Go-Go Live Book Excerpts
Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City
by Natalie Hopkinson
Duke University Press 2012.
Go-Go Live explores the place of go-go within the development of Washington, DC since the 1970s. It is an important reference for teachers who are unfamiliar with go-go and for teachers who are seeking content on how go-go is part of a larger and international history of black music and culture. The book contains photographs and extensive excerpts from oral histories Hopkinson conducted
Indeed, three generations of Washington-area residents had been grooving to go-go ever since the guitarist [Chuck] Brown had created the sound in the mid-1970s, borrowing the Caribbean flavor he had picked up playing for a Washington Top 40 band called Los Latinos. Go-go has been compared to everything from funk to hip-hop and reggae, but it is best described as popular music--party music--that can take many forms. When you hear it, you know it's go-go by the beat: slow-boiling congas, bass drums, timbales, cowbells, and rototoms layered with synthesizers and a horn section. You also know it's go-go because the audience is part of the band. Together the musicians onstage and the people below it create the music live--always live--through a dialogue of sounds, movements, and chants.
...the essence of go-go is the live show....It is live and direct. Simple. True. For lives (and deaths) that are often made invisible in the mainstream media, go-go rituals comfort and reassure the crowd that they exist, that they are part of a community, able to hear news that may not necessarily be black and white.
The violence and mayhem that erupted following King's death set the physical stage for the birth of go-go. The rebellion of 1968 reflected a distinctly consumerist, capitalistic, and hedonistic rage. The go-go scene filled a power vacuum, bringing together a steady crowd of Washingtonians in and around the city's core for fellowship, communion, and the expression of a postriot, post-civil rights movement urban reality. This new musical form helped bring new life to the charred urban core.
Go-go flourished both because of and in spite of the decades of adversity that preceded the riots and intensified after them. Go-go established musical spaces in the ruins of social upheaval: in crumbling historic performance spaces such as the Howard Theater, in hole-in-the-wall nightclubs, such as the Maverick Room; in backyards, community centers, and parks.
Once black and youth cultures possessed regional quirks, textures, and accents that reflected the places of the music's creation. Thanks to the dynamic rise of hip-hop, that is now less frequently the case. Go-go took such a wildly different trajectory to hip-hop that it could be seen as counterdiscourse to this standardization of youth culture. Both art forms have roots in urban youth culture, and their origins are both a byproduct of the urban centers' sociopolitical outlook following the collapse of the industrial economy in the 1970s, which caused middle-class flight and required the emergence of new urban public spheres. This power vacuum led to the rise of underground economies that snatched their own cultural and economic power. In the mid-1970s Bronx, that was hip-hop. In the mid-1970s Washington, D.C., it came in the form of go-go.
Go-go's divergent path allowed it to maintain its function as a uniquely black public sphere. Its fidelity to time-honored cultural scripts such as live call and response, as well as its locally rooted distribution and economic system, makes a statement about how a public sphere should be structured culturally, aesthetically, and economically. Simply put: go-go never sold out. Go-go, with its live, heavily percussive instrumentation and discursive, non-linear narrative forms, remains aesthetically faithful to a long history of uniquely black public spheres. It lacks the polish and sheen of the high-tech production of contemporary hip-hop recordings or other kinds of popular music. There is a grit and texture to the music that accurately reflects, represents, and speaks to the communities of its creation, the communities where it is consumed and from which profits are taken. The content of the recordings are aggressively zoned toward individuals and neighborhoods otherwise ignored by mainstream news media. The lyrical content is not devoid of the negative influences that exist in all communities. However, the individuals both calling and responding to the messages reflect on black life in a way that is not distorted by multinational profit motives or the international gaze.