Go-go is the conga drum–inflected black popular music that emerged in Washington, D.C., during the 1970s. The guitarist Chuck Brown, the “Godfather of Go-Go,” created the music by mixing sounds borrowed from church and the blues with the funk and flavor that he picked up playing for a local Latino band. Born in the inner city, amid the charred ruins of the 1968 race riots, go-go generated a distinct culture and an economy of independent, almost exclusively black-owned businesses that sold tickets to shows and recordings of live go-gos. At the peak of its popularity, in the 1980s, go-go could be heard around the capital every night of the week, on college campuses and in crumbling historic theaters, hole-in-the-wall nightclubs, backyards, and city parks.
Go-Go Live is a social history of black Washington told through its go-go music and culture. Encompassing dance moves, nightclubs, and fashion, as well as the voices of artists, fans, business owners, and politicians, Natalie Hopkinson’s Washington-based narrative reflects the broader history of race in urban America in the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first. In the 1990s, the middle class that had left the city for the suburbs in the postwar years began to return. Gentrification drove up property values and pushed go-go into D.C.’s suburbs. The Chocolate City is in decline, but its heart, D.C.’s distinctive go-go musical culture, continues to beat. On any given night, there’s live go-go in the D.C. metro area.
Go-go music and its performers (Chuck Brown, Big G, Anthony Little Benny Harley) may have little cachet among a general audience, but Hopkinson, journalist and devotee, makes a persuasive case that go-go serves as a metaphor for the black urban experience in the second half of the twentieth century. Most deeply rooted in Washington, D.C., the heavily percussive, call-and-response dance music reflects the links between West Africa and the black diaspora, even as its content is centered on contemporary themes. As Hopkinson traces the music s trajectory particularly the rise and demise of Club U (by day a municipal center, by night a dance club) and of the curatorial entrepreneur Nico Holson she delineates the divisions between white federal Washington and black local D.C. epitomized by the destruction of the once vibrant local go-go economy along the U Street, N.W., and H Street, N.E., corridors. Part history of, part elegy for, the displacement of black communities and a slow death of the Chocolate City, the text is supplemented by a rich photo insert documenting both dance floor and street. Across the world and throughout history, Hopkinson says, black music has been the primary medium to deliver news. Her assessment of a local phenomenon offers a glimpse of a culture off the mainstream s radar. 34 b&w illus.