Bowser (D) had come to Southwest Washington, to an old church turned arts venue, to sign legislation enshrining go-go, the District’s homegrown music genre, as the official sound of the nation’s capital. She handed out the pens that she used to musicians, activists and the daughter of the late Chuck Brown, the godfather of go-go, who helped create the sound and gave the music its name.
“Today, we’re going to let the world know that go-go is D.C.,” Bowser said. “We have to put our shoulders to the wheel to make sure we are creating a real legacy for generations to come.”
The bill, which received unanimous support from members of the D.C. Council, goes far beyond symbolic recognition. It requires the mayor’s office to produce, fund and implement programs that support the preservation and creation of go-go music — and the culture and history it represents.
“It will be so important to see some real investment from the city to make sure that go-go can flourish for generations,” said Natalie Hopkinson, a Howard University professor and author of the book, “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.”
“There’s so much that can be done: Supporting some of the vulnerable archives that haven’t had a place, setting up a fund for touring, supporting musicians, giving them access to grants, even creating an endowment for go-go music.”
Bowser on Wednesday declined to specify how much money the District was prepared to put into its nascent go-go initiative, which will be run primarily by the Office of Nightlife and Culture and the D.C. Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment.
The conversation, she said, was ongoing.
“We need the agencies to work with the council on a plan,” Bowser said, adding that the District’s Arts Commission, on which Hopkinson serves, is responsible for “granting a lot of dollars” to arts programming in the District, and will probably be the source of money for go-go efforts.
A generation ago, this official embrace of the music — a rhythmic mix of percussion and beats from funk, salsa, soul, gospel, blues and Latin music — would have been unfathomable.
For decades, go-go clubs have struggled to keep their doors open. Lawmakers in the late 1980s instituted strict curfews on young D.C. residents who attended go-go concerts, which politiciansopenly blamed for contributing to social ills including drug use and violence.
Clubs denied entry to go-go bands, worried about attracting unwanted attention from D.C. police or liquor licensing agents.
Shrinking budgets forced schools where some of D.C.’s most beloved go-go bands were formed to shut down their music education programs, and young music fans have turned instead to genres such as rap and hip-hop.
Go-go’s renaissance began last year, when a Shaw electronics store that doubles as a go-go hot spot suddenly went silent.
A resident of a nearby luxury apartment complex had complained about the Metro PCS vendor’s music — first to city officials, then to the store’s parent company — which prompted T-Mobile to ask the store’s owner to mute the music.
Many Washingtonians were incensed. Politicians and community activists held rallies with live music and slogans of support. The #DontMuteDC hashtag, coined by a Howard student, took off.
The store’s music returned days later, with the support of T-Mobile’s chief executive. But go-go had already become synonymous with a homegrown resistance to forces of gentrification in the District.
“The world was watching when #DontMuteDC was born, and they’re watching now to see how we’re going to deal with gentrification in our city, how we’re going to preserve the culture and protect the people of our city,” said activist Ron Moten, one of the lead organizers of the #DontMuteDC movement. “D.C. has an opportunity to show the world how it’s done.”
Born in the live-music dance halls of the 1970s, go-go earned its name when Brown said he was trying to keep people grooving with a beat that just “goes and goes.”
The music became the soundtrack of D.C. neighborhoods, schools and block parties.
D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who wrote the bill, has said he hopes the city can use go-go’s history and cultural significanceto attract tourists, create jobs and foster art and creativity.
“You can’t go to New Orleans without hearing jazz,” McDuffie said last year. “If you come to the nation’s capital, you’re going to hear go-go music.”
On Wednesday, it leaked out the doors and windows of the old church, as residents young and old shuffled and bopped, dancing down the steps, out the doors and into the chilly February air.