When three men were shot in a red Corvette outside of Brookland club the Cardinal’s Nest last month, investigators looking for the source of the gunfire were also highly interested in determining the nature of the evening’s entertainment. A report about the incident put out by the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Agency dropped the four-letter word: “Investigator Shoemaker could hear live go-go style music being played.”
That “go-go style music” later became a point of contention for ABRA investigators, venue owners, and D.C. police. According to the establishment’s tavern license, entertainment permitted at the Cardinal’s Nest includes “recorded music of all types” and “occasional performances by duo musicians of all types.” But though the group performing that night, Uncalled 4 Experience, racks up an impressive 11 members ( Mikey, Tre, Myra, Bo, G-Money, Eric, Slump, Rashad, Stan, Godfather, and Mack), ABRA investigators weren’t concerned with the body count. They just wanted to know if what they were playing was go-go.
The Cardinal’s Nest’s liquor license doesn’t explicitly prevent go-go. Still, owner Darrell Green felt the need to explain that it wasn’t being played. The ABRA report states that according to Green, “the band does not play go-go music because of an agreement reached with his neighbors, and that he and his security would automatically stop any performer that was seen or heard playing go-go music. When asked about the music being played that night, Mr. Green stated the band was playing top-40 and Justin Timberlake songs.” Later, in an interview with a police detective, Green said that the music on-hand was “calypso” and “reggae.”
A Cardinal’s Nest doorman, however, ’fessed up to ABRA investigators: The band in question was playing go-go, he said.
Why the distinction? “When you have venues like go-gos, you have to have a significant security presence, because they draw different neighborhood crews,” 5th District Commander Lamar Greene said in a community meeting last month. “The situation can become a powder keg.”
Dax Witherspoon, manager for Uncalled 4 Experience, clears it up this way: “We consider ourselves as a band that plays go-go music, not a go-go band.” And on the night of the shooting, Witherspoon says, they weren’t playing go-go. “We get labeled by the promoter, and we play what they want. That particular set was an older set, so we played more cover tunes, more Top 40.” According to Witherspoon, Uncalled 4 Experience’s flexibility is the result of an effort to branch out from the go-go label in order to avoid its violent associations and shoot for national attention. “There’s a certain stigma attached to go-go bands, and it’s from our past. We get a bad rap. It’s always been that way,” he says.
But Malachai Johns, manager of go-go group Mambo Sauce—which played the Cardinal’s Nest a week before the shooting—says avoiding go-go’s stigma raises problems of its own. “There’s a tendency for go-go events to be a bit more violent than, say, a blues club,” says Johns. “But there’s an ethical issue with banning a specific type of music, especially one that’s so hard to define.”
What, exactly, is the homegrown genre? “If you ask anybody what go-go is, everyone will probably give you a different answer,” says Kevin “Kato” Hammond, 42, editor of the Webzine Take Me Out to the Go-Go and go-go club frequenter since age 14. To Hammond, it’s “feel-good music.” To Johns, “it’s about the percussion.” Witherspoon gets closer to specifics with his definition, calling go-go “a fusion of African and Latin music with a rhythmic call and response.”
But it’s not the feel-good percussive fusion that has club owners concerned. Hammond identifies two red flags that clubs use to brand go-go: “If a band comes in with congas, they’re gonna say, ‘OK, you’re a go-go band.’ But if Carlos Santana came in with his band, they would have congas,” he says. “So what’s the other element that go-go brings? Urban black people.”
Says Johns, “Go-go is a representation of a culture that they don’t want around. It represents their fears.” While Johns admits that some go-go venues have been plagued with violence, he says the music’s not to blame. “I’ve been going to go-go since I was 15 years old. I’ve been hearing it my whole life, and I’ve never hit someone in my whole life. I’ve never been hit at a go-go. I’ve never been in a fight at a go-go. I think it’s absurd to pin all the blame on a form of music.”
The go-go brand has been a death sentence for a handful of area clubs: Northeast’s Club Rio (nee Deno’s, nee Breeze’s Metro Club), Capitol Hill’s Heart & Soul Cafe, and U Street’s Between Friends all endured go-go prohibitions from ABRA before eventually closing. “We don’t generally prohibit a specific genre of music unless there have been some incidents in an establishment,” says ABRA general counsel Fred Moosally. But even in clubs where go-go isn’t specifically prohibited, it can be outlawed de facto by club owners looking to keep the peace. “It’s not on paper, but it’s implied for those with a liquor license that go-go is looked down upon,” says Johns, who lists Love, Platinum, and Takoma Station Tavern as venues that have rejected Mambo Sauce’s go-go beat.
Now, some go-go groups are hoping that the genre’s bad rap can be allayed by avoiding the G-word. “The whole genre has been forced to re-brand itself,” says Johns. “I’ve seen bands advertise themselves as neo-soul or R&B knowing full well that they’re a go-go band,” says Johns. “R&B with a pocket,” “reggae,” and “Grown ’n Sexy” are also common code words for bands that want to maintain the go-go rhythm without claiming the genre. Some go-go group names even sound like preventative measures against the rough-and-rowdy label: “Mature Clientele Band” or Cardinal’s Nest regulars “Soundproof Band.”
“Probably just about every go-go band has had to say, ‘we’re not a go-go band’ just to get through the doors,” says Hammond. “It’s ridiculous. And it’s been going on for 20 years. But in all honesty, you can’t blame [the groups]. They want to do what they love doing.”
For Witherspoon, tiptoeing around the genre’s violent rep necessitates some saving of face. “It hasn’t taken away from our go-go roots,” he insists of Uncalled 4 Experience’s willingness to churn out R&B on demand. “We know where our roots are.”
Still, it might be best to stick with “Justin Timberlake.” That’s a particularly inventive euphemism for go-go: Says Hammond, “You can play anything and make it go-go by just laying down the go-go beat underneath it. Justin Timberlake came to D.C. [last year] and played go-go.”
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