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The District of Columbia honors go-go “godfather” Chuck Brown in many ways. There is, of course, the Chuck Brown Memorial Park as well as Chuck Brown Way along 7th Avenue NW. Muralist Aniekan Udofia’s rendering of Brown looks down from the side of Ben’s Chili Bowl. The Chuck Brown Band and many other go-go artists continue to perform the music he created.
And then there are less formal tributes, such as the substantial portion of the local population that can correctly complete the phrase “Chuck baby don’t give a _____.”
During his lifetime, Brown won wider recognition, most notably the National Endowment for the Arts Lifetime Heritage Fellowship. But for Brown’s friends and admirers, that’s simply not enough. After all, Brown was an essentially self-taught musician who devised an entire genre of music that quickly became the heartbeat of the DMV’s black communities.
Next month, Brown will receive yet another honor: On Oct. 20, the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame will induct Brown, connecting his legacy with the state’s other homegrown musical giants, which include John Coltrane, Nine Simone, and George Clinton. Brown’s sons Nekos Brown and Wiley Brown will accept the award at the ceremony, which takes place in Kannapolis, N.C. The guest list so far includes Charles Stephenson (co-author of the first book on the go-go genre), trumpeter Steve Coleman (formerly of Brown’s band The Soul Searchers), and longtime Trouble Funk percussionist Timothius “Teebone” David.
While a ceremony approximately six hours away from D.C. may not resonate with Brown’s fans at home, the Hall of Fame induction is still meaningful. “This would have meant the world to my father,” says Nekos Brown. “He always talked about his North Carolina roots. He was born in Gaston, and before he moved up to Virginia and into D.C., his music base came from North Carolina. He would have been very excited, very grateful.”
Brown’s longtime manager Tom Goldfogle, points out that the honor would have held particular meaning for Brown due to the difficulties of his early years in the South. “Growing up in North Carolina was challenging based on circumstances that his family was in, where they were living and how they were living in poverty and dealing with racial issues in the South,” he says.
In Gaston and later in Virginia, Brown’s mother and stepfather lived in shanties and usually made their meager living by picking cotton for white farmers. By the time he was five, the family had moved to Virginia, where they moved around several times and encountered at least one cruel episode of racism that Brown relates in the National Leadership Visionary Oral History Archive. Later, they settled in Richmond before relocating to Washington when he was seven.
“For him to be recognized in North Carolina would have held very deep significance,” says Goldfogle. “The other side of that is that any time that he and go-go had recognition outside of D.C. had special meaning for him.”
The way that Brown’s induction came about is an interesting footnote to go-go history. Stephenson, who moved to Raleigh several years ago, continues to advocate on behalf of go-go artists. Not too long ago, he had dinner with Steve Coleman—known as “Too Tall Steve” back when he played with the Soul Searchers and Experience Unlimited—in Fayetteville. They were joined by the uncle of Coleman’s wife, Sonya Coleman, who happens to be Eddie Ray, the former R&B producer and songwriter who is now Executive Director and Vice Chairman of the Board of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
Once “Uncle Ray” was convinced that Brown was Hall of Fame-worthy, recalls Coleman, it was only a matter of time until the rest of the board agreed. “Go-go has always struggled to be recognized in this country, and with my relationship with Chuck and the entire go-go family, I’ll do anything I can to help the music continue,” says Coleman. “I can’t speak for Chuck, but I’m sure he would be smiling to know here’s being recognized anywhere south of where he made his name.”
According to “Teebone” David, who moved to Raleigh after retiring from Trouble Funk five years ago, go-go has a considerable following in North Carolina, with at least local three bands that play go-go-styled music. College students from the Washington area have brought go-go with them, and DMV bands have performed at the state’s universities and larger cities. Last weekend, David and Stephenson led a workshop on the history of go-go at an annual African American Cultural Arts Festival in Raleigh.
“Chuck was a great influence on a lot of people, and so many musicians followed in his footsteps,” says David. “He deserves this honor. I really think it should have happened sooner.”
The way Stephenson sees things, the Hall of Fame induction represents a step towards additional acknowledgement for Brown.
“The goal is Chuck eventually being recognized by the Grammies for all that he has done,” says Stephenson, who first met Brown more than 40 years ago. “For Chuck to be honored by his peers for his contributions to music writ large, that would be an honor that he deserves–and that I think eventually he’ll get.”