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This story has been updated.
By all accounts, Saturday was a near-perfect day in D.C.—warm and sunny, the cherry blossoms in peak bloom, and folks from every corner of the city emerging from their winter dormancy to welcome the start of spring. But at 7th Street and Florida Avenue NW, something was missing: the sound of go-go cranking from the front of Central Communications (which is better known as Metro PCS, because as a licensed vendor of the wireless carrier, that’s what its storefront reads).
Julien Aisha was the first one to disseminate it: “I’m not a fan of gogo but the dudes down at Metro PCS on Georgia have stopped playing their music. Apparently, the new yt neighbors were complaining about the ‘noise’. Simply saying gentrification is sickening is an understatement,” she tweeted on Saturday night.
The tweet went viral, and the next morning she followed it up with another one asking people to use the hashtag “#DontMuteDC” to comment on the situation. By Monday morning, #DontMuteDC was trending on Twitter for the Washington, D.C. region, and Central Communications was at the center of a full-blown gentrification controversy: A resident at The Shay, the luxury apartment complex located across the street, complained about the go-go played on speakers just outside the store. After unsuccessful efforts to shut down the music through local sound ordinances, the resident came at it through T-Mobile, which owns Metro PCS; T-Mobile then ordered shop owner Donald Campbell to bring the go-go inside.
Not surprisingly, the story has garnered tons of attention. It’s been covered by nearly every local outlet, including the Washington Postand DCist, which broke the story. Even national media is picking it up, like The Root, which ran a withering and hilarious piece headlined, “D.C. Fights Back Against Colonizers Who Want to Ban Go-Go Music from an Iconic City Corner.” Mayor Muriel Bowser chimed in, tweeting “I’m with you #DontMuteDC,” and encouraging people to sign a petition demanding that T-Mobile let the go-go play. Further complicating matters is the possibility that the music may create accessibility issues for the visually impaired at a nearby intersection.
But by Wednesday afternoon, the outrage reached its conclusion: T-Mobile CEO John Legere tweeted, “I’ve looked into this issue myself and the music should NOT stop in D.C.! @TMobile and @MetroByTMobile are proud to be part of the Shaw community – the music will go on and our dealer will work with the neighbors to compromise volume.” A spokesperson for T-Mobile followed up with City Paper to confirm that their dealer “will work closely with the neighborhood to find a middle ground on volume.”
Central Communications is located in an area that has long been a center of D.C. culture. The nearby Howard Theatre was a popular go-go venue during the ’80s, as was the Masonic Temple on U Street, which hosted weekly performances by go-go founder Chuck Brown. Ben’s Chili Bowl situated up the street and the Florida Avenue Grill around the corner, another go-go venue, the Black Hole, was not far up Georgia Avenue NW. In the early ’90s, Rare Essence drummer Quentin “Footz” Davidson opened the Mack Attack Arcade, selling PA tapes on Florida Avenue NW.
“I don’t know that there’s an area that has more D.C. flavor than that particular corridor,” says Team Familiar bandleader Donnell Floyd. “That corridor is running over with what I consider the soul of D.C.”
That the Central Communications controversy unfolded in a historic go-go hub is painfully clear to the go-go community. “It’s very ironic that this particular dilemma happens to be taking place at a location that’s just steps away from the street named after Chuck Brown, and just blocks away from the street named after Little Benny,” notes TMOTTGOGO’s Kato Hammond.
This is, of course, hardly the first time the go-go community has felt violated by the conceits of developers and gentrifiers.
“It’s just draining at this point,” says D.C. native and go-go artist Michelle Blackwell. “The hue and cry about musicians playing downtown has been going on … with this noise ordinance that’s the excuse people have been using to get rid of our music. People playing instruments outside downtown and people playing our music on U Street, both have been going on for decades with no problems whatsoever.
“This particular issue is about people who are not familiar with our culture coming into a neighborhood that has been a certain way for decades and trying to shift our paradigm,” adds Blackwell. “These people are not familiar with our culture and have no respect for it.”
Community organizer Ron Moten, who has been at the forefront of such high-profile battles as the Reeves Center’s Club U and PG County’s CB-18 Dance Hall Law, led efforts to help Campell, the owner of Central Communications, work out a solution amenable to T-Mobile. (Campbell declined to comment for this story.)
“If he loses his contract with T-Mobile, he loses his livelihood,” notes Moten. “There’s been an attack on D.C. culture for some time now, and I guess some people are trying to take it to the finish line. But they need to understand that this is a marathon, and we’re not giving up.”
Howard University professor Natalie Hopkinson, whose book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City laid out the staggering effects of gentrification on the African-American community, also helped Campbell to facilitate a solution with T-Mobile.
