Backyard Band performing on the National Mall with the Capitol visible behind them. Credit: Viva_Ventura Credit: Viva_Ventura

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Nearly two years ago, a resident of a Shaw luxury high rise sought to silence the go-go that had played for decades on speakers outside a nearby Black-owned shop. After the hashtag #DontMuteDC went viral on social media, thousands of the city’s Black residents responded with a resounding hell no, which manifested as nightly musical rallies near the location of Central Communications, better known as the Metro PCS store. Instead of shutting down go-go, the Metro PCS episode had the opposite effect, energizing the culture and its advocates to demand respect and the same kind of support enjoyed by other, Whiter arts institutions. Even after the music was restored at the corner of 7th Street and Florida Avenue NW, efforts to protect go-go culture evolved into two movements, Don’t Mute DC, which also operates as Make GoGo Forever, and Long Live GoGo, the force behind the movement known as Moechella. 

Now Moechella is commemorating its 2019 musical protests with a new book, Long Live GoGo: The Movement #Moechella, featuring the work of six area photographers as well as a publisher’s note from Joseph Orzal, a preface by We Act Radio’s Kymone Freeman, and an introduction by Long Live GoGo founder Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson, the mastermind behind the Moechella events. The earliest images in the 131-page hardcover book are from April 9, when Yaddiya organized a musical protest rally with bouncebeat bands Mental Attraction, ABM, and TOB by the Reeves Center downtown. 

The book clarifies that Moechella is about more than playing music in public spaces; the movement represents a convergence of political activism and go-go culture. Thousands of Black people gathering on the streets to celebrate go-go culture are demanding visibility as gentrification continues to push Black families beyond the District line. Yaddiya’s introduction describes how in 2017, he began to see how sociopolitical dynamics were impacting go-go: “I realized how the Go-Go culture was starting to become less prevalent and pushed out of the city due to gentrification, lack of resources/opportunity, and the lingering stigma of violence that haunted it for years.”  

While most of the book’s images were shot during the spring and summer of 2019, they also include that year’s September 19 “Million Moe March” down 14th Street NW, which culminated with a performance by Backyard Band on a temporary stage on the National Mall. Three hundred copies of the book were printed for its first edition, which sold out within three days of its mid-February publication. A second edition is currently available for preorder online at nomunomu.org and will be sold at an April 9 pop up at Eaton DC marking Moechella’s second anniversary. Also in the works is another book focusing on Moechella’s role in the 2020 anti-Trump protests and the movement for Black lives. 

Go-go has been around for more than 40 years, but it took the Metro PCS debacle to motivate the city’s establishment to pass legislation in 2020 establishing the genre as the official music of Washington D.C. Yaddiya views the Long Live GoGo book as providing Moechella—and go-go-culture—with visibility and a certain legitimacy. “There’s a lot of energy in the photos, so it gives you the vibe of actually being there. Some of the shots are very provocative, and some are very electric. I think that makes you think about what it was like to be there and what exactly they were there for,” Yaddiya says. “This book depicts the pride of D.C. culture and what I call the new generation of Black activism, so it’s historical, for sure.”

For Orzal, a local artist and curator who serves as the book’s publisher, this project was key to controlling the narrative. “We’re very aware that the history that is not documented and transcribed by the people who make the history is going to be co-opted,” he says. “The way Yaddiya explains it, Moechella is a people’s town hall where he’s able to bring people from D.C. together to talk about sociopolitical issues and then play music after that. It is a lot more politicialized than maybe people want to understand. It was a political moment, and it continues to be a political assembly, and I can’t stress that enough.”

A young man pops a wheelie to pose for a photo at the first Moechella on 14th & U Streets NW. Credit: Dee Dwyer

A D.C. native, Orzal creates gallery spaces dubbed NoMuNoMu, and his “Hedonist Buddhist” thesis project for Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art was devised as a sort of rebuke of gentrifiers. “A starting point was the co-option of yoga in gentrified spaces, the way that spiritual practice had become class signifiers,” he says. 

Orzal met Yaddiya towards the end of that exhibit, and the two collaborated on a late June impromptu go-go pop up at the Shay, the Shaw high rise that is generally assumed to be the source of the efforts to restrict the Metro PCS store’s music. “We were blasting go-go for two days, and we had [Malik DOPE] playing there and also go-go yoga,” says Orzal. Yaddiya had sent over hundreds of photos for the pop-up, and that’s when Orzal came up with the idea of collecting the best of them in a book.

Initially, when Orzal envisioned the book, he thought about Cynthia Connolly’s 1988 book Banned in DC, documenting the early days of the DMV punk scene, now on its seventh edition. “I sort of wanted to make the go-go version of that book, because I didn’t see that documentation in go-go,” he says. Connolly encouraged him to pursue the project, and he enlisted the help of Fanna Gebreyesus, a curator who oversees publications for a small local museum. 

Gebreyesus is listed as the editor of Long Live GoGo, but she would have chosen a different job description. “Fairy Godmother,” she says with a laugh. “I helped formalize the publication process—getting an ISBN, helping to edit the photos because there were thousands and thousands. All those nitty gritty editorial details, because unless you work in publishing, it’s very mystifying to publish a book.” 

