Dee Dwyer photographs go-go artists on Nov. 20, 2021
Dee Dwyer photographs go-go artists on Nov. 20, 2021 Credit: Zhee Chatmon

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“Can everybody see me? If you can’t see me, I can’t see you. If there is a tree blocking your view of me, you need to move over!”

Photographer Dee Dwyer is perched on a folding ladder, where she is encumbered by Canon AE-1 and Sony cameras dangling from her neck and shoulder and the megaphone she’s using to coordinate a group photo. Her subject: a mass of more than 100 go-go artists in front of her on a slope at Chuck Brown Memorial Park. The back row is a bit recalcitrant, but Dwyer is determined to get it right. 

“Real quick, real quick,” she calls out. “When I pull up my camera, I need everyone looking into the lens.” She points to the lens. “This is the lens.” Everyone laughs. 

Then she is ready: “Smile, do your mug, do you, baby,” she tells the group. A brief silence, and she gets her shot. 

In 1958, photographer Art Kane assembled 58 jazz musicians, including Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Count Basie, in front of a Harlem brownstone for a class photo-style photograph. Known as “A Great Day in Harlem,” that black-and-white photo appeared in Life magazine and would become an iconic image celebrating jazz’s golden age. Four decades later, photographer Gordon Parks paid homage to that classic photo with an updated version, “A Great Day In Hip-Hop” featuring 177 hip-hop artists and producers gathered in front of the same building at 17 East 126th St. Parks’ photo was published on the cover of XXL magazine. 

Inspired by those historic photographs, Dwyer assembled more than a hundred go-go musicians in Chuck Brown Memorial Park on Nov. 20 for a photo she dubbed, “A Great Day in Go-Go.” Advocacy organization Mumbo Connection and the NoMuNoMu gallery sponsored the shoot. And it was truly a great day. Musicians representing 31 bands showed up, some wearing matching shirts, some with their kids, and all happy to gather for this event. As the park filled with people, some still sleepy from Friday night shows, go-go blared from temporary speakers. People filled their plates with fried chicken and sides, and the festive family reunion atmosphere underscored go-go’s durable sense of community.

 “Today is all about legacy. It’s all about everybody getting together and documenting this culture so our descendants can have something to talk about and really get to know who our legends are,” “Sweet” Cherie Mitchell-Agurs, musical director and keyboardist for the all-female band Be’la Dona, said. “We got to document the culture. We got to take pictures. We got to record. We have to let the whole world know about go-go.”

Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott arrived to some fanfare, and was immediately surrounded by friends and admirers. “I’m glad someone’s paying homage to what we do, so when I’m dead and gone, whenever that may be, they remember Sugar Bear and all my contributions,” he said cheerfully. “Owwwww!”  

Members of the bounce beat group Upper Echelon Band wore matching black T-shirts with the band’s logo. “This is epic,” said lead talker Dominique “FatStackz” Carrington. “I told my whole band we gotta come here, we gotta get here on time. We gotta bring our T-shirts, we gotta be unified because this is a big day. I’ve seen the picture that she’s trying to reenact. It’s amazing what she’s trying to do. It will probably end up in a museum somewhere.” 

UEB keyboard player Justin “Busta” Smith was proud of the unity exhibited at the event. “We’ve got everybody out here. Younger bands, up-and-coming bands, older bands,” he said. “It’s a real good time for go-go now because everybody is out expressing themselves, bringing their own different sound.” 

A diehard Rare Essence fan, Dwyer grew up in Southeast D.C. listening to Chuck Brown and credits go-go culture with inspiring her career. At go-go shows, she often found herself drawn to the areas set aside for portrait photographers, and that led her to photography. More recently, she gained international attention during summer of 2020, shooting the protest movement for Black lives and anti-Trump demonstrations around the city. Since then, her work has been featured in magazines and galleries in the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Switzerland, and Brazil. 

For Dwyer, shooting “A Great Day in Go-Go” was an imperative. “I’ve been documenting D.C. for so long, and go-go is the heartbeat of D.C. I feel like you can’t document the culture without go-go,” she said. “I’ve never seen a picture with a lot of go-go musicians coming together as a community, so I just figured I might as well recreate my idol Gordon Parks’ photo.”

This kind of celebration of the go-go community takes on added significance in the face of gentrification and its erasure of the city’s Black citizens. “Representation matters. I want this photo to be archived in as many institutions as possible,” Dwyer added. “People can see representation and keep the go-go culture going.”

This great day did have some drawbacks. The photo shoot coincided with a “Go-Go Preservation Week” panel discussion at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library that was followed by a performance by Rare Essence, so the band could not join. Backyard Band also had a conflicting engagement. Junkyard Band, TCB, and Trouble Funk were also missing. On Sunday, Dwyer posted a message to the go-go community on her Instagram, part of which read, “Yesterday’s photo-shoot was amazing and the start of something bigger. Last night and this morning I cried tears of joy but also tears of determination to make it 100% right. My team and I are working on a Part 2 of yesterday’s photo with hopes of every group being involved. My aim is to have no group left out of this historical image. Imagine how much inspiration that will be for the Black Community in our city and others.”  

Despite the less-than-complete turnout, Saturday’s photo shoot felt upbeat and positive. Once Dwyer finished, the music grew louder, someone started a game of double Dutch, and people chatted about recent and upcoming shows. 

Chuck Brown’s son, Wiley Brown of the Chuck Brown Band, stood near his father’s memorial and surveyed the crowd. “Today means a lot, especially doing it here in my father’s park is definitely paying homage to where the music all started and to everyone that’s in go-go—anyone from promoters all the way to band members or sound men—everyone that’s involved in making sure to keep the music going and pushing the culture forward,” he said.

Black Alley creative director and self-described “chief dot connector” Cam Poles was on hand along with band vocalist Kacey Williams. “Go-go is a cultural African American expression of Black people who live in D.C. It’s a reflection of our lived experience,” Poles said. 

“It’s no coincidence that in America, in a city where you had a Black police chief, a Black mayor, a Black superintendent of schools, you had this vibrant music that everybody wanted to vibe to, everybody wanted to bounce to,” he continued. “Today is just a celebration of that culture.”