African drums have been criminalized around the world for centuries. Even as freedom from slavery was on the horizon, the drums were irritating white power structures. In the summer of 1838, a white Presbyterian minister living in Jamaica complained that enslaved people had organized a “ball” and that their “singing and drumming and dancing disturbed the neighborhood,” according to an account unearthed by the historian J.R. Kerr-Ritchie in “Rites of August First.”
One enslaved man wasn’t having it. He told the minister that “he might do what he liked in his own place.” He said the minister believed he had the right to complain only because he was white, and the dancers and drummers were black. But the enslaved man vowed that would change when the first of August arrived because the British Parliament had paid a £20 million ransom to free all people enslaved across the empire.
Then, he said, the minister better not “meddle with him or his dance.”
This bit of history comes to mind as I think about what is happening in Washington on Wednesday. The District of Columbia City Council will hold a public hearing considering legislation introduced by Councilman Kenyan McDuffie and others to make go-go music the official music of the city.
Go-go is the city’s indigenous musical genre, created by Chuck Brown in the 1970s. It is a mix of funk, hip-hop and Afro-Latin beats with an orgiastic explosion of percussion: timbales, cowbells, rototoms and the signature congas.
In April, residents of luxury apartments in the gentrifying, historically black U Street area complained about the noise from a Metro PCS store that had been known since the 1990s for playing loud go-go music. When the music was turned off in the wake of a threatened lawsuit against T-Mobile, which owns Metro PCS, thousands of residents took to the streets to protest, using the digital battle cry #DontMuteDC to spread their message. More than 80,000 people signed a “Don’t Mute DC Go-Go Music and Culture” petition I created with the activist Ronald Moten. John Legere, T-Mobile’s chief executive, tweeted, “I’ve looked into this issue myself and the music should NOT stop in D.C.!”The store turned its music back up.
But the go-go music, culture, community and economy were in a state of emergency even before this particular attempt to silence the music. Washington has been gentrified faster than any other city in the United States. More than 20,000 black Washingtonians were displaced between 2000 and 2013. Music education has been stripped from many schools. The Metropolitan Police Department’s “go-go report” of where bands were playing helped criminalize go-go culture. Curfew laws in the 1980s targeted go-go venues but excluded movie theatres and venues for European performance art. The city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has been cracking down on go-go club owners since the 1990s.
Yet, go-go survived, serving as an economic engine, a multimillion-dollar industry employing hundreds of Washingtonians and maintaining a musical tradition with roots in West Africa. City officials are now answering the #DontMuteDC call with proposed legislation that acknowledges, celebrates, preserves and protects go-go culture. This initiative could affirm go-go’s economic vitality and central place in the culture and history of the nation’s capital.
I’m a scholar of go-go and a longtime commentator on gentrification, so it sends my imagination reeling. Could it mean we might hear go-go’s distinct conga drumbeats at district airports and train stations? At school graduations, at city ceremonies, at conferences at the convention center? Maybe we will see go-go musicians serving as artists-in-residence at city agencies, libraries, recreation centers.
It could mean rescuing key go-go archives and creating the kind of music museums you see in cities such as New Orleans and Atlanta. Go-go history and music could be required in schools. I envision a Chuck Brown Endowed Chair in Digital and Cultural Studies, funding doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships dedicated to studying go-go music and culture.
The city should consider the economic benefits of investing in go-go the same way it has invested in say, baseball. In the early 2000s, Nashville branded itself “Music City” and invested in work force training in the music hospitality industry. In just 15 years, the city’s music tourism revenues went from $3 billion to $7 billion. Today one-third of all visitor spending in the state of Tennessee comes from music.
This new legislation could cement go-go’s rightfully central place in urban culture and history. It has the potential to invest and integrate native Washingtonians into the changes and economic expansion sweeping across the city in a way we have not seen. Of course the music is just the beginning of what needs to be done to push back on the displacement and cultural erasure steamrollering across Washington and so many other urban centers across the United States that are not far behind. With that in mind, those of us in the Don’t Mute DC collective of cultural activists have developed an anti-displacement and arts preservation platform, and we’re organizing our neighbors around these issues in advance of the next legislative cycle. But a powerful start is to make sure go-go culture will, as Councilman McDuffie put it, “never be muted in the District of Columbia.”
I thought of the 1838 enslaved Jamaican this month when my husband and I hosted our 19th annual Howard University Homecoming celebration at our home in the district. We hired a local go-go band, Persevir, to perform. We tried to prepare our new neighbors by reaching out on local listservs and social media platforms to tell them about the party. We invited them to join us to grab a plate and encouraged them to call us and not the police if they had any problems with the noise. But not 10 minutes after the band concluded its performance, officers paid our house a visit, saying they’d received multiple complaints.
Like the Jamaican before me who rejected the attempts to quiet his music, I was not having it. If Mr. McDuffie’s bill becomes law, perhaps the rest of the city won’t either.
Natalie Hopkinson is the author of “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.”
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