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Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series: Texts from the Event Flyers

Go-Go in Washington, D.C.

featuring Ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell

Image: cover of book by Kip LornellWednesday, September 28, 2005
12:00 noon to 1:00 pm
West Dining Room
6th Floor, James Madison Building
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave., SE
Washington, DC
Thea Austen contact (202-707-1743)
Closest metro station is Capitol South on the Orange/Blue lines.

Go-Go in Washington, D. C.

Go-Go is a form of African American popular music that emerged in the District of Columbia and neighboring Prince Georges County about 30 years ago. Because it remains popular in the Washington, D.C. region and remains the most regionally-focused form of vernacular music in the United States. Chuck Brown is the man who brought all of the musical and cultural elements together to create this distinctive sound.

For those who have never heard it, go-go music contains the following ten characteristics:
1) African American
2) D.C.- based
3) Contemporary & popular
4) Rooted in funk & hip hop
5) Male dominated
6) Highly syncopated
7) Percussion-driven by a variety of instruments
8) Thrives in live performances
9) Utilizes call and response
10) Extended performances, sometimes groups in “suites.”

Go-Go is more than music, it reflects the experiences of black Americans living in Washington D.C. since the middle 1970s. Among the District’s black citizens under the age of 50 go-go is often matter of pride. When Trouble Funk opens a show by asking “who we gonna put on display tonight?,” Rare Essence inquires “where my troopers at?,” or Back Yard wants to know “who’s in the house?” Everyone wants to be recognized. Much like enthusiastic elementary school children who know the answer to a question and are begging to be called upon, the crowd’s response transcends mere enthusiasm and enters the realm of the ecstatic. This ardent testimony draws the audience into the show, personalizes the experience, and promotes racial & neighborhood pride.

Perhaps even more importantly go go provides a voice for members of D.C.’s often overlooked, much maligned, and truly disenfranchised African American community. Its younger members identify with go go musicians (perhaps even more so than with rappers because go go is distinctly D.C. while rap doesn’t speak quite so locally) in much the same way that blues once provided a voice for the black community. In D.C. you are at least as likely to hear Trouble Funk, Junk Yard, or Chuck Brown than D’Angelo or the Nasty Gang streaming from automobile speakers bearing the new “Taxation Without Representation” license plates and being driven by an African American citizen who has come of age in the past 25 years.

Where ever black folk live in or around our Nation’s Capital you will hear groups with names like Junk Yard Band, Lissen Band, Northeast Groovers (NEG), Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Backyard Band, Familiar Faces, Northeast Groovers, and Little Benny, and others streaming out of cars as they drive by, from open windows, and, if the headphone wearer has it cranked way up, on the Metro. The sound of go-go music can be heard throughout Washington, D.C. and Prince Georges County, where the population is predominately black American. Go-Go’s funky and very black sounds filter out to nearby Charles County, into Baltimore, and sometimes even to Richmond, VA. But, except for the brothers and sisters and a few other enlightened people who have lived in Chocolate City and have first-hand experience with go-go, the power of this music doesn’t extend much further.

Kip Lornell, who teaches in the Music Department at The George Washington University is co-author with Charles C. Stephenson Jr.of the The Beat! Go-Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip Hop., will talk about the development of go go as well as it’s social and cultural meanings to African American Washingtonians.

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