Michelle Blackwell performs.
Michelle Blackwell performs. Credit: Photo courtesy of John Shore

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It seems like every few years, there’s a conversation on the state of go-go in the District. In an expert panel presented during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend addressing just that, the lineup included about five men, two women, and the male moderator, plus a handful of men who later pull up their chairs for the discussion. That’s a common gender ratio for a D.C. forum on go-go, though. And it brings up a gender issue in the go-go scene that’s not often discussed.

Of the two women, Michelle Blackwell and author Natalie Hopkinson, only one is a go-go artist. After years of singing on the male dominated front lines of Northeast Groovers and WHAT? Band, Blackwell is used to this formula but is nonetheless perturbed. Among the go-go memorabilia adorning her Maryland home is a photo taken around 2007 featuring the lead talkers in the area. Of the nine talkers in the photo, only two are women (more talkers were late to the shoot, but they were also men, she notes).

This year, Blackwell took a sabbatical from performing as part of a band to develop her own career and will release a solo album this spring. The timing of her return is right as the DMV’s leading ladies of go-go get ready for an all-female lineup, “Pretty Girls Crank Too,” tomorrow at the Paradigm Lounge.

For years, Blackwell had to hold her own in the boys club of go-go. When she joined Northeast Groovers in 2003, a band that had already established itself nearly two decades ago, she was still relatively new to the scene. Yet she told her veteran bandmates that she would walk off the stage if they played songs that used misogynist terms for women.

“I would tell them in advance and I sort of got this reputation for being this hardass,” she says. “And look, it’s not that. I’m principled. I’m not an angel and this is not gospel music, but at the end of the day I have a certain standard and you either want to work with me or you don’t.”

As Blackwell’s musical prowess gained steam, she started to shift into a managerial role in the WHAT? Band. That move wasn’t always smooth, as Blackwell found she was held to a different standard as a female manager. She felt her male bandmates were more reluctant to take harsh critique from a female manager while her fans at the club would ask her why she wasn’t smiling, even as she moved through a crowded room trying to juggle soundsystem glitches, late band members and irritated club owners. Blackwell and some of her female peers often describe managing a band as less of a business position and more of a motherly role, one that often involves plenty of placating and wrangling.

“Women in positions of authority in this business are slim to none,” she says. “It’s weird and sort of ironic because … two of the most successful bands in go-go’s history were managed by women.”

Blackwell is speaking of the late Pearl Pratt, who managed the Northeast Groovers, and Annie Mack Thomas, who managed Rare Essence. She says she grew accustomed to seeing a woman in charge of the go-go business when she would attend Rare Essence performances and see Miss Mack collecting money at the door.

Mack literally nurtured the local go-go scene, hosting her sons, lead talker James “Funk” Thomas and the late drummer Quentin “Footz” Davidson, and around 10 of their friends for regular practices in their Southeast home’s basement. Mack evolved from a mother into the band’s booking agent, chaperone and, sometimes chauffeur, along with her own mother, Mattie Lee Mack, and bass player Mike Neal’s mother, Margarine Neal.

“(Mack) had to run a tight ship,” says Andre Johnson, who has played guitar with Rare Essence since those early basement days in the mid-’70s. “Miss Mack and Miss Neal, for the longest time they were the only female managers of any band. So they were the ones that set tone.”

More than a decade after her death, Miss Mack’s name is inescapable when talking with female go-go performers. She gave Karis Hill, a petite woman with a regal speaking voice that booms as lead MC and vocalist for Bela Dona, her first break in the early ’90s with Rare Essence’s all-female sister band, Klyxx. Since then, all-female bands have dominated Hill’s roster, from 4YP to Lady Rhythm and now Bela Dona, one of the area’s leading female go-go groups. Hill says the bands never intended to embark on an all-female go-go group, but happened upon the genre by chance.

“We never really start as go-go because a lot of the females in the band are jazz-oriented and classically trained like [Bela Dona keyboard players] Cherie and Claudia,” she says. “We just swing toward the go-go because it’s in our blood.”

For Lauren Powell, who recently sang with Vybe, go-go’s local popularity also dictated the sound of her early music career.

