Natalie Hopkinson’s Go-Go Live tells us what Chocolate City was. It tells us that it is dying; that its homegrown musical genre is still kicking, but not as it once did; that the lives and deaths of both say something significant about our country. Which is: Black folkways and art forms will remake themselves as necessary. It’s a good takeaway. Reading this book just isn’t the easiest way to get there.
Hopkinson gives voice to recent history, providing context, depth, and nuance to stories that previously may have only entered our consciousness as newspaper briefs spread out over months or years. In the rise and fall of Club U in the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center on 14th Street NW, we see how the D.C. government pulled go-go close—only to hold it at arm’s length after a fatal stabbing and subsequent outcry. We meet Ken and Samantha Moore, a couple that met in a strip club, later found Jesus, and evangelized through a gospel go-go club that eventually fell to the same fights and violence experienced by secular clubs.
Hopkinson, a journalism professor at Georgetown University, a contributing editor at The Root, and a former Washington Post reporter, leans on her academic side here: When she advances a theory, she first tells us what she’s going to tell us. But once she gets around to the telling, the text is difficult to penetrate and does not quite illuminate go-go or its larger context. The book is a history of D.C., a drive into the suburbs, a work of ethnomusicology—and an argument that the city has turned its back on go-go just as it is leaving behind its black identity.
Rarely does it satisfyingly connect these strands, or even make its case: All evidence in the book points to go-go still being profitable and popular. It may be less critical to city life now—it’s now suburban-centered, for starters—but the only thing Hopkinson demonstrates about this difference is that it is, well, different. “Where change ultimately leads may be unknown, but hope is faith that the direction is always forward. The world is flat—always has been. Constant change is just the way things are.” That sounds nice. But there’s nothing groundbreaking about the sentiment, “Change is just the way things are.”
Go-Go Live is most worth reading when Hopkinson lets her interviewees speak at length. We meet Go-Go Nico, who once made a living selling high-quality P.A. tapes of live shows from a now-closed H Street NE shop. While not a musician himself, Nico cares enough about the future of the genre to tell a curious white blogger that he’s apprehensive about the man’s intentions: “So I personally, not calling myself the go-go police...but I personally am questioning anybody who has any type of...I take that back. Not saying you have them, but anybody who possibly might have alternative motives. Because I’ve dealt with those types of people. And it’s been detrimental to the art itself.“ His careful choice of words make the passage that much more poignant.
Similarly rewarding is an interview with a man named Grandview Ron, who in the midst of a didactic lecture about his own background and go-go’s relationship to the community takes a moment to complain about Hopkinson’s use of the word “crew” to describe loosely affiliated folks from a particular neighborhood:
This doesn’t have much to do with go-go, and Ron takes the long way to get to this simple, important observation: “Go-go is never going to die because people will always have musical talent and play instruments.”
There are moments like this scattered throughout Go-Go Live, and when they crop up, they transport us despite the otherwise leaden writing. Hopkinson’s conversations with these real-life characters—and they are definitely characters—breathe life into theory, complicating even her own omniscient assertions about where D.C. and its rhythm are going.