Culture is Free: The Movement Against Gentrification in Washington D.C and the Significance of Go-Go Music Within It.

by Amara Evering

“The Day the Music Died”

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Without knowing any context, without knowing the time and place this girl held this sign, you wouldn’t know that everything in this picture is important to D.C’s movement against gentrification. The MetroPCS store she’s standing in front of is important, the hashtags about Go-Go and culture is important, and the fact that she’s young and black is important. This girl was addressing what just happened: a resident from a newly built luxury condo asked the MetroPCS store to turn off the Go-Go music (local D.C music made by black D.C natives) which has filled its street corner for 20 years. 

This girl is standing in an area called “Shaw” which encompasses Howard University, a historically black University, Howard Theater, and some of what used to be called “Black Broadway.” It’s a historic corner of black life in D.C. The new resident succeeded in his threat to sue the company. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. It has become a trend for newcomers to believe that the neighborhoods and communities they move into should conform to their way of life. Whether it’s a resident who called the police on a Black church because they were being too loud or someone complaining that fireworks around the 4th of July are bothersome, the effects of gentrification on culture are undeniable.

Most of these newcomers are white and moving into predominantly black or latinx neighborhoods. According to Our Changing City, since 2000 white demographics in the city have increased by 50,000 with other demographics significantly trailing behind. The black population has been slowly declining for the past 30 years, with accelerated drops in the past 10 years due to factors such as gentrification. Between 2000 to 2010, the black population had declined in 14 of D.C’s 39 neighborhoods. Because of this, D.C has the most gentrifying neighborhoods in the nation. Ward 2, which includes the Shaw area, has experienced some rapid population grow with almost 13,000 new residents in the past 15 years. However, these new residents, because of demographic and socio-economic differences, are unable or unwilling to assimilate into existing cultural and social networks. So, when newcomers make these complaints about established cultural norms in communities of color and the police or government acquiesces, it draws a bolder picture of racial and economic inequity in D.C. 

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Ruins of Barry Farms. Taken by Sabiyha Prince

“What? You want us to get out of the city and you want us to shut up too? That was like- because they took the music. That resonated deeply with our spirit.”

-Kymone Freeman

I asked D.C native, artist and Howard University professor, Sabiyha Prince, what gentrification in D.C looks like. What I expected was a response about economically driven displacement or a line of statics, but what I got was an emotional rendering of development in one of D.C’s most underserved communities. She told me about what the kids in Barry Farms, a complex of historic government housing in Southeast D.C., did after their houses were torn down. Prince talked to a former resident of Barry Farms who said she saw kids of former residents standing in front of the places that used to be their homes. They had no reason to be there, but groups of them would take the metro to just stand in front of what was familiar. When I heard Princes’ response, I had to ask myself the same question: what does gentrification look like to me?

 I wrote once that it feels like becoming a stranger in your neighborhood. It’s watching friends move out of the city, block parties disappearing, and life becoming unaffordable. For a long time, I could hardly put into words what I felt because it involved things like identity, connection, and belonging. Now I know that we experience gentrification face-to-face as an unfortunate shift in culture that is away from us and toward the unfamiliar. Prince defined culture as an “expression of history, of belonging, of relationships, and identity. And those aren’t small things, those are the things that make people strong, make communities whole, that bind people to each other and reinforce relationships.” 

When I watched a government hearing on Barry Farms, I heard someone repeat a question, “Why are there cranes in the sky for other people, but you want to move me out?” The cranes she was referring to are marks of construction around the city as luxury condos are being built on top of people’s neighborhoods. The DC Chamber of Commerce published a report that explains these socio-economic shifts. The report reads “Between 2009 and 2016, DC lost 4,300 families with incomes under $35,000. Middle-income families—those earning between $35,000 and $100,000—are also on the decline.” Instead, families that make more than $200,000 are rapidly increasing.  After a neighborhood starts to physically look different, the changes come with new faces that represent an unaffordable cost of living. Newcomers, in the mindset of privilege, casually change the infrastructure of neighborhoods, such as turning off music on a street corner that has been playing for two decades. Prince told me that she thinks “the cultural change is rooted in white privilege. So, it feels to me like the ways in which things have been altered, the myriad of shifts that we’re seeing have been geared towards making newcomers comfortable, making them happy, making sure that they stay, and making sure they’re satisfied.” This means changes in architecture, businesses, the way people conduct themselves, and yes, even music. This angered D.C natives because it became evident that their identities and communities are not respected by some newcomers who believe their comfort must be prioritized over the way of life of the collective. Prince went as far as saying the behavior of these new residents reflects settler colonialism. 

