The first weekend after George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police, when Americans across the country marched against systemic anti-Black racism and police brutality, TCB keyboard player Brandon “Bee” Smith watched news footage of the protests late into the night while Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” played on repeat in his head.
“For me, that song resonates each and every time something happens as far as social injustice,” he says.
By the early morning hours, Bee envisioned creating a new go-go version of that 1971 classic. Instead, in the weeks that followed, he put together an original new track, “What You See,” performed by TCB with guest artists including Calvin “Killa Cal” Henry and Mike “Legend” D’Angelo.
“Being in a prominent go-go band in this city, we have a platform,” Bee says. “Instead of just using that to party, we can attempt to create change.”
His hope is that “What You See” will impact listeners the same way that “What’s Going On” has influenced him. “I wanted this song to be revolutionary and uplifting,” he says. “I’m concerned, raising a child in this climate … Black lives should matter at all times. Lives in general should matter at all times.”
As the go-go community slogged through an unprecedented summer that will surely be remembered for its unrelenting sorrows—the systemic anti-Black racism that fueled the BLM protests, an upsurge in deadly gun violence, and all the hardships of the COVID-19 crisis, including drastically diminished incomes for the genre’s beloved musicians—a number of artists recorded original songs reflecting the moment. Along with “What You See,” recent songs addressing these issues include “Black Lives” by the gospel bounce beat group Wanted Band and “You Can’t Mute Us,” written by go-go activist Ron Moten and performed by Pure Elegance and a slew of guest performers: Backyard Band’s Anwan “Big G” Glover, Leroy “Weensey” Brandon Jr., vocalist Jus Paul, and Howard University sophomore J’TA.
With music by guitarist Melmoth “TCB Mel” Chung and drummer Darren “D Money” Kirtrell, “What You See” opens with a heart-wrenching poem written by Bee’s daughter, Phoenix Smith, a 12-year-old entering 7th grade at G. James Gholson Middle School in Landover, Maryland. Her recitation lends an added poignance. From there, the song seamlessly transitions from traditional go-go to a bounce beat sound, with stellar contributions from its rappers. An indelible chorus, “Just remember that’s somebody’s baby, that’s somebody’s lady, that’s somebody’s brother or mother or cousin,” addresses both racist cops and those who would settle disputes in their communities with gunfire.
“If one person will take a step back and think about the lyrics … before they go shooting up a neighborhood or killing someone, that’s a life saved, or maybe five lives saved, because there’s somebody dying, someone going to jail, and then sometimes retaliation, so it’s like a domino effect,” Bee says. “If we can slow down even one situation, that’s a win.”
With COVID-19 shutting down a majority of live shows, notes Bee, musicians have more time to contemplate other ways to engage with the community. TCB manager Gerome “Rome” Curtis, for example, is launching a new community organization, Build Our City D.C., to educate, motivate, and empower young people. “Normally, we’re busy preparing for our weekly gigs,” Rome says. “Right now, we have time to focus on the future of go-go and our community.”
D’Angelo is one of the higher-profile rappers on “What You See.” More than two years have passed since his 10-year-old niece, Makiyah Wilson, was killed by a stray bullet in a Clay Terrace courtyard while she was on her way to buy ice cream. Since then, he has walked from D.C. to Philadelphia three times to raise gun violence awareness. “A kid versus a .223 bullet? They not gonna win that battle,” he says.
“These kids want to be the next president, the next Michael Jordan, the next LeBron,” he continues. “They should be able to go through the process of dreaming and practicing … to become everything that they dream to be without having an encounter with a stray bullet. We got to hang in there and push to the next destination, which is the promised land that MLK promised us.”
Killa Cal, who has the first verse of “What You See,” views it and other songs as part of a growing consciousness within the go-go community as various artists continue to solidify their leadership roles in support of critical issues.
“Since the pandemic, there’s so much going on as far as police brutality, Black Lives Matter, and the protests,” he says. “Go-go has been on the front lines of all of this, talking about wear your mask, be safe, livestreaming shows, and the bands have been down on U Street and Black Lives Matter Plaza leading the protests.”
In his “What You See” verse, Killa Cal calls out those who must do better. “I say that we gotta look at how we’re living. You got your Black Lives Matter, you have police brutality, and then we also got to look at ourselves in the Black community … So nobody gets out of this safe. In this song, everyone is held accountable.”
Gospel bounce beat ensemble Wanted Band had been on a hiatus for several years when its co-founder, Stephawn “Showtime” Lindsay, was invited to speak at a Black Lives Matter march early last summer. As the youth pastor at Zion Church in Landover and a former lead talker for bounce band XIB, Lindsay was deeply moved by the experience. That night, he prayed and asked himself how else he could serve God and his community.
The answer was a Wanted Band reunion to record “Black Lives,” which opens with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., and is accompanied by a compelling music video. Throughout the song, the lyrics borrow from protest chants. At one point, Lindsay calls out, “Get your knee off my neck, show us some respect / You rockin’ with some kings and some queens nothing less.” Later, he chants, “Bouncing for my people, cuz my people want equal.”
Lindsay knew exactly what he hoped to achieve with the track.
“We wanted to echo the sentiments that the Black community has been screaming out for the past 400 years, which is Black lives matter,” he says. “As a youth pastor and community leader, I realize that a lot of our young people want to be engaged in the fight for justice and equality, but they aren’t quite sure how. We chose to use keyboards, microphones, and congos to show that you can use whatever gift you have to contribute to this fight.”
Of course, the centuries-old battle against anti-Black racism will not be easily won.
“We weren’t valued from the time we got here packed in slave ships,” he says. “Now the main point is to encourage the rising generation to get involved, to vote, to be educated and activated.”
Until now, Pure Elegance has been best known for its mid-’90s hit, “One Leg Up,” but original bassist Stephon “Bass-Face” Woodland hopes the band’s new single, “You Can’t Mute Us,” a collaboration with Moten that places the local Don’t Mute DC movement in the context of the wider BLM protests, will be even more successful.
“We need to tell these Black youths, ‘Hold up and listen to the lyrics,’” he says. “Those who actually listen, they’re probably gonna walk outside and grab another human and say, ‘I love you, man. We have to put these guns down.’”
More socially conscious songs have been released, and still others are on the way. Local entertainer Kenilworth Katrina, who organized the all-female “Self-Destruction” remake with area rappers in 2015, recently organized “Black Kings United,” another group effort. “Our Black men from the DMV can come together and work together and encourage and uplift each other,” she says.
Even international icon Stevie Wonder is using go-go beats to hammer home the message of his new “Can’t Put It In the Hands of Fate,” a powerful demand for social and racial justice featuring rappers Busta Rhymes, Rapsody, CHIKA, and Cordae. The beats sound a lot like vintage Trouble Funk, and Busta Rhymes does his best impression of an old-school go-go lead talker. Wonder, who appeared at a farewell concert honoring go-go icon Donnell Floyd’s retirement from the genre just under a year ago, clearly understands how go-go’s indomitable beat can amplify conscious lyrics.
Meanwhile, Still Familiar lead talker and second mic Steve Roy, who appears on Alfred Duncan’s recent haunting and atmospheric hip-hop track “Black Lives Matter,” is also working on an ambitious group project: A go-go version of “We Are the World,” featuring an array of local stars. “Black Lives Matter has definitely had a big impact on making go-go move in a positive direction,” Roy says. “We’re coming together to make positive songs with the go-go beat, and I don’t know the last time that so many band members have moved together in the same direction.”