For a moment earlier today, as politicians lined up on the stage to send off the Godfather of Go-Go, what began as a festive memorial started to feel like a game of one-upmanship. Mayor Vince Gray said he would ask the D.C. Council to name a park after Chuck Brown, who died May 16. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton pressed her case, already made to Congress, for August 22 to be a nationwide Chuck Brown Day. Not to be outdone, Council Chairman Kwame Brown called for the creation of a go-go hall of fame.
This was Chuck’s day, and the luminaries tapped to honor him each wanted to leave him with the biggest gift. But among the speakers, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry received the most enthusiastic cheers each time he spoke into the mic—-or even got a mention.
Gray, for his part, approached the mic to what must have been the heartiest ovation he’s seen in the last couple of scandal-plagued weeks. “We own [go-go] because we own Chuck,” Gray said. “Chuck is ours.” But if Gray’s presence didn’t quite seem to connect with the crowd—-those stiff dance moves!—-at least he tried. Only one line earned a standing ovation: His proposal for a Chuck Brown Park. “It’ll be a place just like Chuck,” Gray said. “A place where there’s action, a place where there’s people, a place where there’s traffic…a place where Joe can run.” (The mayor’s office couldn’t immediately elaborate on the plan. Nor on why the mayor had just implicitly endorsed running from the cops.)
Norton, naturally, brought up D.C. voting rights—-and Chuck’s efforts for the cause. “The overbearing presence of official Washington often smothered the identity of hometown Washington,” but Chuck helped define “hometown” D.C.’s character, she said. While true, this wasn’t what the audience had come to hear. Their response was muted. Norton urged D.C. to take the lead in establishing a Chuck Brown Day. “I don’t know when I’ll get a vote on the House floor for this resolution,” she said.
Kwame Brown spoke next. “We got a park, we got a day—I think it’s only fitting to do all we can to create a go-go hall of fame,” Brown said. Having earned his share of approbation, he sat down.
After several musical performances, it was Barry’s turn, but his speech wasn’t another political-pander-as-eulogy. He wasn’t here as a mayor, a councilmember, or even Mayor-for-Life, he insisted—just as a friend. At this most upbeat of funerals, Barry turned preacher. “I know a God that can turn sorrow into joy,” he said to a chorus of yeses and yeahs. Later in the service, the Rev. Michael A. Freeman hammered a message of deliverance (and said the word “Satan” more than once), but Barry stuck to life. On a gravestone, he said, there are three things: the date you were born, the date you died, and the little dash in between them. “What kind of dash are you gonna live in life?” he asked. “Chuck Brown had a great dash, didn’t he, with his music and his humanity? And my question to you: What kind of dash are you gonna have in memory of Chuck Brown?”
If a theme carried through the memorial service, it was that Brown and the sound he invented captured the soul of D.C. in a way no one else ever could. To judge by the crowd, Barry may have come closest. “Chuck, just like Mayor Barry, they represent—-they were about people in D.C.,” Simpson said.
Barry’s dash might not be as straight as Brown’s, but like the Godfather of Go-Go’s, the Mayor-for-Life has led a life of public redemptions. He acknowledged the parallel. “You can get up,” he said, describing one of Chuck’s frequent lessons. “And if anyone knows that, it’s Marion Barry.”
Another thing Barry shares with the Godfather—-and every other public figure in D.C. does not: To win people’s hearts, all he has to do is show up.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery