Go-go pioneer Michelle Blackwell has played with some of the best bands (Suttle Thoughts, Northeast Groovers, WHAT? Band) go-go has ever seen, and sung some of the best songs the genre has ever produced. But her fans may be surprised to hear that she doesn’t consider herself a singer, per se.
“I’m admittedly not the best singer in the world,” she says. “I call myself an artist who sings, I’m not a ‘sanger.’” What Blackwell does admit to being is a consummate performer. She is a vocalist, talker, party starter—-one of a handful of women in go-go who has done everything from manage bands to “run the one,” or command the front line, basically running the show.
This Sunday at the Howard Theatre, Blackwell is commemorating her 15 years in go-go with a blowout show, where she’ll record a live CD and DVD.
The performance will highlight not just the best of Blackwell, but of some of her favorite bandmates and performers she has shared a stage with—-or wanted to—-over the course of her career: GoGo Mickey, Frank “Scooby” Marshall, Gene Pratt, Killa Cal Da Animal, Bryan Mills, Oweleo Lysette, Rapper Dude, and Danny Boy will all be featured. The night even includes a special tribute to Maiesha Rashad of Maiesha & the Hip Huggers, a red carpet hosted by GoGoRadio, and other goodies: a full-on go-go family affair.
“It’s not just about me or the musical journey I’ve had,” Blackwell says of the night. “I wanted to do something to look also at go-go, which is a subculture that doesn’t get the kind of props it deserves.”
In advance of this weekend’s event, Blackwell looked back at some of the challenges and triumphs of her career: managing and performing in a band at the same time, the importance of mixing in original songs with covers, and why she never, ever wants to be referred to as a “sexy female singer.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Arts Desk: How did this show come to be?
Blackwell: I was trying to come up with a way for me to record all the original songs I’ve done since I’ve been playing in bands, and I wanted the most economical way do it. Instead of going into the studio for hours upon hours, I thought a live show could be best. I put up a post on social media and said I was recording my originals and wanted everyone to come out. I got all these responses from people about my songs, people wanted to make sure certain songs were in the set. A set is only eight to nine songs—-they reminded me of so many songs I had written. Some songs I’m not a fan of, but the fans didn’t let me forget them [laughs]. Some songs I’m not as proud of, but when wrote them, I was always sincere, even if I was being sincerely ratchet…it came from me, and that’s something to be proud of, even if I’m not proud of where I was in my my head in the moment. So, I said, “OK, this entire show will be all songs I’ve written.”
What are some of your favorite songs you’ve written? And why are originals so important?
Then first band I was with was Suttle Thoughts, I joined in 2000. The [most popular] original song I had with Suttle was “Selfless”—-I wrote and co-produced it; it was on the Suttle CD…Suttle was a cover band, but we did have original songs. I left [Suttle] on a bad note: Myself and Pratt, and Shorty Corleone, who is now with Rare Essence, we left in an unprofessional way. Back then, we were young, and frustrated for some legitimate reasons, but the way we handled it was wrong. We were frustrated we were not allowed to perform our own original music, that was the crux, but we could’ve gone about it in a better way. I was only gone a couple months, then came back to Suttle, and ended up playing with Suttle and Northeast Groovers at the same time one year. It was kind of hectic, but it was the best of both worlds; grown and sexy [with Suttle] and then the crank side of go-go that I grew up on [with Northeast Groovers].
It was a trip. D.C. is—-it’s hyper tribalism, whether D.C., Maryland, uptown, downtown, Northeast, Southeast—-I was caught up in it growing up. I had never seen Northeast Groovers; because I’m from NW, I’ll only see such and such band [laughs]. But I had a great time with both bands. The manager of Suttle came to me after that year and said, “You have to make a decision.” The shows conflicted, and schedule-wise, they needed someone to be there all the time. The choice was between Suttle—-the hottest band in city at the time—-and Northeast Groovers, a band where I could do my own music.
As much as I loved playing with Suttle and hearing my name on the radio, there’s nothing like the people in the crowd hearing and singing my music along with me—-that’s what tipped the scales in the direction of Northeast Groovers. A lot of people who were with me when I was with Suttle did not follow me to Northeast. The grown and sexy crowd was not trying to get with the tennis-shoe movement [laughs]. It was tough.
