• Feature

Washington DC natives fight displacement and cultural erasure to the beat of go-go music

A go-go music revival is celebrating Washington D.C.'s historic black culture and helping to fuel a movement for racial and economic justice.
#DontMuteDC supporters gathered outside Donald Campbell’s store in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood . (Photo by Tomi Gunz, Courtesy of Tony Lewis Jr.)

After Thursday’s historic congressional hearing on whether Washington, D.C. should become the 51st state, hundreds of D.C. residents paraded through the streets of the nation’s capital to the blasting beat of go-go — the funk-inspired music that has shaped the city’s culture of resistance for decades.

While the hearing marked the first time in 25 years that a House committee has publicly reviewed a bill for D.C. statehood, the crowds that marched to the National Mall on Sept. 19 were celebrating something bigger. They were gathered for the “Million Moe March,” one of the latest musical protests in a broader struggle for racial and economic justice in the district.

Using the D.C. slang of “moe” for friend, the march aimed to draw attention to the epidemic of gun violence in the city, with survivors and City Council members speaking to the crowd. It emphasized the important role that D.C. statehood would play in allowing the district to assert local control in addressing community problems. Currently, the city government doesn’t hold jurisdiction over the local laws or budget — let alone have a representative who can vote in Congress. The march also featured well-known rapper and D.C. native Wale, as well as popular local artists like Backyard Band and a marching band from nearby Eastern High School.

“We wanted to do a tribute to the lives that have been lost and to create a spectacle for people to see that we are all standing against this,” said march organizer and D.C.-based music producer Justin “Yaddiya” Johnson, who has organized go-go rallies with thousands of attendees as part of a broader initiative called Long Live Go Go since 2017. “We also want to be a beacon of hope for the community, to preserve and sustain the culture.”

The Million Moe March is only the latest mass mobilization for what has become a strategic and creative movement of cultural resistance fighting against the displacement of native Washingtonians. Employing diverse tactics — from large-scale cultural events to targeted policy campaigns — the movement has engaged a wide range of stakeholders, including children, professors, performing artists, community organizations, faith leaders and government officials.

Importantly, it has also been gaining serious momentum in recent months. Much of that stems from an incident in April, when residents in a new luxury apartment complex in one of D.C.’s fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods complained about the go-go music that was playing on a popular street corner, forcing the music to go silent. Pretty quickly, however, the hashtag #DontMuteDC emerged in response, becoming both a rallying cry for the movement, as well as a symbol of resistance to displacement around the country.

Longtime D.C. organizer and activist Ronald “Mo” Moten is a leader of the #DontMuteDC movement. (Smithsonian Rinzler Archives/Xueying Chang)

“People from all over the country have called, saying that they’re going through the same thing and that this is an inspiration to them to fight,” said Ronald Moten, a veteran D.C. cultural and political activist and a leader of #DontMuteDC.

For years, D.C. activists have been using go-go music as a symbol of resistance. But momentum is now building at a faster pace, from Yaddiya’s go-go rallies to the #DontMuteDC campaign to the statehood hearing. The movement’s broader vision — using music as a tool to preserve culture and reclaim space — is needed now more than ever, as communities of color fight to preserve their rights in the face of rapid gentrification. It is only fitting that Washington, D.C. — the country’s first predominantly African-American metropolis — would emerge as a leader in this struggle.

The birth of #DontMuteDC

Go-go has served as a symbol for D.C.’s black culture since its birth in the 1970s, but the music has been dying out for decades in the face of ongoing gentrification — along with false accusations that it incites violence or is linked to crime.

“The music was getting marginalized,” said Natalie Hopkinson, an assistant professor at Howard University who has researched the social history of go-go music for years. “The people who love go-go were getting pushed out [of the city].”

Embed from Getty Images

Donald Campbell, who owns the cellphone shop that was forced to turn off its music after neighborhood complaints, saw that go-go music was fading and wanted to preserve the culture of the community. Campbell was a club owner in the 1990s, and after the club closed down he decided to keep the music going as a business owner. He began to develop one of the most extensive collections of live go-go recordings in the world — almost 30,000 tapes and CDs — and has displayed the collection in his shop, Central Communications, for over two decades. Campbell has also amplified the music outside his storefront from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day since 1995, making the beats blasting at the intersection of Florida Avenue and 7th Street a hallmark of Shaw, one of D.C.’s most gentrified neighborhoods.

“If you were a student at Howard University for the last 24 years, you knew this corner,” Campbell said. “This was like a landmark. If you get off the Metro and say, ‘Where’s Howard University?’ People will say, ‘Go up past the music one block.’”

So when T-Mobile, the shop’s parent company, forced Campbell to silence the music after neighbors threatened a lawsuit, the community’s response was overwhelming. Moten and Hopkinson gathered 80,000 signatures on a petition to save the music. Julien Broomfield, then a student at Howard University, coined the hashtag #DontMuteDC, which quickly went viral. Yaddiya and other artists organized a series of musical protests and go-go rallies, drawing crowds of neighbors, go-go artists and City Council members to the corner of 14th and U Streets NW in front of the Reeves Municipal Center, which used to have an underground go-go club known as Club U that was eventually shut down.

“When we saw that our petition got 80,000 signatures [and that] a lot of the people were white, we were like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of people — black and white — who think this is wrong,’” Moten said. “And that’s good, because sometimes you give up hope when you don’t know that.”

The issue made national headlines, and the day after the public outcry began, John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, tweeted that “the music should NOT stop in D.C.!” reversing the decision to silence go-go. The announcement was met with widespread celebration in the community.