“This is a raw exercise in economic power and privilege that’s disgusting,” says Hopkinson. “This story’s been repeated over and over again in go-go with this intolerance towards the music, and you really can look at it as a metaphor for the black experience in D.C.”
A resident of Bloomingdale, Hopkinson says she passes the shop daily. “I feel like I’ve been living this story for 20 years, and it keeps getting nasty. Right now, we’re seeing a nasty cold blast of intolerance and ignorance. It’s really a kind of violence because you start talking about black people in past tense,” she says.
By Tuesday afternoon, a petition to return go-go to Central Communications had more than 40,000 signatures, and Moten helped organized a protest in front of The Shay on Monday evening, drawing more than 100 people in support of Central Communications—including At-Large Councilmember Robert White and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau. (Prior to the rally, Nadeau sent a letter to T-Mobile asking them to allow Campbell to continue playing go-go outside of the store).
On Tuesday evening, another go-go rally broke out on the northwest corner of 14th and U streets NW, drawing hundreds of people, including hometown hero Wale, who performed with go-go band T.O.B.
“To me, this is about preserving our culture,” says Moten. “Everything we had has been taken away—the Unifest, the Caribbean Fest, and they’ve been trying to take go-go for the past 20 years. My thing is, this culture was here before you moved in. You all come to a vibrant city and expect it to be crickets.”
There is little doubt that the Central Communications altercation serves to clarify gentrification’s ugly cohort, racism.
“Gentrification has been going on for a while, but over the past few years, because of the new administration in the White House, there are a lot more less-than-progressive new people in our city than would be normally be here,” says Blackwell. “Not just the White House, both houses have been mainly Republican-controlled since 2009. We’ve got a lot of people in this area who are not progressive, and that sometimes translates to a racist attitude or they’re not known to be open to other cultures, especially African-American culture, and go-go is an African-American centered culture.”
While intolerance for black culture may have increased thanks to an influx of conservative federal employees, racist attitudes toward go-go are not new. “This culture has been targeted for quite a while, and that did not just come from whites,” notes Blackwell.
During the late ’80s, when the crack cocaine epidemic destroyed so many young lives, go-go was scapegoated by the media, politicians, and police unwilling or unable to explore the true causes of street violence. But in recent years, go-go has experienced a kind of renaissance, and now the music is frequently included in official events around town, from the 2016 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture to the city’s annual Emancipation Day celebrations.
Which makes skirmishes such as this one particularly frustrating.
Lovail Long, whose play The Giz—a go-go adaptation of The Wizard of Oz—addressed gentrification head-on, is not surprised by the latest go-go vs. gentrification flare-up.
“These people complaining? That’s like going to New Orleans and telling them to stop performing jazz in the streets,” he says. “I think it’s people who don’t understand our culture, and it’s irritating them. I would tell them to come out and get to know some Washingtonians and learn what the music means to us. The new Washingtonians need to be ready to share the city.”
Local comedy improv group Da Partycrasherz appeared in The Giz; they also perform occasionally in front of Central Communications wearing comical outfits—complete with oversized pot bellies and splayed buck teeth—while flexing some very funny dance moves. Their viral videos have drawn tourists from as far afield as the U.K. “Go-Go is just a feel-good entertainment that doesn’t have any negative impact on anybody,” says head ’crasher Terrell Brown. “If they were playing classical music, would these people take exception to it?”
Crank LuKongo’s Swamp Guinee, whose song “The Ghosts of Anacostia” describes historical displacement, compares the Central Communications controversy to new residents griping about the Sunday drumming in Malcolm X Park.
“It’s really about a sense of entitlement,” he says. “These drummers have been playing in Malcolm X Park for 50 some years … and now you have new people moving here, and they’re like ‘Nah, we don’t want this shit here.’ It’s like, ‘OK Christopher Columbus, you just gonna come and stick your flag in the ground and tell the natives that now you gotta take your culture elsewhere.’”
Kwame Stoute, who took over Mack Attack Arcade from Footz, points out it’s important to remember that many D.C. residents value the joy of hearing go-go on city sidewalks.
“So many people come through that area, and that’s what they look forward to, listening to the music, and they stop by the store just to hear the music. It’s a neighborhood tradition that’s our culture,” he says. “I understand the area is changing, but there are certain things that you have to preserve.”
Others point out that not all transplants are dismissive of local culture. “I’m from Philadelphia where street performers, food trucks, and loud noises are appreciated,” says Ayanna Smith, who actually moved here for the culture. Now she works to promote local music.
“I just don’t know why anyone would move into an area or open a business in a location that doesn’t suit their needs, then complain,” she says. “For the life of me, I’ll never understand it.”