Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Washington, D.C., is not just a city of marble monuments, museums and government buildings. It’s a beautiful, vibrant place full of amazing people who have held onto their communities and cultures despite rampant gentrification, the federal government’s failure to grant the district statehood, police and neighborhood violence and poverty worsened by a lack of investment in the city. It is a place whose people have been overlooked time and time again by politicians, national activist groups that routinely parachute into the city and shout over community organizers and even by tourists who describe the city as devoid of character and soul.
What all these groups fail to recognize are that the local communities not only give this city character and soul, but also stand on the front lines of the fight against racial inequity and erasure. One of the ways in which Washington, D.C.’s long-time residents have fought this good fight is by using the unifying power and cultural emblem of go-go music, a funky sub-genre unique to and beloved by D.C. and its Black community. Go-go music’s role in D.C. as a representation of the city’s culture and long-standing African American community — combined with its use as a uniting expression of political power during protests against racial injustice — makes it a powerful and vibrant force for community-led change.
Much like the history of D.C.’s African American community, the story of go-go music is fraught with criminalization and attempts at erasure. Go-go originated in the D.C. area in the mid- to late- 1970s as a drum-based fusion of rap, funk and R&B, marked by the continuous high-energy performances for which go-go was named. In the early 1990s, when Washington, D.C., became the murder capital of the nation, go-go music, performances and venues were blamed for the escalation of violence and became the sites of police crackdowns, driving the sub-genre underground. As the city began one of the strongest waves of development and gentrification in the country, more efforts have popped up to silence go-go and the communities it originated from altogether.
Last year, the owner of a MetroPCS store in the Shaw neighborhood was forced to turn off the go-go music that had been blaring from the store’s speakers for 24 years under threat of lawsuit from one of the residents of The Shay, a new luxury apartment complex built nearby. Many D.C. residents saw this as another attempt at erasing the city’s long-standing Black community. Local activists thus began campaigning to restore the music with the hashtag #Don’tMuteDC and by holding large protests to the sound of go-go music in an effort to “reclaim” their city. The protests succeeded in their efforts, spurred the birth of the go-go musical rally Moechella and even resulted in go-go being named D.C.’s official music. Go-go thus became even more emblematic of the fight against gentrification and racism in Washington, D.C.
The political power of go-go music doesn’t stop there. This past year, Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump protests in D.C. have increasingly been accompanied by go-go music, including live performances with politically charged lyrics. This presence at protests has largely been coordinated by organizations such as Long Live GoGo, which organized the musical protest Million Moe March on Juneteenth this year. Among many reasons, go-go artists have taken on this mantle of political activism through music to inspire their communities to rise up and push for societal change.
In a city where Black people face mounting displacement and barriers to health care access, and where they are almost exclusively targets of force by Metropolitan Police Department officers, this kind of musical community-led activism against racial injustice is striking. It illustrates that while D.C.’s culture and residents may be constantly overlooked and abandoned by politicians, transplants and tourists, D.C.’s Black residents refuse to be erased. Combining a powerful regional and cultural symbol such as go-go music — complete with its own embattled history — with strong political messages against racial injustice doesn’t just push back against the erasure of D.C.’s long-standing communities and culture; it sends the message that Black lives matter and are worth fighting for.
Go-go is an emblem of resistance and survival for a community that has given so much to Washington, D.C., yet still battles relentless structural racism within the city. Go-go’s power to unify and call attention to political issues, when wielded by impacted communities, is remarkable. Like the relentless waves of sound that the sub-genre is named for, go-go, and the residents who relentlessly use it to uplift and advocate, is what keeps D.C. going.
Caterina Ieronimo is a junior government and politics major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.