You left Northeast Groovers in 2004, when the band broke up, and joined WHAT? Band, where you stayed for a decade.
A year in, I took over management. It was slow going, but I’m proud to say that when I took over WHAT? management, [the band] wasn’t making money, [but] by the time we were at our peak, we were all able to make good money—-me, [co-manager and fellow band member] Chris [Black], and the rest of the band. And again, I was really happy be able to perform my own songs, songs I wrote, born out of things going on at the moment.
“Reminisce” was one of my most popular. I wrote it because, unfortunately, there was a need for a song spoke to our situation in this area, and what we’ve lost. There aren’t many people you run into who grew up in this area who haven’t lost someone in an untimely manner. Up until that point, go-go did not have a song like that. I felt the need to fill that void; I wanted to put a spin on it, I didn’t wanna make people sad and blue. Music can bring up certain spirits and moods, and I wanted the song to have a spirit of hope even though it’s about losing a family member or loved one. I wrote that song in that vein, and it’s one of my most popular to date.
Any lowlights in the last 15 years, or hard lessons in the last 15 years, that stand out?
I’ve had some ups and downs. One of my peaks was winning the Best Leading Lady [award] at the 2007 Go-Go Awards, [put on by] 93.9 WKYS. The first one was done by WPGC, then next year it was WKYS—-it’s kind of an interesting story.
Being a woman in this business, I don’t wanna pull gender any more than the race card, but it’s not about whining—-it just serves as an example of people facing obstacles. When the Go-Go Awards were first brought up, there was no Facebook, no Twitter—-TMOTTGoGo was the only go-go chat place to have those discussions about go-go and what was going on. The WPGC awards were brought up, and someone came and posted the categories: Best Lead Rapper, and so on, and the only category for women was Sexiest Female Singer. I was floored.
I did an article, an interview, and spoke about how offended I was. It was changed to Best Leading Lady. I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but that year at the awards—-I had already been nominated, so they couldn’t blatantly take name off—-but all the names were read in the Best Leading Lady [category] but mine. I was hurt…But I would’ve rather not have my name called than have my name called for Sexiest Female Singer.
You know, I’ve owned my rep over the years. With me managing WHAT?, after Ms. Pratt [who managed Northeast Groovers] or Ms. Mack [who managed Rare Essence], there wasn’t a female manager of a band as popular as WHAT? And running a band and performing in one? That had never been done! I had to be firm in how I managed the band and its rules and regulations, from being on time, prompt and professional, making sure we put ourselves in certain light, we never booked a show without a contract deposit….no one can ever say, “She called and cursed me out!” I’ve just been firm. I’ve gotten a bad rap in some regards, but on the other hand, I don’t mind wearing that, because if I hadn’t done some of the things I did, we wouldn’t have gotten where we got.
When WHAT? Band eventually disbanded, you started a new group, Chocolate City.
Here was my dilemma: I didn’t want to be the “that’s not the WHAT? Band!” band. I didn’t carry over my songs—-I started from scratch, but my fans weren’t feeling that. You know how interactive go-go is: “Can you play this tonight? Can you play that tonight?” [Fans] are only gonna hear “no” so many times before they’re like, “Holla at me when WHAT? gets back together. I love you, but…”
Building a band from scratch, I was willing to do it but… I joke and I tell people that WHAT? Band gave me high blood pressure. I had to say, “Do I really wanna go through another 10 years of this?” So I had to sit back and reevaluate the whole Chocolate City situation. I said, “You know what? Let me step back.” Northeast got back together a few months later; I did that, then that fell apart. I got called to do something with Suttle; that did not work out.
What’s next? Are you joining another band? Forming another band?
I’m not going to be joining any other bands. I’ll still perform—-just like there are R&B artists, hip-hop artists, country artists, I’m going to be performing as a go-go solo artist. Unfortunately, with what’s going on with the stigma attached to go-go, a lot of bands don’t want to be considered go-go even if they play it. I want to lead by example and be the first to say “I’m a go-go solo artist.” I hope it will be a trend—-I don’t want us to turn our backs on this music.
We need to embrace what it is, what it has done that has been so good to all of us all of these years. I don’t have to turn my back on the music I grew up on, loved, that supported me and my family for the last 15 years….I was a fan long before I was a performer. I ride for this music.
Photo courtesy of John Shore