In an era when the internet and streaming have made music less regional than ever, go-go music remains distinctly local. As the premier musical genre to be birthed in Washington, D.C., go-go is beloved by generations of Washingtonians who grew up surrounded by it. As go-go ages, so too does its base of performers and concertgoers. In a city where some stories are celebrated and preserved while others are paved over and erased, can go-go survive?
Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, singer, guitarist and frontman for Rare Essence, thinks so but feels the genre is presently in limbo. “The scene is maintaining but is not really growing like we think it should be,” he says.
Rare Essence is one of the genre’s oldest and most beloved bands. Formed in 1976 by a group of young teenagers, Rare Essence is one of the most well known bands of many formed in the wake of the go-go explosion in mid-seventies Washington.
The Origins of Go-Go
The creation of go-go in the early seventies is often attributed to Chuck Brown, also known as the “godfather of go-go.” Brown previously played in the band Los Latinos, who fused Latin rhythms with soul music. Brown expanded on that fusion with his band the Soul Searchers by incorporating funk, blues and a charismatic emcee-style, call-and-response vocal delivery that engaged the crowd.
Building on the popularity of DJs, who could keep a dance floor packed by playing song after song without break, Brown pioneered a live band sound that “goes and goes” without pause. Powered by slow-building, hypnotic, unending rhythms, the dance music was beloved by Black Washingtonian teenagers who both performed and frequented the shows, called go-gos. The crowds were big, but the bands were too, often featuring multiple vocalists, guitarists, keyboardists, brass players and percussionists, which included a set of conga drums.
The thriving scene developed not in studios, but at live shows where the fluid nature of go-go shined, and a unique culture developed around the music. Tapes recorded from PA systems at live shows were coveted by fans who would trade and buy them. Bands would put their own spin on Top 40 songs, remixing pop songs on the fly.
As go-go was really taking off in the late ‘70s, the Summer Youth Employment Program, developed by the Department of Recreation under Mayor Marion Barry, lent a hand to aspiring young musicians. Youth involved in the program had the opportunity to perform live music on the “showmobile,” a rolling stage that would visit different neighborhoods during the summer. Barry, a go-go fan himself, would sometimes make appearances. Kato Hammond, genre historian and founder of the Take Me Out To The Go-Go media brand, credits the city for go-go’s speedy growth. “In essence, the DC government added growth to go-go,” he says.
Eager to replicate the growing national success of hip-hop, record executives sought to transform the go-go sound into something radio-friendly that could sell in numbers. Junkyard Band signed to Def Jam, E.U with Virgin. But go-go never quite took off on a national level. It was hard to capture the vibrant and interactive essence of the music through studio recordings (many go-go songs stretched well past the typical lengths of a single), especially for listeners who had never seen a live go-go show.
Record companies also struggled to balance the desire to present a polished sound with the naturally homespun qualities of go-go instrumentation. There were even worries from go-go bands that in leaving D.C. to tour or record, they would be losing ground to other acts that would perform in their place.
Even more devastating than the weak national reception to go-go was the changing perception of the genre from city officials back home. As, arguably, the dominant cultural scene in Washington in the ‘80s and ‘90s, go-gos became known as hot-spots for violence. City officials and neighborhood groups worked to close many clubs and venues that were associated with the music.
As recently as 2010, an internally distributed go-go list kept by DC MPD was leaked. The list made note of the time and location of various go-go shows in D.C. and Maryland. An entire culture was demonized and eventually pushed outside of the city limits and deep into the Maryland suburbs. The city’s former support for go-go was drastically reversed.
Hammond insists that while there was violence in the go-go scene that damaged its reputation, violence was never inherent to go-go. “If [a] go-go was the most popular place in the city and you got a beef with someone else, hmm, where do I think that person’s gonna be at? Most likely at the go-go! If go-gos didn’t exist and skating rinks were the most popular event in the city, it would happen there,” says Hammond.
Not long after go-go was pushed out of the city, so too was much of the community that loved the music. Many Washington neighborhoods – U Street, Shaw, Logan Circle, Adams Morgan – were subject to development, revitalization, and gentrification that edged many Black residents toward the fringes of the city and suburbs. By 2011, DC’s Black population fell below 50 percent for the first time in 50 years. Go-go was left with a greatly diminished foothold in the city, far from the days when bands might play two or three shows in a single day.
Over recent years, go-go has found a place in the city again, but it rests in a strange position, both rarefied and minimized by the city and community. As a symbol of DC cultural excellence, go-go has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance this decade.
Rare Essence performed as musical ambassadors as part of the Washington, DC Economic Partnership’s technology showcase at Austin festival South by Southwest in 2015. They were the festival’s first ever go-go band, and they performed again in 2017, along with Big G and the Backyard Band. That year, both bands performed at the WeDC showcase and a showcase at the Austin City Limits Live Moody Theatre, alongside other greats like Erykah Badu and Wu-Tang Clan.
More recently, the G-League affiliate of the Washington Wizards, the Capital City Go-Go, played its inaugural game at the new Entertainment and Sports Arena in Congress Heights. An NBC Sports recap of the game noted plenty of go-go celebration, including go-go-infused player introduction and national anthem performances, and a halftime celebration of local musicians. The logo is a pair of conga drums.
