Justin "Yaddi" Johnson
Justin "Yaddiya" Johnson Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In late August, on the night before Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testified before the House of Representatives about service cuts designed to manipulate the upcoming presidential election, ShutDownDC and Long Live GoGo organized a protest in front of his Kalorama apartment building. 

Go-go bounce beat band TOB performed on a flatbed truck in front of a banner that read, “Wait a minute, Mr. Postman.” 

Days later, when President Trump delivered his Republican National Convention acceptance speech on the White House’s South Lawn, TOB played at a “Drown Out Trump” demonstration just a few blocks away. Police would not let them get closer than Constitution Avenue NW, but TOB lead talker “Lil Chris” Proctor is certain that RNC attendees could hear the beat. “Bounce beat has really heavy percussion and drums,” he says. “We were playing real loud.”

And last week, when protestors paid an early morning “No Justice, No Sleep” visit to Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Capitol Hill house, the bounce beat group Critical Condition Band, known as CCB, played on a rented truck decorated with signs reading, “We are wide awake.”

More than a year after a series of musical protests led to a reversal of the decision to shut down the go-go played outside the Shaw business best known as the Metro PCS store, go-go’s signature percussion patterns have energized many of the Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump demonstrations here. 

“No question that go-go is the official protest sound,” says Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson, whose Long Live GoGo has organized most of the mobile musical protests, pairing most recently with several activist groups, including Sunrise DC and ShutDownDC. “The music is high energy and provocative, so it keeps the people engaged in the protest,” he adds. “We have changed the stigma of the energy of the music. There is no movement without the music.”

A former bounce beat promoter, Yaddiya may be best known as the visionary behind Moechella, the 2019 musical protest outside the Reeves Center downtown that featured Backyard Band and attracted enough people to shut down multiple city blocks. Before that, he emceed nightly “Kremlin Annex” protests at the White House for much of 2018. 

“An important concept that I took away from the White House is that music is a powerful way to communicate the message in rallies and demonstrations,” he told City Paper last year. In recent months, he has created events designed to increase political engagement. “One of our missions is to be the catalyst behind a lot of this new wave of activism and maybe inspire some new activists, young and old,” he says now.  “I’m trying to get my community more engaged in politics and actively involved in voting.” 

The recent upsurge in go-go artists’ activism seems to have been spurred by the victorious Metro PCS fight, a small but symbolic win against gentrification. Long Live GoGo’s Yaddiya now uses Moechella as a brand for the actions he organizes. 

“The whole Don’t Mute DC movement opened the tunnel for activism and people understanding that you can win,” says Don’t Mute DC’s Ron Moten. “People saw our victory and that changed up the culture. We didn’t let up. We kept organizing and other people kept organizing to push the needle further for the people of D.C.”

The victory over the gentrifiers who would silence the go-go played on city streets has culminated in the designation of the genre as the official music of the District of Columbia, as well as promises of financial assistance in various forms. These once-unthinkable successes have further empowered the go-go community. “That gave go-go a springboard to be able to step into these other opportunities on a bigger scale with these political protests,” says Suttle lead talker Kendall Ellis

Longtime go-go advocate Charles Stephenson believes that the Metro PCS fight irrevocably changed the way go-go artists view their role in the city. 

“The musicians saw that not only was their livelihood in jeopardy, but also their ability to live in the city and promote their culture,” Stephenson says. “People talk about woke, well, that woke them up. They said, ‘Look, enough is enough … We have to be more mindful of what’s going on in our communities.’ This is a whole new generation of artist activists much along the lines of Gil Scott-Heron and Chuck D.” 

In the past two years, TOB has played on behalf of a contested halfway house in Northeast and in the parking lot of Southeast’s United Medical Center to protest the closing of the only hospital east of the Anacostia River. The band was the first to perform in the rallies supporting the Metro PCS store, and this past summer, TOB has stepped up its participation in political protests, playing at nearly a dozen.

“More than ever this year, we’ve been part of rallies and demonstrations because of racial injustice and the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and all the other police brutality killings,” Lil Chris says. “I think now I have a better understanding of the influence my band has in the city. We’re using our platform to reach people. With what’s going on today, I know that that’s my calling, to use my influence for positivity.”

