City Paper is not for tourists
If Adrian Fenty somehow winds up coming from behind to win next week’s Democratic primary, Anwan “Big G” Glover could be to the mayor what Bruce Springsteen was to Barack Obama.
During the 2008 Democratic primary, when it was painfully clear that Obama wasn’t polling well with working-class white voters, he suddenly got an endorsement from the ultimate white working-class icon.
Fenty, struggling in his own primary campaign, has gotten Glover, the Backyard Band front man who also starred in HBO’s The Wire, to help with his own demographic woes.
Except in this case, it’s Fenty’s fellow African Americans who are bucking. A Washington City Paper/Kojo Nnamdi Show poll of registered voters predicted that D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray would win 68 percent of the city’s black vote.
Set against that backdrop, the “Go-Go 4 Fenty: We Got the Facts, Not Fiction” campaign, for which Big G has become the most recognizable spokesman, seems a bit jarring. Just how had it happened that almost all of the city’s go-go acts—entirely the product of local black culture, and devoid of the gentrifying white folks who now make up Fenty’s base—endorsed the mayor?
Chi Ali, of the band Suttle Thoughts, says it’s simple: Fenty reached out to ask for help. Ali says that bands like EU, Junkyard Band, Backyard Band and Rare Essence sat down “at a table” and decided working with the Fenty campaign “was a good opportunity.”
He goes on to say: “We should have done this years ago.” Right now, go-go is in a position to help Fenty. After the election, Fenty may be in a position to help go-go. “After this race, the mayor really sees who’s with him and who’s not,” Ali says.
Kip Lornell, co-author of the book The Beat! Go-Go Music From Washington, D.C., says this isn’t the first time go-go and politics have met. “Fenty has taken a page from Marion Barry’s playbook,” Lornell says. During the 1980s, the heyday of the former mayor and the D.C.-based music, Barry regularly asked go-go bands to play at District events. “Folk will come out for barbecue and folk will come out for go-go,” he adds.
The music isn’t intrinsically political. Lornell guesses that in the past, go-go bands got involved with politics for three reasons. An interest in having some political clout. An interest in raising their profile. And, of course, an interest in getting a gig.
This year, the go-go campaign began in May via radio ads. “This here Chi Ali from the Suttle Thoughts band. I’m casting my vote for Fenty,” Ali says over music in one radio spot. But in June, at least, it was apparent that Fenty still had a long way to trek before he could claim to be down with go-go heads. When the mayor, a longtime fan of the late go-go artist Lil’ Benny, delivered remarks at the artist’s memorial service at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, he was mercilessly booed.
In August, Fenty ally Ron Moten, who has been organizing Go-Go 4 Fenty events, told City Paper that the effort to attract young voters via free go-go concerts had registered about 2,000 new voters. That may not be enough votes to tip the election, but Fenty’s association with Chocolate City’s drum-laced homegrown music could show that Hizzoner still has ties to the black community.
So far, the undertaking has dropped a series of songs and at least one video. In “Don’t Leave Us Fenty” a video by rapper Big Wax that features Weensey of Backyard Band, cute kids throw up four fingers to promote four more years of the Fenty administration. Women lounge on a nearby stoop as Big Wax spits lyrics. Who wouldn’t want to vote for the mayor who presides over this musical paradise?
Go-go connoisseur, venue owner, and DJ Dan Richardson (aka DJ Supa Dan) thinks it’s working. “It’s like the Obama campaign reaching out to young’uns,” he says. “It’s very smart and it’s very major,” he says of the campaign.
But what Fenty’s campaign might not want to share with the go-go community is that some of the other parts of his political platform—the relentless focus on constituent service, the toughness on crime—has actually made things harder for the scene. Because even as the music has become a useful political prop, go-go venues remain a touchy subject for some of their neighbors, who see them as magnets for criminality. And Fenty has courted those neighbors just as assiduously as he courts the musicians.
While Fenty has been in office, the Metropolitan Police Department has frequently shown up at city go-go performances and even keeps track of them via a new “go-go report” from the department’s intelligence unit.
The rest of the city government is pretty tough, too. In July, for instance, Dean Smothers, owner of D.C. club The Scene, was grilled before the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. The Scene had its license temporarily suspended after a stabbing occurred blocks away from the hangout following a show by the go-go act TCB. Glowering down on him from raised seating, the board members wanted an assurance from the venue owner: “I believe we’ve asked you to terminate your contractual relationship with TCB and Polo and the Boyz,” said member Nick Alberti.
A haggard Smothers promised that he had. Neither band would step through his doors again. Never mind that TCB and related band Polo and the Boyz are thought to be the hottest go-go bands in the city. In August, owners of Club 24 on Bladensburg Road NE made a similar pledge after a night of violence that took place following a Polo and the Boyz performance.
Ali says the scrutiny—more than the migration of African Americans to Prince George’s County—explains why more go-go shows are taking place across the District line. The trend pre-dates Fenty, but Tom Oehser, who runs the go-go website gogobeat.com, says the phenomenon of District clubs growing less friendly toward go-go hasn’t ebbed under the go-go loving incumbent, either.
In Prince George’s County, cops say they don’t target go-go the way their District colleagues do. (MPD’s go-go report tracks venues in Prince George’s, but the suburban county doesn’t have its own version of the document.) Prince George’s police Major Andrew Ellis says that their “livable communities task force goes to various establishments in the community where there’s a potential for public safety concerns,” but doesn’t single out go-go clubs.
Ali calls what’s happening in the District “discrimination” and says go-go is being evicted from its home. But he thinks it’s not the mayor’s fault. “It’s mostly the D.C. Council,” Ali says.
But if that’s the case, it’s the council responding to the general public. Lornell cautions that, against such a backdrop, go-go politicking isn’t necessarily a surefire hit for the mayor. “It could backfire in that it could be viewed as pandering,” he says. Fenty, for his part, insists the music isn’t being systematically pushed out of the city. Anytime a go-go venue has problems with the ABC board or the MPD, “it’s all site specific” he says.
Whether Fenty wins or loses, Ali and the rest of the performers involved in his campaign say they’ve learned a thing or two about politics—and plan to start organizing on behalf of their music. Ali has toyed with the name “Go-Go United.” The first item on the agenda? Taking on go-go-phobic club owners. “If you have live music,” says Ali, “you can’t just keep us out.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery