Arts Desk

Is D.C. Shoving Go-go Aside? Natalie Hopkinson’s Washington Post Article, Discussed

Familiar Faces

Natalie Hopkinson’s article in last Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook section, “Go-go music is the soul of Washington, but it’s slipping,” has generated some discussion thanks to its provocative title, its subject and contentions, and its prominent location in the paper. It's being passed around a fair bit: I saw it on former Rolling Stone contributor Dave Marsh’s Rap and Roll Confidential e-mail list, as well as Cuba and Its Music author Ned Sublette’s e-mail list. Hopkinson's article offers a fine overview of go-go's recent history, and parts of her theory are well-expressed. But some of the piece’s contentions, specifically those suggesting a causative relationship between gentrification and the diminished presence of go-go within the city, raised my eyebrows, and I wasn't alone. I e-mailed several questions to Hopkinson, who is the author of the forthcoming book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.

Hopkinson’s article starts out by establishing her theory that “the place that created go-go is shoving it aside” through an anecdote of a single unnamed club that decided to bar Suttle Thoughts, a go-go band that appeals to a "grown and sexy" audience, from performing, because the club manager saw a bandmember walking in with a conga drum. Hopkinson then invokes changes she has seen in two D.C. neighborhoods: “The U Street NW and H Street NE corridors have gone upscale, pushing out the places where you could buy tickets, hear go-go music live, and purchase your neighborhood's unique brand of embroidered sweats. Ibex, a popular Georgia Avenue NW go-go club, has been transformed into luxury condos.”

There are arguably a few holes in these arguments. To start, an unnamed club’s unnamed manager deciding to suddenly drop a band on the night of a gig—a band that Hopkinson acknowledges plays multiple times a week at various clubs—seems  to say more about the unpredictability of that particular establishment’s manager than about the state of go-go in D.C. Her second contention—regarding neighborhoods going upscale, and the Ibex becoming luxury condos—omits a few facts. As Hopkinson notes later in the piece, the Ibex got shut down by the D.C. government in 1997 when a policeman was shot on the street near the club. Not only that, but Hopkinson fails to note that the Ibex then sat empty for over two years and then reopened as a short-lived furniture store. The owner did not even draw up the condo-conversion plan until 2005. Asked whether it was in fact violence and not gentrification that caused the transformation, Hopkinson defended her argument: “The word 'gentrification' does not appear in my article. Not necessarily because it is not accurate, but because this is a loaded term that I find some people get really defensive about, which is in itself quite interesting to me. It was a long article and it will be a long book. There are no 'good' guys and 'bad' guys in either of them. Violence is clearly a factor, which I addressed directly. But the fact is that places where go-go once flourished, there are now establishments that cater to 'upscale' crowds that have put it out of go-go's socioeconomic reach. However you wish to label the process of that happening is up to you.”

Hopkinson’s article also points to the demise of other D.C. establishments to make her point. She asserts that “the flagship store for local urbanwear designer We R One on Florida Avenue NW went out of business a couple of summers ago.” But what she failed to mention is that property was bought by the historically black Howard University (which has been in the area for close to 150 years) as part of an expansion. It's still empty. I asked her, How is this gentrification? She pointed back to her original example and added: “I also challenge the premise of this question, because it implies that historically Black institutions do not have the means and ability to be 'gentrifiers.' This is incorrect.”

Hopkinson’s article next suggests that the closing of other D.C. and Maryland stores are also indicative of go-go's marginalization: “I-Hip-Hop and Go-Go, a store on H Street NE, has been shuttered. The flagship location of  P.A. Palace, a chain of go-go stores, has been bulldozed to make way for a Wal-Mart in Landover Hills.” But her article ignores the fact that the H street NE store was opened fairly recently and was not there long. It's no longer shocking that retail stores—especially music stores—are having trouble these days. These woes aren't unique to go-go. As for P.A. Palace, the chain still has locations in Forestville mall and Iverson Mall, both in Maryland. I asked her how the facts about these establishments fit into her argument about go-go being forced out of D.C. And certainly, the closing of retail music stores has more to do with the music business than gentrification, right?  Hopkinson once again pointed to her original argument, and then contended, “I never said that go-go was not part of the music business. It is. P.A. Palace had been the largest chain of stores that sold live go-go music in the DMV. The fact that their flagship location was closed and replaced by a big-box chain store reinforces the idea that the Peculiar People lead talker said [page 3 in the article]: without go-go, we are like any other state. I'm not sure how long the H Street location of I-Hip-Hop/Go-Go was opened. But I spent several months there doing ethnographic research throughout 2006.”

