Maiesha Rashad and her husband, Brian Rashad, in 2014 Credit: Thomas Sayers Ellis

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Maiesha Rashad was celebrated across the D.C. area as the First Lady of Go-Go, and her impact as the leader of the late ’90s funk/R&B/go-go band Maiesha and the Hip Huggers lasted for decades and continues even now.

But she never set out to become a go-go artist. Rashad, who died last month after a long illness, was a prodigiously talented vocalist who for most of her performing career favored jazz, gospel, and quiet storm-style R&B. She performed songs made famous by Jean Carne and Phyllis Hyman, and her fans swore her renditions surpassed the originals. She led and managed her own bands, which included Maiesha and the Hip Huggers, TopKat, and Lavender Rain

“Maiesha was already a great vocalist before she ever did go-go,” says drummer and vocalist Ignatius Mason, who performed with her in 2000 Black and early on in Maiesha and the Hip Huggers.

D.C.-based jazz vocalist Steve Washington has often wondered why Rashad never ascended to greater stardom as a recording artist. “She had this truly remarkable sound, and what really distinguished her was … the warmth and natural beauty of her voice,” he says. “She had the kind of thing that you can’t train for, can’t study for, can’t try to develop.”

Derek “Redfootz” Freeman, former drummer for Suttle Thoughts, recorded radio station jingles with Rashad. “She had phenomenal range,” he says. “The tonality and artistry in her voice was just beautiful, and once you met her, she had a beautiful spirit.”

Rashad possessed an earthy elegance and serenity both on and off stage. Friends describe her as compassionate and kind, generous with compliments and encouragement. “When I first saw her, I just thought she was a goddess,” says “Sweet” Cherie Mitchell-Agurs, musical director and keyboardist for Be’la Dona. Sweet Cherie played keyboards for Maiesha and the Hip Huggers and for Rashad’s R&B band TopKat, and over the years, they became so close, she says, “I became her little sister, her family.” 

Born and raised in Indianapolis, Rashad came to D.C. in the ’70s to attend Howard University and later American University. After school, she started a secretarial service, worked for Williams & Connolly, and raised a daughter with her husband, Brian Rashad. She also founded a 95-voice gospel choir for the Capitol Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church, and performed multiple fundraisers on behalf of the church, for Grandma’s House, a home for HIV-positive babies, and for the poverty assistance nonprofit So Others Might Eat. In between, she toured with gospel harpist Jeff Majors and developed an anthology of Black American music that she presented at American military bases across Europe. 

In 1996, Rashad came up with a concept for a new group, the Hip Huggers. Band members would wear bell-bottom low-rise pants, dashikis in psychedelic colors, and ’70s-sized Afro wigs, and they would perform the best of that decade’s funk. 

Maiesah and the Hip Huggers did well, regularly playing Takoma Station, Bailey’s, and a weekly Professional Ladies’ Night at Republic Gardens emceed by radio personality Russ Parr. Mason remembers those Wednesday night shows as crowded wall-to-wall with people. “During our break, you couldn’t even get to the bathroom and back in time,” he says. 

And then, the band’s popularity exploded, and without really meaning to, Rashad ushered in a huge change in go-go culture. It all started with Experience Unlimited’s drummer, William “JuJu” House. Rashad was in need of a drummer, and JuJu, returning from touring with Chaka Khan, filled in. A few weeks later, JuJu brought in a substitute bassist, EU bandleader Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott, and the audience went wild.

“She didn’t even know who Sugar Bear was, but she kept saying, ‘How all these people keep asking for you?’” Sugar Bear recalls. Someone mentioned EU’s 1988 international hit, “Da Butt,” he says, and she asked, “Oh, what is that?” At Rashad’s invitation, he stepped up to perform an EU-style “Family Affair,” and the rest is go-go history. Along with JuJu and Sugar Bear, other EU members, including guitarist Valentino “Tino” Jackson and conga player “Mighty” Moe Hagans, joined the Hip Huggers. The shows would start with R&B and funk classics, but the second set belonged to go-go.

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Suddenly, Maiesha and the Hip Huggers were the hottest band in town, playing seven nights a week at sold-out clubs across the city, with double bookings on some nights. In the process, the band was circumventing what seemed very much like an unofficial ban on go-go. During the ’90s, popular young go-go groups like Northeast Groovers, the Huck-A-Bucks, Pure Elegance, and Backyard Band struggled to find sufficient venues, and even the top-tier first generation bands Rare Essence, EU, and Trouble Funk were increasingly shut out of clubs. “Go-go really had been criminalized for a while at that point and had been pushed in the shadows,” says Howard University professor Natalie Hopkinson, author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. “It really took Maiesha’s strong voice to create a space that had even more crossover potential with sets that started off with funk and R&B sets, but went into straight crank that was very recognizably go-go.”