“Lil Chris” Proctor Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In early June, Yaddiya organized a BLM protest march with TOB and Suttle playing on a flatbed truck, and the sea of demonstrators surrounding them may have represented the largest-ever audience for a live go-go performance. 

“People were invigorated by the go-go sound, and we attracted more and more people as we marched to the White House,” Yaddiya says. “We had something like 30,000 people. I know that sounds crazy, but the streets were crowded from Scott Circle to the White House, and for blocks in all directions.”

That afternoon, as the truck paused at 16th and S Streets NW, Suttle performed a go-go version of Erykah Badu’s “Penitentiary Philosophy.” Ellis improvised the lyrics, chanting, “Black Lives Matter! No Justice, No Peace!” Then, he added a go-go call and response tailored for 2020: “Y’all say, ‘fuck 45!’” 

For Ellis, it was a beautiful moment: “There were millennials, Gen Xers, Gen Zs, and so many nationalities and beliefs all united for one cause, and that’s social justice,” he says. “When people get a live band in front of them, the energy is powerful. Go-go is in our soul, and we were able to take this love of music and use it as a platform. I truly believe that God has purposed me to hold a microphone.”

At a time when many go-go bands are sidelined by the pandemic, playing at political demonstrations also offers bands a chance to reach beyond the genre’s traditional audiences. 

“We played 100 shows in 2019, but we couldn’t do that this year,” Ellis says. “We can do livestreams and get that captive audience sitting in the house, maybe reach maybe a few thousand viewers. When we did the Black Lives Matter protest … we had thousands of people. We’ve never had that type of exposure.”

While traditional go-go bands like Suttle, Experience Unlimited, Backyard Band, and Junkyard Band have performed at multiple protests and rallies in the past few years, the bounce beat bands—including TOB, TCB, CCB, and UCB—have been the most visible in recent months. Perhaps partly due to a lack of familiarity with the go-go subgenre, the local mainstream media has acknowledged go-go’s participation in the protests, but no journalists seem particularly interested in what these artists have to say about these issues. 

Lil Chris, who turns 30 this month, was raised in Northeast and attended Roosevelt High School. He was still in middle school when he founded TOB—which stands for Take Ova Band—in 2003, and the band’s first-ever show was on Christmas of the following year. Initially a popular novelty act due to their youth, the band evolved over the years, and by 2010, they became one of bounce beat’s most popular acts. 

He believes he found activism thanks to the influence of community leaders including Yaddiya and Moten, as well as author Tony Lewis and Reverend Tony Lee, founder and senior pastor of the Community of Hope A.M.E. Church in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland. “They taught me to use my popularity for positivity to help the youth and my community, so that the next generation that’s coming behind, they can have somebody to guide them,” he says. 

“Chris has been one of the young leaders who understands the social power and responsibility of his music and craft,” says Moten, one of his earliest mentors. “He has been a blessing to the movement.”

Whenever TOB plays at a political protest, Lil Chris includes The Temptations’ 1973 track “Ball of Confusion” in the band’s set. “Everything they said in that song relates to what’s going on today in this world,” he says. 

As the father of two, he is striving to make the world a better place for his children. The first step? Defeating Trump.

“He’s an idiot,” Lil Chris says. “Right now, we’re advocating with Long Live GoGo and Moechella to inspire young people to get out and vote. We’re trying get everyone to understand the importance of our vote, so we can get Donald Trump out of office.”

While recognition outside the go-go community has been slow in coming, many within the culture praise TOB for stepping into a leadership role. 

“I give TOB a huge shoutout because they have taken this thing on to another level,” says Suttle manager Marlon Edwards. “TOB, TCB, and these younger bands took the initiative to start this movement about the voting in November and reaching a lot of people around go-go who were not registered to vote. There are a lot of convicted felons or people who had criminal backgrounds who didn’t think they could vote.”

Tony Tee, a percussionist formerly with TCB and now with Rare Essence, says that TOB’s continued activism has earned respect throughout the go-go community. 

