Malcolm X Park
Malcolm X Park, where NEXTFest is scheduled to take place. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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A newly announced music festival taking place at Malcolm X Park next month will use the evolution of Black music in D.C. as a lens to examine how the events of recent years—from the pandemic to social justice movements to the ongoing changes in the city’s demographics—will shape D.C.’s musical and cultural landscape in the years to come. Using jazz and go-go as a launchpad, the all-day NEXTFest, scheduled for Sept. 25, will feature music, art installations, panel discussions, workshops, and family entertainment.

“We had been thinking about doing the festival for some time now,” says Luke Stewart, director of presenting at CapitalBop, the multi-faceted jazz organization that is producing NEXTFest with Long Live GoGo. “As a jazz organization, we’ve always been eclectically minded.”

While cross-pollination has long taken place between the local jazz and go-go scenes, both are facing similar challenges. Gentrification and other broader forces have drastically reduced the number of venues that showcase each genre within the city, but both are poised for a resurgence. The quality of jazz musicians based in the DMV is as strong as it has ever been, and organizations like CapitalBop and the Capitol Hill Jazz Foundation combine activism with producing live performances. Meanwhile, go-go has emerged as the music of protest in the city. In addition to #DontMuteDC, go-go trucks helped lead the charge when people took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s death as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“In the context of the festival, it’s important to recognize go-go and the unique style and culture that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Stewart says.

“Long Live GoGo felt compelled to get involved in NEXTFest to display the wide range of talent that exists in the area through go-go,” says Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson, Long Live GoGo’s founder and creative director. “It’s important we put it on as many platforms as we can, especially with an event like this in our hometown and in a significant location.”

The connections between jazz and go-go are personified in festival performer Marc Cary, a pianist/keyboardist who rose out of the go-go scene in its heyday and is now an internationally recognized jazz musician. The lineup also includes Still Familiar, which presents a classic go-go sound, and TOB Band, which has a contemporary take on D.C.’s indigenous funk. 

”It’s important to bridge the different styles of go-go, like with the pocket beat and the bounce beat. These bands represent the different styles,” says Johnson.

NEXTFest also explores a lesser known part of D.C.’s cultural landscape: the Black spiritual jazz movement of the 1970s. Saxophonist James Branch, known on stage as Plunky, will headline the show with his band, Plunky & The Oneness of Juju. Plunky co-founded the locally based Black Fire Records with local jazz DJ Jimmy Gray in the ’70s, and that label took the more avant-garde stylings of spiritual jazz and added a groove that would, in turn, feed into go-go. Oneness of Juju made Black Fire Records’ first album in 1975, African Rhythms, which was never a hit but was sampled by hip-hop artists such as KRS-One and Big Pun. Black Fire also released the first album from legendary go-go band E.U. Jimmy Gray’s son, Jamal Gray, continues building on Black Fire tradition by leading the Nag Champa Art Ensemble, who will also perform at NEXTFest. 

“This is our way of reintroducing this important history to the community that deserves to know more about it,” says Stewart. 

Other acts at NEXTFest include Idol Beings, a duo comprised of vocalist Akua Allrich and bassist Kris Funn, both local jazz stalwarts. Mumu Fresh, a rising artist in the hip-hop world with strong ties to D.C., also has a prime slot. Like many other events CapitalBop has staged, the festival will have an educational component taking place across the street from Malcolm X Park at the Josephine Butler Parks Center. The discussions and lectures will focus on the history of D.C.’s jazz, funk, and go-go traditions. 

While the day promises a rich experience for all attendees, the festival producers recognize that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. That was the key reason for organizing a main event that takes place outdoors. NEXTFest will follow any masking and social distancing requirements that are in place come showtime. 

“We are prepared to be flexible and we are definitely considering safety in our preparation,” Stewart says. 

NEXTFest takes place from noon to 9:30 p.m. at Malcolm X Park and the Josephine Butler Parks Center on Sept. 25, 2021. Free.