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On Friday evening, several go-go and community leaders, along with about 100 fans, gathered at Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia for a panel discussion about the preservation of go-go. By the end of the evening, a lot of tough love was doled out, but an impromptu crank session ensured that the event ended on a good note. It was hardly the first time go-go’s preservation was discussed and everyone there hoped it wouldn’t be the last.
Among those on stage were Reverends Tony Lee and Willie F. Wilson, who jointly organized the event; Charles Stephenson Jr., co-author of The Beat: Go-Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop; Michelle Blackwell, current lead vocalist of Trouble Funk; Kemry Hughes, a nonprofit consultant who worked extensively with Marion Barry on youth issues during his mayoralty; Anwan “Big G” Glover, lead talker of Backyard Band; Jason “Cocky” Lewis, Bounce Beat Radio co-host; and Big Youngin, Junk Yard Band’s drummer of 17 years.
Throughout the evening, panelists analyzed the sometimes contradictory nature of D.C.’s relationship with its native sound. Stephenson contrasted the dynamic with that of other cities that take pride in their music scenes, positing that if you ask a hotel concierge in Chicago where you can see a blues show, they could produce a list for you, while a concierge here, when asked about go-go, would be clueless. Go-go is constantly marginalized, “but on the flipside, the politicians call this the heartbeat of D.C.,” he said, and are quick to partner up with bands during election time. Big Youngin agreed, stating that politicians “look at the go-go community as non-tax-paying hoodlums, and on the business side, pimps and hustlers” and asserting that “we gotta practice citizenship [and] put our political footprint in this city.” As for the stigma surrounding the culture, Blackwell said “we have a really big PR problem” that we need to “combat by narrating our own stories.” She lamented that go-go is also a victim of the violence wrongly associated with it, which gets “sensationalized” while go-go’s community service and anti-violence efforts are ignored.
Unity was also a primary theme of the panel, and moderator EZ Street of 93.9 WKYS noted early on that the meeting wasn’t meant to be a “complaint session.” Yet Big G and Cocky did not shy away from expressing disappointment with how many big go-go names and personalities, several of whom they had personally texted, called, and emailed, were not present for the discussion—an indication of how much work remains to be done. Some in attendance also didn’t feel that the panel accurately represented the go-go community in its current state. Before getting into the discussion, EZ encouraged all band-members and managers who had come in late to sit in the few front rows of the audience; however, among that group, only KK Brown, performer and daughter of godfather of go-go Chuck Brown, was allowed some time on the mic.
In the ’80s, a meeting was held on “how to strengthen go-go,” Hughes reminded everyone. That led to the creation of the short-lived but politically-deft Go-Go Coalition in 1988. It remains to be seen whether something similar will come out of this or future events. Wilson perhaps summed it up best: Although the meeting was a needed first step, “there must be a clear mandate, a plan of action, and a direction.” And eventually, “we gon’ see who mean business and who just talkin.’”
Due to a reporting error, this post originally stated Michelle Blackwell is an occasional vocalist for Familiar Faces. She is the current lead vocalist of Trouble Funk and has been a vocalist in a number of other bands.