“Without a shadow of a doubt, TOB is the band of the year because of their political leadership,” he says. “They showed everyone that it was cool to take that risk and go to Freedom Plaza or the White House to play and to get your voices heard. Every time you turn around, there’s a political protest, and TOB’s name is on there. To me, they have the biggest impact in go-go right now, those three letters right now just ringing bells in the city.”

For Juneteenth, Moten, who has a long history of activism on behalf of disenfranchised communities, organized performances by Experience Unlimited and Backyard Band, starting at the Howard Theatre. The bands played on trucks as thousands marched to Black Lives Matter Plaza, then returned to Metro PCS. “We were making a statement that Black Lives Matter, a statement against police brutality, stop Black-on-Black killing, equity for people who’ve been here in this city,” Moten says.

During the summer and early fall, Long Live GoGo has organized at least a dozen rallies and actions, including a separate Juneteenth event and one dubbed “Mitch Better Have My Money,” advocating for the extension of unemployment benefits. For Yaddiya, attracting people of color is imperative. “We felt we weren’t represented out there in the streets because a lot of people that were mobilizing weren’t from the communities they were fighting for,” Yaddiya says. “Moechella is a space for Black and Brown people, and we’ve been very lucky to be engaged in the community.”

Long Live GoGo has teamed up with ShutDownDC for several recent protests. Initially created in response to the climate crisis, Shut DownDC has since redirected its mission to focus on election defense. Organizer and creative Laura Beth Pelner says that Long Live GoGo was the perfect partner for the protest outside DeJoy’s Kalorama residence. 

“They very much wanted to advocate for Black residents in Southeast who were being affected by the delays in the mail service by DeJoy’s action,” Pelner says. “Having go-go there amplified the message and kept everyone there listening to what we had to say. TOB brought a certain cross-cultural energy, and they were bringing a message.”

For decades, politicians running for office would utilize go-go bands to draw crowds and collect votes. Go-go artists would also step up when their interests were being challenged by the city government. “That activism generally didn’t last long,” Stephenson says. “Now what we’re seeing are better organized, sustained efforts, whether that’s Don’t Mute DC or Yaddiya’s Long Live GoGo, they’re finding the intersection between local issues and national issues.”

With notable exceptions in the last few decades, go-go has mostly been about the party, but priorities are slowly changing. “There are so many issues around racism, xenophobia, and so many impacting LGBTQ people, returning citizens, and housing and health care,” Stephenson says. “These musicians have started to drill down on these issues. The musicians are realizing their power. They understand that they’re right here in the nation’s capital, and that they have a voice that can echo across this nation.”

On Saturday, Long Live GoGo is holding a “GoGo Vote” candidates forum, hosted by Yaddiya and featuring performances by bounce beat favorites TCB and New Impressionz, outside the Reeves Center, the site of his original Moechella rally. And on Oct. 16, Don’t Mute DC and its Crank the Vote collaboration with several go-go artists present an event marking the 25th anniversary of the Million Man March with Backyard Band performing on a flatbed truck. The march begins at the Howard Theatre and ends at Black Lives Matter Plaza. “Crank the Vote is educating Black people why they must get out and vote and hold elected officials accountable,” Moten says. “It’s time for America to atone for its treatment of Black people.” 

Even when go-go was more about the party than about politics, many artists prioritized community activism and continue to do so. Backyard Band’s Anwan “Big G” Glover has long been a thoughtful and charismatic community leader. Back in May, he was tapped by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit authority to appear in an ad campaign encouraging riders to wear masks, and he has been particularly active in initiatives combating street violence and working on behalf of returning citizens.

D.C.-based R&B star Raheem DeVaughn is another local luminary who throws his support to social and political issues. DeVaughn recently recorded a PSA for Modern Day Cannabis Justice Reform and works against continued marijuana possession arrests that disproportionately target the Black community. “As far as go-go artists at these protests, I applaud their efforts. What’s going on absolutely needs to happen,” DeVaughn says. “If there was ever a time to use your music, use your gift to impact the world, this is that time.”