Michelle Blackwell with Epixode
Ghanaian dancehall and highlife artist Epixode and D.C. go-go artist Michelle Blackwell; courtesy of Blackwell

Go-go artist Michelle Blackwell first started working on her new album, Go-go-Ish (1st Set), in the fall of 2019. She had written seven songs when COVID abruptly shut down the local music scene, as well as nearly every other aspect of her life. For the first time in 19 years, she stopped performing live, and her concerns about safety prevented her from bringing musicians into the studio to record.

The next few years would be challenging both personally and professionally for Blackwell. By the end of April 2020, she had not only lost the stage, but also her beloved grandmother, Dr. Alyce McLendon Chenault Gullattee. The former head of Howard University’s Institute on Drug Abuse and Addiction, Gullattee was a respected social activist. While mourning her loss, Blackwell began a new job as a program manager for the National Association for the Advancement of Returning Citizens. Working for the District’s Cure the Streets initiative against gun violence, Blackwell knew the work was important, but it was also deeply distressing. “My son is a gun violence survivor, and I’ve lost many friends to violence, so it was extremely triggering,” she says. “At the same time, COVID was everywhere, and I’m watching people die all over the country.”

Eventually, she found a second job, working as an operations manager for the Black Coalition Against COVID. Again, the work was challenging. “The amount of gaslighting and misinformation, it was like a train wreck,” she says. 

Moreover, Blackwell found herself feeling less connected to her community of fans; by her own estimate, she lost approximately 1,000 of her 20,000 combined followers during the pandemic. She is convinced this was due to her continued efforts to keep her fans alive. “I was relentless,” she says. “The only thing I was feeding them was COVID safety protocols and not music, so I understand why many left. But I wouldn’t change anything. I have a platform, and I had a responsibility to do what I felt was the right thing.”

When Blackwell finally returned to her album in May 2021, much of it no longer seemed relevant. “I’m looking at these songs, and I’m just like, ‘This is not what I’m feeling right now. This does not represent what I’m trying to say, how I feel creatively,’” she recalls.

For months, she struggled to find creative inspiration. Not surprisingly, she found her way forward through an album by one of her favorite contemporary artists.

“Honestly, I didn’t have a lightbulb moment until Beyoncé’s Renaissance came out the summer of ’22. That was what turned things around for me creatively,” she says. “Her album is basically an homage to disco, an homage to ’70s music, a homage to ballroom culture. The mood of the album was very much ‘I’m going to live my life and enjoy it, unapologetically loving, unapologetically dancing, unapologetically living.’ … It was almost like she was rebelling by celebrating life anyway. We’re gonna celebrate life the way that we can and be unapologetic about it.”  

The 10 tracks on Go-go-Ish (1st Set) open with “Welcome Back,” a sequel to the “Intro (The Cranktrix)” that appeared on her 2018 album, Body of Work. “Welcome Back” greets those returning from what she calls “the Go-Go 101 course last semester” and introduces “general crank theory” that educates listeners on what go-go fans mean when they say that the music “cranks.” Like Blackwell’s previous album, Go-go-Ish is a deeply personal collection that reflects her love for her community and culture. Her new original song “Diaspora Wars” dissects the social media trend of cross-cultural debates around the African diaspora; in it, Blackwell asks, “How can we afford to fight with each other across the diaspora when we’re still in survival mode? Make it make sense.”

The remainder of the album includes “That’s on Life” and “IYKYK,” which showcases Blackwell’s vocal gifts over a lush slow groove. She describes the former as “an honest assessment of my gratitude for my life experiences,” adding, “I know that this life has meaning. And there’s beauty everywhere, you just have to zero in and appreciate it.” Another track, “The Water Bearer,” was inspired by her son. “It’s kind of light but still cautioning people to use their mind and their voice,” she explains. The final track, “Happy Birthday / Birthday Bounce,” showcases a socket, breakbeat, and bouncebeat—three beats that represent various styles of go-go.