Club owners perceived Maiesha and the Hip Huggers as an R&B band, and the  group’s stylized stagewear proved an excellent distraction. “We came out with wigs and dashikis, playing the ’70s music, and then we’d drop Sugar Bear in there and just drop it on them,” JuJu says. “Maiesha was the perfect culprit because nobody would expect her to be doing go-go. The way she carried herself … they didn’t know she was with the crew.” 

Adults who had given up on late-night go-gos were filling clubs again, attracted by a new style dubbed grown ‘n’ sexy. “We were mixing R&B music with go-go, and that really started the grown ‘n’ sexy era, when a lot of bands were taking songs off the radio and placing a go-go beat underneath,” Sweet Cherie says. 

Other bands jumped on the grown ‘n’ sexy feel, among them Suttle Thoughts and Lissen, and then later Vybe, Let It Flow, Be’la Dona, Faycez You Know, Familiar Faces, Ms. Kim & Scooby, Donnell Floyd’s Team Familiar, and others. Even Junkyard took notice, playing shows as an alter-ego band, ASJ, an acronym for Another Side of Junk. 

“What Maiesha brought was an era that’s almost like the Harlem Renaissance,” says Let It Flow drummer “Lil” James Ellis. “You had your working class people with the good government  jobs who wanted a more mature sound and shows where you could come out and dress up.  Not that Chuck Brown hadn’t already done that, but this brought out a different class of people. Now we have go-go that fits your level of age and sophistication.”

By the end of 1999, the Hip Huggers’ grueling performance schedule began to take its toll. Rashad took time off to recover from chronic back and neck pain. “The band continued to play as long as we could, but it was like having the Revolution play without Prince,” Sweet Cherie says. The EU wing of the Hip Huggers returned to performing as EU, Cherie joined Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers, and other grown ‘n’ sexy bands picked up the Hip Huggers’ audience and set list.

But in less than three years, Rashad achieved even more than creating an entire subgenre of go-go. She also paved the way for female artists who came after her. Despite the popularity of early all-female groups Pleasure and Precise, go-go has long been a male-dominated culture. 

“She was the female voice at the center of a band that not only led the way for a lot of leading ladies like Michelle Blackwell and Kacey [Williams] from Black Alley, but also really made it an essential piece,” Hopkinson says. “Now you almost can’t have a go-go band without a leading lady … a strong female voice centering the heart and soul of a band.”

DontMuteDC activists Ron Moten and Hopkinson were organizers of the First Ladies of Go-Go event last September at the Eaton Hotel, which featured Rashad along with Blackwell, Backyard Band’s Sweet Thang, Williams, TCB’s Chrystian “Crissy B” Barnes, and theChuck Brown Band’s Takesa “KK” Donelson, who is Brown’s daughter. “To see all these women in go-go performing together, it was beautiful honestly,” Crissy B says.

“What the First Ladies of Go-Go set up was something that’s so important in this community of females in the D.C. culture,” Williams says. “I think that Maiesha was the catalyst for that, and she showed so much encouragement and support when she was there. It brought us all closer together. It was powerful to realize how much we kind of need each other.”

It was a night filled with an overwhelming show of love for Rashad, who was recovering from surgery, walked using a cane, and sat for much of the set. She performed her trademark Jackson 5 cover, “I Want You Back,” improvising to add names of the stars go-go has lost. There was also humor. “Whenever she would take a picture she would do this kissy duck face, and it was so cute,” Williams says. “We all laughed about that.”

For JuJu, Rashad was a close friend and musical partner who can never be replaced. “Maiesha was an angel, no doubt about that,” he says. “She was my sister, not my band member. She could go into my house, go into my icebox, take my car and my bank card. That’s how close we were.”

Two months after the Eaton event, DontMuteDC’s Go-Go Awards honored her with an induction into The Go-Go Hall of Fame. Her daughter, Raina Rashad, flew in to surprise her as the award was presented. “It meant everything to her,” Raina says. 

Moten now says he is gratified that she lived long enough to receive the honor. “There’s nobody who did what she did,” he says. “I’m so glad she got her flowers when she was still here with us.” 

That night, Sugar Bear was proud to watch his old friend accept the award. “She was a beautiful lady in every way, and she’ll be missed,” he says. “I thank her for blessing our go-go culture.”