“Go-go has nothing to do with the Wizards but everything to do with anybody that knows go-go music. When they see the Capital City Go-Go, they know that it was named after the genre of music that was born and bred in DC,” says Johnson, who was “ecstatic” to learn of the team name. He believes it is representative of the healthiest side of go-go, and he hopes the team continues to involve members of the culture.
“Even when they’re doing some of their charity events, have a band to come along to be a part of that,” he says, “Because I know a lot of us would love to be part of the community outreach they do as well.”
Even the number of venues available to go-go bands is high enough to sustain the scene now. Hammond can, and does, list a dozen venues in the DMV area like Aqua in northeast DC and Fast Eddie’s in Camp Springs, MD, that host regular go-go shows.
“The other day someone was saying ‘All these clubs are closing in DC’ and I’m looking, [and] I see just as many clubs open in DC as I’ve always seen,” says Hammond. “It wasn’t like there were always a ton of clubs open at the same time [back then]. The difference is that when we were much younger, go-gos also took place in schools and rec centers.”
Youth In Go-Go
And that cuts to the issue at the core of go-go’s future. While there’s a go-go show in the city almost every night, there is a troubling lack of youth in the scene today.
“We’re trying to get the younger people more interested in it because that would help propel go-go into the next 10 or 20 years,” says Johnson. “If we can get that young crowd along with more venues, then the state of go-go would be a lot better.”
Part of the drop in interest is simply because other genres dominate go-go in popularity. Where go-go failed to launch on a national scale, hip-hop ascended, providing thriving local and national hip-hop scenes for young musicians to participate in, not to mention the monumental global demand for hip-hop.
But another fault line lies in support for youth in the arts. While putting together a go-go band requires congas, guitars, keys, and seven or eight musically literate friends, youth can now DJ shows or create entire hip-hop or pop albums on their own with a minimal investment. The days of young artists getting paid to perform on the Showmobile are over.
“When all that gets pulled away — our kids, they don’t have those same things afforded to them,” says Hammond. He names dwindling support for music and art in schools as a key factor in declining youth interest in go-go. “They don’t have music in the schools anymore. That’s why the eras of the horn sections died down, because no one was really playing horns in school anymore.”
Even as there is a dearth in young, traditional go-go bands, elements of go-go still reverberate through D.C.’s music scene. Bounce beat, a homegrown variant of go-go, features an aggressive, modern sound that is more evocative of the hype party music of the day than the slow grooving traditional go-go. Local band Nag Champa takes go-go in a different direction, adding acid jazz and hip-hop elements alongside more traditional go-go sounds.
One of the premier sub-genres of D.C. hip-hop is often referred to as “future bounce.” That’s the sound you can hear in songs by D.C.-born rapper GoldLink, like “Have You Seen That Girl?” The critically acclaimed album that song is from, “At What Cost,” also features a song called “Hands On Your Knees,” which functions as an interlude that places the listener at a go-go performance.
In other instances, DC artists have actively uplifted go-go artists, like when GoldLink released a Backyard Band remix of his massive single “Crew” and D.C.-born R&B artist Kelela released a Rare Essence remix of her song “TMA.” Those songs have about 136,000 and 52,000 plays respectively, no small feat for a pair of songs with reaches far beyond the borders of the District.
How To Improve Go-Go Health
Part of introducing go-go to youth might include an attempt to introduce go-go to a national audience again. Johnson thinks bands need to bring the music to new audiences, and since the power of go-go is best understood live, opportunities like the South by Southwest showcases could be ways to deliver the music to fans that seek unfamiliar sounds. Johnson says Rare Essence gained many new fans when they performed in 2015 and 2017.
“We have to go where they are,” says Johnson. “Once they hear the music, hopefully they’ll want to come out to a show, and for all of the new fans, that’s usually where we get them at right there. If they get interested enough to say ‘Let me go check out and see what they’re doing,’ once they get inside the club and they get caught up in the atmosphere, that’s when they become a fan right there.”
Massive, corporate music festivals have weathered heavy criticism for homogeneous lineups in recent years. While the biggest festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo have transcended the bonds of the simple music festival, many regional festivals could stand to diversify their lineups with a different strain of dance music.
Ultimately, the city of DC has an obligation to help map and build the path to a healthy go-go scene. Go-go is a public good, a creation worthy of just as much respect and support as historic buildings in Dupont Circle.
An excellent feature in Bleacher Report, “Who Owns Go-Go In The Capital City?,” written by Master Tesfatsion, paints a picture of the damage DC officials and gentrifiers inflicted on the genre and community. Filmmaker Mignotae Kebede is quoted saying one of the more cutting remarks in the article: “Imagine if New Orleans didn’t have jazz anymore.”
I asked Johnson about that quote in particular, and he loves the comparison.
“When you go to New Orleans, it’s a jazz band or brass band on what seems like every corner,” he says. “If we had that type of support from [the government], it would definitely give go-go a boost here. Definitely would.”
If you ask anyone that knows what they’re talking about to describe go-go, one of the first things they’ll tell you is that you can’t really feel it until you see it live. There is no museum exhibit, recording or written testimony that conveys the pure energy of a go-go show. For as much as go-go does to promote and represent DC, the city must ensure there’s never a day when the beat stops.