“We tried our best to say we were doing R&B and soul, but everything morphed into go-go,” she says. “In this area, those are the gigs that are booked, that’s where the money is and if you’re going to be a local band you have to put the pocket in there.”

Go-go gave Powell local stardom, but like any business, she faced an uphill battle as a woman. When she first entered the music industry in her early 20s intent on a pop career, she learned to bring her father with her to diffuse any preconceived notions from producers and sound engineers. In the go-go scene, she dealt with what she perceived was a double standard in the way that female performers were allowed to behave on stage. Powell detailed a recent incident, which ultimately led to her departure from Vybe, in an Instagram post last month.

“If I had advice to give to younger women I would say to keep your life extremely private … and that it is very important to remain as professional as you can, even if you drink a glass of wine on stage, because everybody is looking and watching,” she tells City Paper. “It’s so important to have bands like Bela Dona who are all women, because if you have people like me who are inserted into a band, you don’t have the flexibility, you don’t have any type of navigation, you don’t really have a say-so.”

Kimise Lee, who also sang with Vybe for almost seven years, expressed much of that frustration stemmed from a lack of ownership over a band. However, Lee also experienced some friction with Blackwell, when the two shared the mic in the band Suttle Thoughts.

“As in most bands, from the female perspective you want the spotlight to solely be on you,” Lee says. “I think I kind of shoved that from Michelle, which led her to go off and do her own thing with another band.”

Both Lee and Blackwell acknowledged separately the power struggle that existed between them in Suttle Thoughts, which has since faded away. Montanette Miller, the 26-year-old sole female vocalist in Reaction band but the second to Pretty Nikki in Suttle Thoughts, says fans sometimes like to instigate a female rivalry. When that happens, Miller just plays it cool.

“I give everybody their props, our voices are different,” she says. “Anita Baker doesn’t sound like Whitney Houston but people love her. So don’t make it seem like everybody should have one type of voice, one type of look, one type of style … we’re all different and we all have to embrace that. So I do see the difference in myself and I never take anything from another female singer.”

For Blackwell, she’s still frustrated that the go-go community doesn’t seem to allow one female star to rise in a band unless another falls.

“People say, ‘Michelle, what do you want?’” she says. “I’m just saying, if there are 11 people on the stage and just one girl, why can’t there be more than one? Even if it’s playing an instrument, even if it’s managing, but this industry is saturated.”

Blackwell’s call for more female representation in go-go echoes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “When there are nine” quip. Even before Bela Dona, bands like “Pleasure” pioneered the all-female go-go sound in late ’80s and early ’90s, and women began infiltrating the front line by the early millennium.

Others have chosen to step away from male-dominated bands and go solo or start new all-female groups, such as Lee and her new band, Nspired Soul. She’ll borrow her cousin Shannon Browne, who plays drums for Bela Dona, but she doesn’t plan on pulling more artists from that band even though she is struggling to find a female percussionist.

While the D.C.-area is saturated with female singers ready to jump into a go-go band, the pool of female go-go instrumentalists is smaller. When Bela Dona does need a substitute, keyboard player Cherie Mitchell often advertises several weeks in advance. If that fails, the group is forced to recruit a “Fella Dona” for the night. The men are happy to play with them, but Mitchell says bookers want to see an all-female group.

“I think that’s empowering for female movement to be able to hire males to do what we do,” says Claudia Rogers, an original member of Pleasure who now plays keyboard for Bela Dona. “Because we are the ones who are employing them.”

Bela Dona isn’t just looking at opportunities to employ men in the future. With about half a dozen of the band members gathered in their practice studio, the women began brainstorming about the future of female go-go. Mitchell eyed an old but sturdy upright piano in the corner of the room that could be used for lessons, percussionist Natrsha “Boogie” Proctor mentioned molding preteen musicians and Browne mulled a mentorship program.

“We need to let them know that because we have done it, they can do it too, and better,” Browne says. “I’d like to instill that same level of strength and foundation in another young girl who wants to play the drums but maybe thinks, ‘well, only boys play.’ And I want to be the one to say no, girl you can. Let me show you, and then you can play in my spot so I can sit down.”

Pretty Girls Crank Too takes place Friday, April 13 at the Paradigm Lounge, 5010 Brown Station Road, Upper Marlboro. 8 p.m. $25-$400.