So, it’s no surprise that D.C is at a place where Go-Go on a street corner can be seen as an infringement to development. But to understand this outrage, we have to understand Go-Go.

“You put all of that together and Go-Go just says belonging, it just says being black. It just says having a good time and celebrating your roots and ties. Your ties that go all the way back to the continent.”

Sabiyha Prince

Go-go music was birthed by Black DC natives in a time of turmoil. Residents created music from the ruins of the city, whether that was economic ruin (that came with the aftermath of the riots in 1968) or the crack epidemic of the 80s and early 90s. The riots were a response to Dr. Martin Luther King’s death in 1968 and left about 900 businesses damaged and/or destroyed. Increasingly, white residents in the city poured into surrounding suburbs in Maryland and Virginia (also called, “white flight”). In the next decade, crack cocaine had flooded into the city, along with rising homicide rates. From this, black residents that stayed (voluntarily or involuntarily) through blood, desolation, and poverty began congregating under the sounds of Go-Go music. There were many names given to D.C during this period and perhaps two reflect its duality: “Chocolate City” for the large population of black residents at the time (and the richness of the culture that they produced) and “Murder Capitol” during the heat of the crack epidemic. But in terms of what we will be addressing here, violence and poverty are mere backdrops to the living and vibrant communities. 

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Conga and drum player practice. 2010, by Thomas Sayers Ellis

I spoke to Kymone Freeman, a co-creator of WeActRadio, who became familiar with Go-Go as a child. Back then, Go-Go looked like kids beating on buckets outside the metro, clubs filled with young people, and school bands breaking out into funk filled percussion-based beats. Freeman told me that, “It took some youngin’s, the Junkyward Band, who were beating on buckets. It took them around the world. They were kids. [Their] record, the most political go-go record ever recorded was “The Word”: ‘Regan makes bonds, took all the food stamp money and gave it to the Pentagon, W-O-R to the D.’” He understood the music spoke to his identity. There is no one group or person that can be credited for its sound because it was a communal effort. This sound relies on two aspects: the pattern of drumming and the speaker (sometimes called the MC, singer, or rapper). The origins of Go-Go’s beat is also debated, though many residents agree that the genre derives from funk (which was heavily influenced by the ‘Godfather of Go-Go,’ Chuck Brown), African music, Caribbean and Latin sounds. But the key to the distinctive rhythm is a style of drumming which combines the sound of the Conga (an instrument that comes directly from Africa) and a conventional drum kit. What makes Go-Go complex is that the Conga is played between the beats that are made from the drum kit. This contrast is the essential ingredient of Go-Go, though the syncopation and speed of the beat may change with time and different influences. The other ingredient to Go-Go is the speaker who participates in an engaging conversation with the audience and musicians. The voice of the speaker engages in a call and response between the audience and musicians. Go-Go changes in its forms; there is Go-Go that incorporates RnB (what I used to call “emotional Go-Go” growing up), rap, old school funk, and of course call and response. Go-Go is known as an experiential form of music. It was made communally, it is lived communally, and it binds communities. That’s why Go-Go became something that Black D.C natives could rally behind. 

Anwan “Big G” Glover, of the BackYard Band, has become legendary in Go-Go. But like many others he feels that things are changing in D.C:

You have a lot of people moving here that’s not Go-Go friendly. It’s hard to grasp it because the state of D.C is not D.C anymore. It’s not Chocolate City because you have so many people from everywhere. We still here but a lot of people have migrated, a lot of people have left.