Hopkinson’s article noted various incidents of violence that were associated with go-go shows in D.C. in 2005 and 2007. I suggested to her, Isn’t it more accurate to say that go-go's shift to Maryland has much more to do with crackdowns on club violence during Anthony Williams' time as mayor? And that these crackdowns were just generally aimed at stopping club violence all over the city, and not to help developers or upscale residents gentrify neighborhoods where the go-go clubs were located? Hopkinson disagreed: “No.  Anthony Williams is just one mayor among several different political and private actors who have impacted go-go.”

I thought the article, in discussing go-go's migration from D.C. to Maryland, also failed to make completely clear that go-go has always had a strong Prince Georges County presence. I saw a go-go show at Rosecroft Raceway and several at the old Capital Centre in the early '80s; there were also go-go shows at many other P.G. County locations, and many go-go bandmembers live there. I asked Hopkinson: How are these longtime locations more “marginalized” and less important than the D.C. locations that hosted go-go in the past? Hopkinson responded: “Good question. Prince George's always has been an integral part of the culture and history of go-go. Many of the most iconic shows, including "Go-Go Live" the p.a.[cassette name] for which I'm taking my book title, took place in the county. They are not less important, but they do not have the iconic status as the "Chocolate City" and all the symbolism of being at the seat of power and all of that. The proximity of the go-go scene to the foremost international seat of power has always been one of the interesting paradoxes to explore.”

Some would contend that go-go’s less prominent status has to do with changes in the music itself. Hopkinson’s article hinted at, but did not fully address, the possibility that some of the local audience is more interested in hearing rappers like Wale and others perform originals, rathering than seeing newer bounce beat go-go bands performing only covers. I asked her, Are these bounce beat go-go groups failing to market themselves the way older go-go groups did, and the way current rappers are? Or is the local mainstream media failing to seek out these younger bands and give them coverage (whether they are playing in Maryland or D.C.). Hopkinson replied: “This is another good question that touches on an ongoing debate in the go-go community re: bounce beat and covers, etc. Believe me, I know how hard it is to be a 'mainstream' writer trying to write about go-go. I have a whole chapter about that in my book. I don't think I can fully do it justice in this space.”

Finally, I noted that there are still numerous go-go shows every week; is gentrification really killing go-go?  Hopkinson observed: “Maybe I wasn't totally clear in the article. If so that is my fault. Go-go is very much alive. It is not dead. As I quoted Nico saying, more bands are forming than ever before. It has a lot of challenges. The point of the article was to educate those who don't know about this culture and to point out that the prejudice against the music (reified by policies like the police 'go-go report') means that there will soon be a time when it doesn't exist in DC at all. At that point we can no longer call DC the Chocolate City. That is the point of my book. It's just change. Some change is good, some not so much. The Beat will go on, but that it won't be at the seat of international power makes a larger statement about cities, about race, class, arts culture, history. So many things.”

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  • Amanda Hess

    Thanks for writing about this. I can't speak to gentrification's effects on go-go, but I know that D.C.'s police and regulatory bodies have in the past displayed a stigma against the music. I wrote about that a couple of years ago. The congas were a point of contention then, too!

  • nw dc

    the city needs more live music venues too, like a funk cave where you could get down any night.

  • inked

    Re: I-Hip-Hop,
    I'm not sure precisely when it opened, but I do know that that space was occupied by a clothing store called Urban Legends in 2005.

  • lucy623

    Hello. And Bye.

  • ulceglild
  • Pingback: BLUNT RAPPS » On Oddity and Inversions

  • DJ Shhh

    I do agree that Go-Go is not as mainstream as it once was. I understand over the years things have changed including the sound of Go-Go. When I hear today's Go-Go I don't feel as connected as I do when I listen to a old Rare Essence, Class Band, Chance Band, or one of the other bands from back in the day. What we Go-Go'ed to and where we Go-Go'ed at is now in the history books.

    If we could just keep that vibe alive Go-Go will be okay.

  • Anwezzy 3dB

    Yes Sadly but it is the truth. Gogo is more of them home of the PG side of the area because DC Mayor and MPD are too lazy to care of actions that happens in DC so they shut down all the youth event for no reason say that they are a part of this and that when its just lil yunging just needing something to do with there time. Gogo is not violence they may be some things that people bring to these events but i also ask where our police to keep us safe comming home??? instead we are abuse of our rights. Im sick of it.

