Go-go is the conga-drum-inflected Black popular music that emerged in Washington, D.C., during the 1970s. The late guitarist Chuck Brown, the “Godfather of Go-Go,” created the music by mixing sounds borrowed from church and the blues with the funk and flavor that he picked up playing for a local Latino band.
Born in the inner city, amid the charred ruins of the 1968 race riots, go-go generated a distinct culture and an economy of independent, almost exclusively Black-owned businesses, which sold tickets to shows and performance recordings. At the peak of its popularity in the 1980s, go-go could be heard around the capital every night of the week, on college campuses and in crumbling historic theaters, hole-in-the-wall nightclubs, back yards and city parks.
Although it was published mere weeks prior to the death of Brown last May, “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City” (Duke University Press, $22.95) presents a social history of Black Washington as told through its go-go music and culture. Encompassing dance moves, nightclubs and fashion, as well as the voices of artists, fans, business owners and politicians, Natalie Hopkinson’s Washington-based narrative reflects the broader history of race in urban America in the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st. Hopkinson, a contributing editor of TheRoot.com, is a former writer and editor at the Washington Post.
“Go-go is Washington,” Hopkinson wrote in The Washington Post. “The music never made a real national splash, but it has come to reflect this city, its artistic pulse and the often painful reality of life for many of its Black residents.”
In the 1990s, the middle class that had left the city for the suburbs in the postwar years began to return. Gentrification drove up property values and pushed go-go into D.C.’s suburbs. While the region deals with gentrification, at its heart, D.C.’s distinctive go-go musical culture, continues to beat.
“You know it’s go-go by its signature, slow-driving conga beat,” continued Hopkinson. “The music sounds like a grittier kind of funk, with a ‘lead talker’ calling out fans, a rapper and an R&B vocalist singing original songs and go-go versions of hits by artists from Ashlee Simpson to Ludacris.”
On any given night, there’s live go-go in the D.C. metro area. Now is the time to catch it while you can.