Selecting the images required many hours of careful consideration, and financial realities limited the number of photos that could be included. “I had so many favorites that didn’t make it in,” Gebreyesus says. “There’s the book you want to make, and there’s the book you can make. If I had an unlimited budget, it would have been 300 pages.”

Gebreyesus chose images that communicated what go-go feels like. “When I look at the photos, I see the photographers first because they capture these scenes with such love, such diligence, such attention,” she says. “You can tell a local person took these photos. It’s clear that they understand the energy of go-go.” 

A crowd of people dancing and singing at Moechella on 14th & U Streets NW. Credit: Kyna Uwamae

The book includes images by six photographers, but most are by Akil Ransome, Dee Dwyer, Kyna Uwaeme, and Viva_Ventura. Each of them brought different perspectives and experiences to the task of documenting Moechella. 

Brooklyn-born Ransome, 40, found his way to Moechella through go-go. He moved to the region at the age of nine. Back then, the only go-go he knew was EU’s national hit, “Da Butt.” He soon discovered the Northeast Groovers and Backyard Band, and now he deeply admires go-go culture. After earning a BA in photography from Arlington’s Art Institute of Washington, he met Backyard’s Anwan “Big G” Glover during a stint in promotions for WKYS-FM. By March 2019, Ransome had become Backyard’s official photographer. 

When he first saw coverage of the early Moechella protests on television news, Ransome knew he had to be there. On the day of that spring’s largest protest, which featured Backyard Band and drew thousands of people, he started work at 6 a.m. so he could get off early. He rushed down to U Street NW and found a parking spot, only to realize that his car would soon be surrounded by a sea of people. “They were standing on top of my car, and I was just like OK, it’s cool. It didn’t matter because there was nothing anybody could do about it.” 

At Moechella events, he sees die-hard go-go fans as well as people who are relatively new to go-go, but who want to be part of the movement. “Now you have these two groups working to uplift our community,” he says. “Normally at a go-go you never see any White people. They had Backyard playing over by the Carnegie Library Apple store, and I have photos from that, and you’re seeing a mix of everybody—White, Hispanic, Indian—and everybody’s just enjoying the music and having fun.”

Professional photographer Kyna Uwaeme, a Nigerian American who was raised in the District, had read Natalie Hopkinson’s book, Go-Go Live: The Musical Live and Death of a Chocolate City, shortly before she began shooting the Moechella rallies for Fader magazine. 

For Uwaeme, Moechella has everything to do with the politicalization of D.C.’s go-go culture. “Before, go-go was not necessarily politicized, it was more like a kind of an escape from politics, honestly,” she says. “The new generation we’re more empowered, we have more information, we have more knowledge to go off of based on history. Our parents or grandparents may have had more of a struggle, but now we’re here and most of our generation, we want to make change.”

Darnell Smith, 33, who photographs as Viva_Ventura, is a serious go-go fan with a forever evolving list of favorite bands, which includes Backyard, TCB, and UCB. A full-time career firefighter with the D.C. fire department, he shoots Moechella whenever he can. “You might think it’s just a bunch of people getting together causing a ruckus, but these events are for change,” he says. 

“The city was pushing go-go outward into Maryland and Virginia and shutting down clubs,” adds Smith. “Now bands are playing back in D.C. in these neighborhoods, playing on mobile trucks with the movement and an actual mission behind it.”

The best-known of the photographers included in Long Live GoGo, Dee Dwyer, 33, grew up in Southeast D.C., and she has been an inveterate people watcher for as long as she can remember. She grew up listening to go-go founder Chuck Brown, and she’s a diehard Rare Essence fan; at go-go shows, she often found herself drawn to the areas set aside for portrait photographers. “When they got into that photo booth, even the toughest guys were smiling,” she says. “From my observation, you don’t really see too many of us smiling in our community, so just to see the joy, everyone being so enthusiastic about having their photo taken, that was interesting to me. I got myself a disposable Kodak camera.”

“I didn’t know that was the beginning of becoming a photographer,” she says. “To be honest, I’m a photographer because of go-go.” 

As she photographed the Moechella rallies on and around U Street NW during the spring of 2019, Dwyer was acutely aware of the same kind of dismissiveness that inspired them in the first place. “The only challenge was why we were there overall—gentrifiers, coming in with the attitude, just looking down on us. I would walk by thinking, ‘hopefully you’re not one of the ones that’s gonna call and complain.’ You can definitely feel the disconnect in the stares, the expressions of disgust,” she says. “But I also saw genuine interest. I don’t want to categorize all white people and all gentrifiers as having the same feelings for the go-go, [but] I did see some that were happy.” 

For Dwyer, Moechella represents a way for her to support her community. “It’s a lot of Black joy in Moechella, and it’s important to document because you don’t see too many documentations of Black joy,” she says. “The photographers in this book, we did not expect for it to be a book—that’s not even something that we thought about. It was our duty to go and document our culture.”

This story has been updated.