What Glover was talking about was the complaints of a new resident about Go-Go on that historic street corner in D.C, which led to what happened on April 8th. Go-Go, because of the circumstances it was created in and who created it, represents the intersection of culture and identity. When it crosses the sticky lines of things like community and blackness, it becomes a means of self acceptance. It’s a representation of black life and a form of accessible rebellion. 

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Picture of Moechella. May 7, 2019. 

“Go-Go has become the wardrums for #DontmuteDC”

-Kymone Freeman

On May 7 more that 3,000 Black residents stood outside the MetroPCS store in an almost agreed solidarity. This was the beginning of the first Moechella in the city, under a movement that is called #DontmuteDC. The corner was crowded with black residents that represented Go-Go through dance and advocacy. Key organizer, Justin ‘Yaddiya’ Johnson used the word Moechella and rally interchangeably, saying that the purpose was to:

Create the platform for people to come and express their concerns and connect with that community. [We wanted] to have a one-on-one connection to the audience, so we could break down certain initiatives in layman’s terms so that it could be easily understood by the community. So, it’s like an open forum for people to express their concerns about different things going on.

 Moechella became an accessible way for D.C natives to express their frustration in a safe space. Discourses on gentrification have often been academic. Apart from members of communities speaking about it amongst themselves, there has been little organization within D.C by those who are experiencing it firsthand. The issue of gentrification in the city has been something that the government has not taken accountability for, rather it’s given the identity of inevitable change. Many residents don’t know that gentrification is something that can be controlled through policy, as well as enabled through policy. Policies connected with historic preservation and/or property tax exemption bills for established local businesses in D.C are seldom used to combat the effects of gentrification. However, privilege and/or tax exemptions are given to external labor and businesses. Small black business owner, Fred Hill, has recently been organizing against these discriminatory practices. 

Some academic networks and local organizations have also unintentionally excluded residents by having these conversations almost abstractly or not meeting residents where they reside. Johnson said that Go-Go music is actually the “glue to create a platform, which are these rallies.” In the creation of Moechella, the gate of discourse opened and residents in the thousands flooded in. 

The Word Moechella

The word Moechella may sound familiar. It is a spin off the name of the music festival Coachella. Because Moechella’s purpose is to mobilize the voice of underserved, black D.C residents reclaimed this festival’s name by adding “Moe.” So what is “Moe?” Moe is a term in D.C slang that is a general word for anyone you’re addressing. Though my perspective is limited and not representative of all black D.C natives, the term “Moe” (like go-go) represents those who created it: black D.C residents. So, in putting the word ‘Moe’ in front of Coachella, residents are almost satirically redefining this festival to show how protest, party, and pride can exist in one refreshing, safe space.

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Picture of Moechella. May 7, 2019.

This thing called Moechella shows how culture is an accessible weapon for the underserved. In theory, culture is free. People can’t displace your memories, they can’t buy out the way you speak, and they can’t redevelop your dance. It is cheap, and for many, it’s the only weapon they have left. 

So, What Happened?

If you’re wondering what happened, the music was turned back on. Then a council member introduced legislation that would make Go-Go the official music of D.C. Some celebrated while there were others unsatisfied. You may ask, “I mean, they turned the Go-Go back on, wasn’t that what this was all about?” No, not really. More Moechellas have been popping up around the city, as residents begin to organize. 

When I saw the remnants of a street corner and a crane growing out of its ruin, I didn’t have to look too far to see “GENTRIFIED” in giant spray-painted letters beside it. I had never seen that before. I looked in awe outside my window, feeling the same thing I felt when I passed through the ending of a Moechella rally, seeing high schoolers congregate on heavily gentrified street corners. The word “GENTRIFIED” had been painted over the next week, politicians chose to reduce Moechella to being just about Go-Go, and people are still testifying at government hearings just to keep their enterprises and/or homes. But, the biggest reward if you ask me, was witnessing a new sort of audacity rise up in D.C.

Amara Evering is senior Creative Writing and Sociology major from Emory University.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

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