A D.C. native, Blackwell has impeccable go-go credentials. She joined her first go-go band, Suttle Thoughts, in 2000 and later performed as a member of Northeast Groovers for two years before joining and managing What?! Band, where she remained for more than 15 years. Within the go-go community, she is admired as a versatile vocalist who can sing a gorgeous ballad and hype the audience as a lead talker. She often describes her musical sound as “urban go-go soul,” and in a field dominated by male performers, she has easily established herself as equally talented as the men surrounding her on stage. While recording her new album, she has advanced her abilities in the studio.

With Go-go-Ish (1st Set), Blackwell redefined her approach to her art. She produced all but two of the album’s tracks, and found a way to express herself after everything she has been through in recent years. “I just need to write and have fun because whatever you do can inspire and uplift people,” she says. “I can do an album that makes people smile, and that’s one of the benefits of go-go—it makes you forget your problems and have a good time.”

But Beyoncé was not Blackwell’s only inspiration; she also found a way forward after spending time in Ghana. DNA tests revealed that her ancestors had come from that region of West Africa, and Blackwell began researching the possibility of dual citizenship. She traveled to Ghana in December of last year, arriving just in time for what’s known as “Detty December” and the AfroFuture Music Festival (formerly known as Afrocella). While in the capital city of Accra, Blackwell was introduced to Ghanaian dancehall and highlife artist Epixode by a mutual friend. They instantly clicked. Epixode appears on Go-go-Ish’s Afrobeats-flavored “Do You Know” and its go-go remix. “Our creative energy matched,” says Blackwell. “We’re touching the surface of the complexity of the relationship between the Black diaspora and continental Africans. A conversation needs to be had, and out of those conversations, the main goal is love, understanding, and unity.” 

For Epixode, collaborating with Blackwell was revelatory and it has been instructive for him to compare go-go with Ghanaian music. “If I hadn’t met Michelle, I wouldn’t even know what go-go is,” he says. “Our sound is deep rooted in a folk music called Kpanlogo, which is drums and congas, so I think we have something in common.”

While the influences and melodies may differ from go-go, he explains, there are crucial connections. “Go-go for me is the heartbeat, and that’s just like what we do here…. One thing I like about go-go is the transitions, the way you guys are able to use just the drums as transitions from one song to the other,” he says. “It’s amazing, and I’ve already started incorporating that in some of my performances.”

“Meeting her is also like a learning process for me as an artist,” he adds. “I felt like this is somebody who is my sister, this is my mother. This is somebody who has the same mindset, the same goals, the same ideas.”

Blackwell and Epixode’s collaboration is the beginning of what they hope will be a long and fruitful relationship. Initially, they spent hours talking about their respective musical cultures and where they intersect. Epixode was fascinated by go-go. “We talked about how similar it is to highlife, which is Ghana’s form of go-go, their indigenous music,” says Blackwell. “Dancehall and Afrobeats are very popular in Ghana, but their indigenous music is like ours. Their live band indigenous genre is highlife. Our song is a fusion of both the Afrobeats sound and the go-go sound together.” The original version of “Do You Know” will be released in Ghana with an accompanying visual later this fall. 

Now Blackwell and Epixode are continuing the cultural introduction that started with Backyard Band and Black Alley’s previous performances in Ghana by opening up a rehearsal and recording studio in Accra. “In general, go-go has this connection with Ghana in particular, but we haven’t had musical representation of that until now,” Blackwell says. “Something radical needs to happen for go-go to continue to evolve and push forward. This connection with Epixode and our plans will be a part of that, and I can’t wait to see what this turns into.”

Michelle Blackwell’s Go-go-Ish (1st Set) was released in June. Blackwell performs BWell Under the Stars, her first live concert since March 2020, at 9 p.m. on Sept. 30, outside in Northeast D.C. instagram.com.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify Michelle Blackwell’s role within the District’s Cure the Streets initiative.