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Natalie Hopkinson: Go-Go Live

Natalie Hopkinson explores go-go and race in America

Photo: Marcus Hanschen, License: N/A

Marcus Hanschen

Chuck Brown


Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City

Natalie Hopkinson

Duke University Press, paperback

At the turn of the-century, I worked briefly at the late, great Vertigo bookstore, when it was still at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., and before it moved to College Park, where even proximity to the University of Maryland couldn’t save it from the predations of the Amazon bookselling juggernaut.

Way back then, closing up the shop on Connecticut Avenue and walking north on summer evenings to catch the L2 bus route to Mount Pleasant, you could regularly hear that distinctive pattern of quarter-note, eighth-note syncopated repetition that is the unmistakable rhythm of go-go and of the District itself. These evenings, it was made by a couple of boys with upturned white 5-gallon buckets, propped just-so for amplification and echo, arched around them like some sacral, sorcerous drum kit. They were young and sat on milk crates—head, shoulders, hips keeping time as their drumsticks flew across the buckets, driving the beat. They set a hat out for change from the moneyed bohemians, government workers, the carpetbagging creative-class, and the various gentrifying hoard that was already then descending on Washington.

Natalie Hopkinson, contributing editor at The Root, lecturer of journalism at Georgetown University, and co-author of the 2006 Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation has written a fascinating new book about go-go, D.C., and race in urban America. Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City is post-civil rights elegy for time when African-Americans were able to gain control of urban space in a country that was still radically separate and unequal. Hopkinson’s book is also a plaint of ambivalent hopefulness that this post-Chocolate City, Barack Obama-era Washington, D.C., can begin to overcome that separate-and-unequal racial division still at the heart of America.

For Hopkinson, go-go is a collective voice that arose from the ashes after the riots and fires that marked the civil rights era’s nadir. “We didn’t get our 40 acres and a mule. But we did get you, C.C.” sang Parliament’s George Clinton at the time. Washington, D.C., became the capital of the new order of racialized urban space, the chocolate cities of Baltimore, Cleveland, Newark, Atlanta, Gary, and beyond. Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, and others made the sound that branded this new racial order in the nation’s capital. “The foundation of go-go,” writes Hopkinson, “was a large, extended network of local and almost exclusively black-owned businesses.” Go-go was the sound of the black public sphere of, by and for the people.

Like its relative, hip-hop, go-go found its voice in live, DIY performance and the cultural capital of authenticity. Hip-hop, Hopkinson argues, has gone on to be corrupted by corporate capitalism and has been sold out to the suburbs. “Long after mainstream hip-hop ceased to serve this function, live go-go performances are still the ‘Black CNN.’ Go-go,” she writes, “has guarded this network by stubbornly resisting the standardization of youth culture via hip-hop.”

Hopkinson argues that, by the middle of the first decade of the new century, D.C. and the racial order it represented had begun to dramatically change. She tells this story by narrating the dramatic reconfiguration of Washington’s U Street corridor and the reordering of life along H Street. What were once centers of black cultural creativity and foment, going steady to a go-go beat, have been transformed into an upscale mise-en-scène with a whole lot more white people. Everybody—even Barack Obama—wants to eat at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Hopkinson captures this disorienting demographic shift in the voice of an interviewee: “When you see white people in a neighborhood after dark, that means they are about to take it over. ‘White flight’ was what happened in our parents’ generation. We were witnessing ‘white return.’”

Hopkinson makes a compelling case that go-go, while bubbling up from the streets and working class, was inextricably intertwined with federal Washington and its production of an extensive black middle class that was ready and able to break out of its geographic confines. But even as that middle class pushed into Prince George’s County, Md., it too faced its own continued cultural and geographic segregation in race-based America. But along Branch Avenue and at Iverson Mall and in Marlow Heights and in the PG County school system (where I went to high school), that increasing extreme segregation bound together the striving black middle class with the dispossessed who were priced out of D.C. in the continued cultural reproduction of go-go.

Like any true fan, Hopkinson goes to, reports from, and narrates the live go-go: where the dead are named and remembered; where news is reported; where talking drums, blues clubs, and juke joints are the conjured medium that allow you to survive. The call-and-response of the go-go transmogrifies the space between audience and musician and makes manifest the place where transcendence is possible. This was not the mosh pit, the rave, the club, or even the church, for all their transcendental possibilities. This was the go-go.

Go-Go Live will get a lot of necessary attention as a story about D.C., but it is also an important book on the ordering of racial politics and geography in the state of Maryland. There is also a story here to be told about how Baltimore Club music and go-go share a history outside of hip-hop’s dominant narrative.

Hopkinson wants to address the narrative in many former chocolate cities—including Baltimore—that suggests, explicitly or implicitly, that poor, black folks who remain in gentrified urban spaces are somehow in the way of developers, the creative class, and progress. She quotes a community organizer: “It is effective to push out poor people. But the question we must ask ourselves is, ‘Is it right?’” Hopkinson says she constantly thinks about this as “my family enjoys the new art galleries, restaurants, shiny new grocery stores and recreation centers, and other luxuries that white privilege has brought to D.C.” She hopes that this new D.C. will be genuinely multicultural, democratic, post-racial.

Hopkinson remains haunted by the dispossessed. She says that we may try to remove them, but we won’t be able to get that music out of our heads, our ears: “If history is a judge, some other iteration of the black musical tradition will pop up . . . Someone will make the call. Someone will give the response. This is the essence of the story told by black music. Change. Movement. Rise. Repeat. Never death—only freedom.”

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