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Natalie Hopkinson’s article in last Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook section, “Go-go music is the soul of Washington, but it’s slipping,” has generated some discussion thanks to its provocative title, its subject and contentions, and its prominent location in the paper. It’s being passed around a fair bit: I saw it on former Rolling Stone contributor Dave Marsh’s Rap and Roll Confidential e-mail list, as well as Cuba and Its Music author Ned Sublette’s e-mail list. Hopkinson’s article offers a fine overview of go-go’s recent history, and parts of her theory are well-expressed. But some of the piece’s contentions, specifically those suggesting a causative relationship between gentrification and the diminished presence of go-go within the city, raised my eyebrows, and I wasn’t alone. I e-mailed several questions to Hopkinson, who is the author of the forthcoming book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.
Hopkinson’s article starts out by establishing her theory that “the place that created go-go is shoving it aside” through an anecdote of a single unnamed club that decided to bar Suttle Thoughts, a go-go band that appeals to a “grown and sexy” audience, from performing, because the club manager saw a bandmember walking in with a conga drum. Hopkinson then invokes changes she has seen in two D.C. neighborhoods: “The U Street NW and H Street NE corridors have gone upscale, pushing out the places where you could buy tickets, hear go-go music live, and purchase your neighborhood’s unique brand of embroidered sweats. Ibex, a popular Georgia Avenue NW go-go club, has been transformed into luxury condos.”
There are arguably a few holes in these arguments. To start, an unnamed club’s unnamed manager deciding to suddenly drop a band on the night of a gig—-a band that Hopkinson acknowledges plays multiple times a week at various clubs—-seems to say more about the unpredictability of that particular establishment’s manager than about the state of go-go in D.C. Her second contention—-regarding neighborhoods going upscale, and the Ibex becoming luxury condos—-omits a few facts. As Hopkinson notes later in the piece, the Ibex got shut down by the D.C. government in 1997 when a policeman was shot on the street near the club. Not only that, but Hopkinson fails to note that the Ibex then sat empty for over two years and then reopened as a short-lived furniture store. The owner did not even draw up the condo-conversion plan until 2005. Asked whether it was in fact violence and not gentrification that caused the transformation, Hopkinson defended her argument: “The word ‘gentrification’ does not appear in my article. Not necessarily because it is not accurate, but because this is a loaded term that I find some people get really defensive about, which is in itself quite interesting to me. It was a long article and it will be a long book. There are no ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys in either of them. Violence is clearly a factor, which I addressed directly. But the fact is that places where go-go once flourished, there are now establishments that cater to ‘upscale’ crowds that have put it out of go-go’s socioeconomic reach. However you wish to label the process of that happening is up to you.”
Hopkinson’s article also points to the demise of other D.C. establishments to make her point. She asserts that “the flagship store for local urbanwear designer We R One on Florida Avenue NW went out of business a couple of summers ago.” But what she failed to mention is that property was bought by the historically black Howard University (which has been in the area for close to 150 years) as part of an expansion. It’s still empty. I asked her, How is this gentrification? She pointed back to her original example and added: “I also challenge the premise of this question, because it implies that historically Black institutions do not have the means and ability to be ‘gentrifiers.’ This is incorrect.”
Hopkinson’s article next suggests that the closing of other D.C. and Maryland stores are also indicative of go-go’s marginalization: “I-Hip-Hop and Go-Go, a store on H Street NE, has been shuttered. The flagship location of P.A. Palace, a chain of go-go stores, has been bulldozed to make way for a Wal-Mart in Landover Hills.” But her article ignores the fact that the H street NE store was opened fairly recently and was not there long. It’s no longer shocking that retail stores—-especially music stores—-are having trouble these days. These woes aren’t unique to go-go. As for P.A. Palace, the chain still has locations in Forestville mall and Iverson Mall, both in Maryland. I asked her how the facts about these establishments fit into her argument about go-go being forced out of D.C. And certainly, the closing of retail music stores has more to do with the music business than gentrification, right? Hopkinson once again pointed to her original argument, and then contended, “I never said that go-go was not part of the music business. It is. P.A. Palace had been the largest chain of stores that sold live go-go music in the DMV. The fact that their flagship location was closed and replaced by a big-box chain store reinforces the idea that the Peculiar People lead talker said [page 3 in the article]: without go-go, we are like any other state. I’m not sure how long the H Street location of I-Hip-Hop/Go-Go was opened. But I spent several months there doing ethnographic research throughout 2006.”
Hopkinson’s article noted various incidents of violence that were associated with go-go shows in D.C. in 2005 and 2007. I suggested to her, Isn’t it more accurate to say that go-go’s shift to Maryland has much more to do with crackdowns on club violence during Anthony Williams’ time as mayor? And that these crackdowns were just generally aimed at stopping club violence all over the city, and not to help developers or upscale residents gentrify neighborhoods where the go-go clubs were located? Hopkinson disagreed: “No. Anthony Williams is just one mayor among several different political and private actors who have impacted go-go.”
I thought the article, in discussing go-go’s migration from D.C. to Maryland, also failed to make completely clear that go-go has always had a strong Prince Georges County presence. I saw a go-go show at Rosecroft Raceway and several at the old Capital Centre in the early ’80s; there were also go-go shows at many other P.G. County locations, and many go-go bandmembers live there. I asked Hopkinson: How are these longtime locations more “marginalized” and less important than the D.C. locations that hosted go-go in the past? Hopkinson responded: “Good question. Prince George’s always has been an integral part of the culture and history of go-go. Many of the most iconic shows, including “Go-Go Live” the p.a.[cassette name] for which I’m taking my book title, took place in the county. They are not less important, but they do not have the iconic status as the “Chocolate City” and all the symbolism of being at the seat of power and all of that. The proximity of the go-go scene to the foremost international seat of power has always been one of the interesting paradoxes to explore.”
Some would contend that go-go’s less prominent status has to do with changes in the music itself. Hopkinson’s article hinted at, but did not fully address, the possibility that some of the local audience is more interested in hearing rappers like Wale and others perform originals, rathering than seeing newer bounce beat go-go bands performing only covers. I asked her, Are these bounce beat go-go groups failing to market themselves the way older go-go groups did, and the way current rappers are? Or is the local mainstream media failing to seek out these younger bands and give them coverage (whether they are playing in Maryland or D.C.). Hopkinson replied: “This is another good question that touches on an ongoing debate in the go-go community re: bounce beat and covers, etc. Believe me, I know how hard it is to be a ‘mainstream’ writer trying to write about go-go. I have a whole chapter about that in my book. I don’t think I can fully do it justice in this space.”
Finally, I noted that there are still numerous go-go shows every week; is gentrification really killing go-go? Hopkinson observed: “Maybe I wasn’t totally clear in the article. If so that is my fault. Go-go is very much alive. It is not dead. As I quoted Nico saying, more bands are forming than ever before. It has a lot of challenges. The point of the article was to educate those who don’t know about this culture and to point out that the prejudice against the music (reified by policies like the police ‘go-go report’) means that there will soon be a time when it doesn’t exist in DC at all. At that point we can no longer call DC the Chocolate City. That is the point of my book. It’s just change. Some change is good, some not so much. The Beat will go on, but that it won’t be at the seat of international power makes a larger statement about cities, about race, class, arts culture, history. So many things.”