  • Chris

    When I started booking in DC, I really liked go-go music, but I would never book it for fear of violence. Not that I thought all go-go fans were dangerous hoodlums, but I did think that a few rotten apples could leave someone dead on the dance floor.

    One person told me the violence in the scene was exaggerated. Only one person, a bouncer, had died at a go-go show in the previous year. Back then there was a murder a day in DC, so it was not as wierd a thing to say as it sounds - ONLY one person was killed that year whilst supporting that very fine art form.

    But holding a friend while he bleeds to death is not a price I was ready to pay for art, and I lacked the security skill and instincts to put on on as-safe-as-possible show, so I left that to, oh say - Breeze's metro.

    I went to speak in support Breeze when he appealed the closure of his club when an officer was shot 1,000 feet or so away by someone who was not clearly a patron of Breeze's.

    Breeze made the point that nobody could shoot each other while they were in his club. He did what the police could not. He kept these people safe for the few hours while they enjoyed go-go. But outside the club in his neighborhood shootings were not uncommon, go-go show or not.

    At the time I think that argument held some water.

    Now Trinidad is the last remaining bastion of the Dodge City of City Under Siege days, and outside Trinidad just about everywhere you go on this side of the Anacostia, you are going to have to work at getting shot.

    There is more money in this town and these monied folk have a higher expectation of not getting shot.

    Take a look a decade ago the spot Velvet Lounge is in right now - 9th and U Street. When that place opened, the owner would stand in front with a bunch of people smoking joints and drinking bird bath sized martinis in on the sidewalk and the cops would roll by. Five years later I had a cop in there telling me he knew about the backup drink law and how it was illegal for me to serve a shot and a beer.

    Back in 98 the streets were paved with broken glass and we had an average of one theft from auto a night or higher out of 40 patrons. And people got shot on the block and I am pretty sure a murder went unsolved. You could literally get away with murder at 9th and U street. Great spot for a Go-Go club.

    The Ibex was in a wierd place to begin with. Upper Cleveland Ave is not exactly the heart of Chocolate City. The fact that it was ever there blows a hole in the gentrification argument, but I think gentrification still stands as a go-go killer desipte the counter example of Ibex prior to closure.

    Here is the simple heart of the matter: the incoming population of the city is comparatively wealthy and has a comparatively high proportion of recessive gened folk that make them pale and spotty looking and vulnerable to skin cancer. The outgoing population is comparatively not wealthy and has nice strong dominant genes.

    The members of one group are more likely to be go-go fans than the other. Its a good business practice for bricks and mortar retail business to locate where the consumers are and not locate where the consumers are not.

    Most people can figure out whether the people moving into PG county or the people moving in to DC are more likely to attend Go-Go shows without breaking out a calculator or a specific example.

    So you can point out that the WP authors examples suck, but the theory is way way sounder than the pound, to modernize the old saying.

    Ultimately though, because its more fun, I blame Virginia for the death of Go-Go. They pass out handguns like candy. More murders all the way up in NY state are committed with handguns from VA than from any other state, including New York.

    PG county does not have to be gentrified to turn its back on go-go either. The county actually went so far as to ILLEGALLY close clubs in PG based on their fear of Go-Go. Just showed up and padlocked the doors with no due process about five years ago i think it was.

    Handguns. Handguns. Handguns. Handguns are what has always been killing go-go.

    Guns don't just kill people, they kill whole entire art forms. People only live for a little over a 100 years at most. Art on the other hand can live as long as humanity if people don't kill it. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis.

    Y'all virginians need to clean up your act over there on the south side of the Potomac. And you should be paying commuter taxes instead of robbing us of our services that you need to support your jobs.

    With a commuter tax we could afford to have free public go-go at the Kennedy Center safe enough for the president to attend. So cough up, va.

    ps. this editorial does not reflect the views of velvet lounge, its current ownerss or employees. i am a former owner. i put the link up to support the ongoing efforts of the current owners to promote original independant music. rock on with your bad self velvet lounge!

  • fimivk
  • Jettie Westry

    Interesting article and one which should be more widely known about in my view. Your level of detail is good and the clarity of writing is excellent. I have bookmarked it for you so that others will be able to see what you have to say.