Chocolate Cities: The World of Go-Go Live
Natalie Hopkinson, writer, journalism professor and contributing editor to the online magazine The Root, has been studying the way of life that is go-go music in her home of Washington D.C. for over a decade, attending shows, interviewing musicians and entrepreneurs and soaking in the overall spectacle of go-go and how it relates to the history of the District as well as the black experience in America. I recently had the chance to talk with Natalie about her new book capturing her experiences, Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.
Where did the term “go-go” come from?
Natalie Hopkinson: There are a couple of explanations. The traditional one is that Smokey Robinson song, “Going To A Go-Go”—that’s where it came from. But then [“Godfather of Go-Go”] Chuck Brown has been interviewed as saying “It’s called ‘go-go’ because it just goes and goes.” So those are the two reasons, the two origins.
It’s a lot more than just the music though, right?
In the D.C. area, it’s a way of life for many people—or had been a way of life for many people, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s an economy… there are all these related industries: the nightclub industry, promotions, graphic designers… security is huge! [slight laugh] There are fashion designers… there’s a whole related industry of local designers that have the culture that sort of overlaps with go-go music, so it’s huge.
You were talking in the book about being an outsider to go-go. How long did you immerse yourself in it?
The minute I stepped into D.C., I became immersed in it; I just didn’t know about it. I started writing about the scene at my first job at the Washington Post and it took me a while to develop contacts and develop trust in the community. There isn’t a lot of love between the industry and the Post because there’s a lot of history there. With the Post, if there was a fight or a shooting, that’s how it would show up in the paper. It was very rare that you saw it treated as an art form. It was treated as a problem.
You described getting into go-go and it took a while to understand what was going on in live performance. Was there a certain moment when you felt like you really got it; or is it changing so much that you still find yourself a little lost?
I’m still lost. It’s funny to say all these years later; I’m still lost. It would take a lifetime for me to pick up all the history, the different cultural cues…
And the references…
Especially the neighborhood references. My experience is very limited, so I relied on people who are within the community. I call them the Guardians of Go-Go, people like Nico Hobson and Kato Hammond, who have been guarding the culture, protecting it, preserving it and being a gateway to outsiders like me—Kato from tmottgogo.com [take me out to the go-go] in particular. There’s too much to know, really, but I did get into it. As an ethnographer, I had more meaning than I had time to process. With the help of people like Nico, I zeroed in on the key historic moments and key figures.
Were there any particular bands that you found yourself really enjoying? Did you go to multiple performances of a certain band?
I actually spent the majority of my time with bands that people wouldn’t have heard about. The music was a little challenging, because it was very punk… but I really loved the shows. I just loved the exuberance and the energy and the whole vibe of that. I spent a lot of time with a band called INI band, which you wouldn’t have heard of. Half of them were University of Maryland students but then the other half—and this is classic go-go—were people they just picked up. They’re carrying their instrument on the train and somebody said, “Hey, do you play go-go?” and that’s how they got together.
Well then, let’s go!
Right: “C’mon, we have our group practicing on Wednesdays at College Park, c’mon!” That’s what I really loved about it. I was more interested in the kids who wanted to have their try at it and felt inspired to start their own band.
You talk a lot about how much the environment plays a part in all of this. It’s described as being the product of a Chocolate City, being immersed in this culture that developed essentially out of segregation. When you go into the times now, where do you see this going?
As one of the characters in the book, Grandview Ron, talked about, he said, “There are always gonna be bands cause people are always gonna wanna be making money,” so as long as that’s the case, it’ll still be around… The entrepreneurs are the ones who have been holding up the culture for as long as they can. It constantly forces them to figure out a way to innovate, so if they can’t get Club U (in D.C.), then they’re going to try Legends out in Maryland or La Fontaine Bleu’s, another popular place right now in Maryland. And if they can’t go to that, then they’re going to migrate online, which you see with gogoradio.com or tmottgogo.com, which is doing explosive amounts of traffic. Every time you think that this is maybe the end or we’re moving toward the end of this cycle, something else happens. And that’s sort of been the history of go-go… I really believe that go-go is a reflection of the community itself. As long as there’s violence, it’s going to be reflected in the culture. If the community’s hurting and it’s having problems, then it’s going to be reflected in the music and the expression and the poetry of that community. I think once we get that solved, then it’ll get solved in go-go as well. It’s also good to see places like Reverend Tony Lee’s church, the Community of Hope. His choir is a go-go band. He’s got a huge space, is super-influential among the many young people in Prince George’s [County] and in the District and he’s steadfast—standing behind [go-go] and really wanting to use it as a positive force. As long as you have those folks standing behind it and believing in it—which I don’t see why you wouldn’t—there will always be a place for go-go.
You have these New Orleans connections. How many similarities have you seen and how many differences have there been?
Within New Orleans, experiencing a jazz funeral and seeing that you’re not saying goodbye, you’re actually embodying the departed and bringing them back in that moment—it’s made so much of what happens in go-go seem very morbid… At both, you’re going to see them bringing in RIP t-shirts. [At go-gos] you actually want the lead talker to give a shout-out to the person who’s gone. You’re actually wearing [the shirt] and embodying and representing that person. So the themes of death— freedom and death—those are the most elemental themes in black music.
Natalie Hopkinson’s Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City is published by Duke University Press. For more information, check out nataliehopkinson.com