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Is Go-Go Really in Decline?

By Maxwell Hawla | 5/14/16 4:36pm | Updated 5/14/16 4:36pm
Jaclyn Merica / American Word Magazine

Have you ever heard of go-go? Quite possibly not. Even if you have heard the term somewhere, you most likely are not too familiar with its sound. Before moving to D.C., I was no exception; go-go is just not the most mainstream genre, especially outside of the D.C. area. Several news outlets, including “The Washington Post,” have claimed go-go to be in decline, and if that is true, there lies another reason you might not know it. So what is go-go, and is it actually disappearing?

I first got real exposure to go-go when I started a kitchen job working alongside D.C. natives. One line cook, Ashton Lawson who grew up in Northeast and Prince George’s County, blasted go-go daily, grooving to every song as he prepared pizzas and pastas. The chanted, aggressive vocals soared over a wall of guitars, horns, keys, bass and drums on drums. Other coworkers also danced and sang every word. Go-go never seemed to be fading away for the inhabitants of this small kitchen.

It was through Lawson that I learned about Chuck Brown and Little Benny, two pioneers who developed go-go out of funk in the 1970s. Walk around U Street, and you will come across Chuck Brown Way and Lil’ Benny Way, as well as the Chuck Brown Memorial Park in Langdon, Northeast. Their legacy is permanent in D.C., and they created something much more than a style of music.

“Growing up in the DMV, go-go was brought to me in middle school,” Lawson said. “Back in the day, go-go was almost a way of life… it was almost if you wasn’t in a band you were always at the go-go on the weekend.” He described bands of his middle and high school days with kids as young as 12 playing.

“It’s like how surfing is a way of life out in Cali,” added Sean Pelzer, who grew up in Columbia Heights. Even outsiders share this perception of the go-go lifestyle. Matt Chambers, from Montgomery County, said, “It’s been the heartbeat of this city since the 70s and the black community has held it close to them.”

If you watch a Reaction Band or TOB video, the audience dancing to the music is mostly black. Yet, according to Lawson, you will get no sense of exclusion, citing his attendance to a go-go in Virginia where the crowd consisted of mostly white people: “Of course you get some looks, but mostly love, ‘cause if you’re there clearly you like the music.”

People have gone out to go-gos to party since its origin, and many people seem to have never grown out of it. People in the crowds range from their teens to their fifties. This includes the bands, too. Some have been playing shows around D.C. for decades.

“It has brought a lot of generations together here,” Pelzer observed. He and Lawson both mentioned how their parents and grandparents all love go-go music. It might be the heartbeat of D.C., but go-gos have reached up to Baltimore and Northern Virginia. Pelzer even said it has “national ties.” Artists such as Wale, Gil Scott Heron, The Roots and Common have drawn inspiration from go-go’s sound.

With widespread influence across the country, go-go brings together a mix of generations and races. However, neither Lawson, Pelzer nor Chambers believe go-go is declining, although they all do see the sound and culture to be evolving.

“When Chuck [Brown] died it seemed like that was a big turning point,” Chambers explained. After Brown’s death, and even earlier, hip-hop began to influence go-go’s sound and performances. One Reaction Band video shows them remixing Kanye West’s “Power.” Some of the older crowd have mixed and even negative feelings about these kinds of performances. They view these changes as a rejection of traditional go-go, as though the culture is losing its roots.

But just because something changes does not mean it dies. Lawson put it best: “There’s no rules in go-go, just basically what sounds good and what doesn’t.” No music genre, and no culture, is static. Go-go grew out of funk with Chuck Brown and will continue to grow in different ways, while maintaining its roots simultaneously.

“When the summer comes around, every once in awhile stick your ear out and you will hear it roaring through the city,” said Pelzer. Every generation needs both something to do and a creative outlet, and here in D.C., it seems like go-go is a permanent way to do just that. So even if it may sound a little different, go-go’s roar will never fade away.