongLiveGoGo. “An important concept that I took away from the White House is that music is a powerful way to communicate the message in rallies and demonstrations,” he says. “Now I’m formulating my own rallies around music with political commentary to advocate political engagement, activism, and get my community more engaged in politics and actively involved in voting.”
Moechella was the result of a perfect storm of Yaddiya’s activism, long-simmering resentments, the overwhelming love D.C. holds for go-go, and the massive popularity of Backyard Band, but social media also played a crucial role. While in the past, go-go musicians and their supporters may have lacked efficacy against the trifecta of government, police, and media that have long scapegoated and undervalued the music, the dynamism of social media has changed all that.
“It’s a new day and age with social media. Now every person has a voice, and those voices need to be heard,” says Backyard congas and timbales player Keith “Sauce” Robinson. “The go-go community has realized that we can be heard. People are comparing Moechella to the Million Man March, which might sound extreme, but we had a lot of people who turned out.”
Moechella was the third event that Yaddiya has organized in support of #DontMuteDC. The first, on April 19, featured bounce beat bands TOB and Mental Attraction Band 2.0; by his estimate, it drew 1,500 people. He says that the second event, with bounce beat acts TCB and New Impressionz, drew 2,500. (The Metropolitan Police Department would not comment on crowd estimates.) For all three rallies, the bands involved donated their services; other expenses for the first two were covered by Yaddiya. Some smaller area businesses, including the company behind the political advocacy app Showupia, helped cover Moechella’s other costs.
“One thing that has been accomplished is that we’ve restored the energy and pride of this community,” says Yaddiya. “Now we’ve got people’s attention. The first step before anyone is going to get anything done is to get the attention of the people who are making the decisions.”
In the days following Moechella, many in the go-go community have been enjoying the afterglow. “Just having the music there is huge, and having all those black bodies there is really important,” says Howard University professor Natalie Hopkinson, author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. “I’m so impressed, especially with these black millenials in D.C. These are D.C. natives, and they’ve become really accomplished and come together in a way that’s really encouraging. They have big ambitions to take on displacement, education, and other policy advocacy work.”
Others believe it is important to emphasize that, like the other #DontMuteDC rallies, Moechella was peaceful. “There hasn’t been a single incident during any of these events, which is important because go-go has long been stereotyped as violent,” says We Act Radio co-founder Kymone Freeman. Community activist Ron Moten and others continue to hold meetings and planning sessions related to future events.
All agree that Moechella clearly demonstrated the strength of a culture that has been downplayed for years. “The last few weeks have proven that this music is not only still thriving, but here to stay,” says go-go artist Michelle Blackwell. “The problem has always been outlets, which they have been systematically shut off decade after decade after being scapegoated for violence.
“All we want is the same thing the government and communities want, and that is safe spaces. Go-Go needs safe spaces too, and we were victimized by violence just as much as the community has been,” Blackwell continues. “Instead of blaming our music, it makes more sense to continue to give young people a way to express themselves and celebrate and come together through music, because music unifies.”
It is, of course, unlikely that gentrification will come to a halt, but it is possible that the new D.C. can do better in finding a place for the city’s homegrown music. “To call go-go just a genre of music is an understatement,” notes Yaddiya, who grew up in Silver Spring. “It’s bigger than that. It’s how we dress, how we move. It’s everything.”
The friction between gentrification and go-go is not new, but something about the Metro PCS incident was different. “Usually things are done, and we don’t even realize it has happened until afterwards,” says Kato. “This time, it was right here, blatantly in our face. Now this thing is way bigger than the Metro PCS store, but that was the fuse that was lit. We’ve been here through these grimy years, and now that the city is beautified up, you wanna take us out. We’re not saying you can’t do what you do, but please don’t try to erase what we do and what we’ve done.”
How the #DontMuteDC and #LongLiveGoGo movements will impact go-go remains to be seen, but many agree this is a galvanizing moment for the music. An online petition is collecting signatures to “Bring More Go-Go to the Kennedy Center,” a worthy proposal for the big box that seems more interested in hip-hop programming than exploring its city’s homegrown sound. In early June, TRIBEFESTDC is hosting a series of workshops on art and advocacy; TRIBEFESTDC founder Maryam Foye is hoping to attract the same people who turned out for Moechella. “I don’t want to see this type of momentum wasted without some kind of tangible policy change or forward movement,” she says.
Rare Essence is currently collaborating with other local artists on a song responding to #DontMuteDC. “We’re just adding on to the conversation, and hopefully it will turn into a bigger conversation,” says Rare Essence guitarist and bandleader Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson.
“This time now is an opportunity for all of us,” says Brant “Deuce 9” Akumu, a sound engineer for Backyard Band. “This is a great time for bands to cut new records and for us all to organize and capitalize off the buzz that go-go is having now and gain some more traction nationally.”