“We were the spark plug,” Campbell said. “I’m so appreciative of the customers and #DontMuteDC responding the way they did. This was a light that needed to be ignited a long time ago, but we just sparked go-go being relevant again.”

Strategic campaigns secure local victories

After the initial spark, activists wanted to use this momentum to make lasting policy change by advancing a series of issue-specific campaigns tied to urgent local issues. Moten has organized bi-weekly community meetings with #DontMuteDC in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, which have given the movement a sense of power and direction amid the more celebratory mobilizations, like concerts and street rallies.

On May 24, #DontMuteDC organized a rally called Go-Go For Justice, demanding the city restore funding to United Medical Center, or UMC, the only hospital in two underserved wards of Southeast D.C., as well as 31 schools that faced budget cuts in 2020. Organizers’ demands also included the implementation of a city-wide curriculum about D.C.’s history and go-go culture at all schools that receive public funds. The rally featured local go-go artists as well as faith leaders and members of the D.C. Nurses Association, and activists encouraged those who could not attend to call and email the City Council before the final vote. Ultimately, the council voted to restore vital operating funds in the short term, though plans still remain to close UMC in 2023.

A #DontMuteDC flyer (#DontMuteDC)

#DontMuteDC continued with more strategic actions throughout the summer. On July 31, organizers held an emergency meeting in Anacostia to address gun violence after the shooting of an 11-year-old boy named Karon Brown. A week later, on August 8, activists organized a petition and drew over 1,000 people for a rally to protest the property developer who backed out of plans to develop a halfway house, or residential re-entry center, for men returning from prison.

“It’s incredible that this is happening, to get a thousand people rallying on the side of a highway on a weekday, talking about why we need halfway houses,” Hopkinson said. “It’s shifting people’s perceptions of who can engage in policy. Now our task is just to continue tapping into the grassroots energy so we can keep it going.”

There have been a number of large-scale rallies and cultural events organized in coordination with these strategic campaigns. Yaddiya, who previously organized campaigns against the Amplified Noise Amendment, convened a go-go concert called Moechella that stopped traffic at 14th and U Streets. Over 3,000 people turned out to Moechella in May, including City Council members, teachers unions and other community actors.

“I always wanted to use music to give my community a voice,” Yaddiya said. “This is a movement. So I said, ‘We’ve gotta keep doing it. Just doing it one time would almost be an insult to the community, so we’ve gotta keep this ongoing.”

Activists have a long history of blending go-go and politics in the district. In the latest wave, local organizers have held a range of events, from yoga classes to twerk lessons. They held an award ceremony to honor the “First Ladies of Go-Go,” and released a single called “Don’t Mute DC.” The go-go renaissance even caught the attention of the BET music awards, which opened the televised ceremony in June with a tribute to D.C.’s go-go music.

Building a movement of movements

#DontMuteDC has built solidarity with other communities around the country, particularly with organizers and music artists in Atlanta and New Orleans. In fact, an off-shoot movement called #DontMuteNewOrleans sprang up this summer after a white shopkeeper called the police on a local brass band playing music in the street, leading to one man’s arrest.

In the wake of this development, #DontMuteDC decided to sponsor a Battle of the Bands that took place in D.C. last weekend, featuring a brass band from New Orleans. There was also a cook-off between chefs from both cities and a panel discussion entitled “The Sound of Chocolate Cities: Exploring Gentrification through Music and Culture.” Organizers used the events to forge a stronger connection between the movements and build support for communities facing displacement around the country.

Meanwhile, #DontMuteDC has also been busy collaborating with local groups opposing gentrification — namely Empower D.C. and Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE) D.C. Both are leading grassroots organizations working to prevent displacement in the district.

Embed from Getty Images

“I have to make it bigger than myself or the five people who started #DontMuteDC, or it will fade out,” Moten said. “Five people alone can’t change policy and get people to understand how to exercise their rights and practice citizenship in their community.”

The movement has indeed continued to grow, and it has contributed to the emergence of a true movement-of-movements for the rights of D.C. residents. From an August tenant victory against the Catholic Church to efforts to preserve historic black-owned businesses to the ongoing campaign to save the city’s first historic African American neighborhood from re-development, #DontMuteDC is one powerful actor among many, working to support each other’s efforts. In many ways, including the Million Moe March, it also connects with the wider struggle for D.C. statehood and the ongoing struggle for D.C. residents to exercise their full rights as citizens.

Go-go as a powerful symbol of culture and unity

The movement has succeeded in unifying and mobilizing people to take action, largely because go-go music is such a compelling symbol of D.C. identity and shared history.

“It really is one of the best things to happen to go-go,” Hopkinson said. “This movement has brought energy and new awareness about go-go among people who never knew what it is before.”

One outcome, beyond the initiative to teach go-go in schools, has been the increased support in the city to begin formally recognizing the importance of go-go to D.C. history and culture. Go-go music and #DontMuteDC were featured in the Smithsonian Folklife Fest on the National Mall this June, which focused on “The Social Power of Music.” This also led to a “D.C. Music Preservation Pop-Up,” with a booth playing live go-go recordings led by DJ Nico Hobson.

Hobson told the crowd at the Folklife Fest that the power of listening to go-go live derives from the central role of the audience in shaping the music itself. The lead “talker” in a go-go band will call out local neighborhoods who will call back a response, creating a participatory process of shaping the music together with those in the crowd.

There have been other results of the movement in revitalizing go-go. Washington D.C.’s non-voting representative in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, introduced a resolution honoring musical icon and “Godfather of Go-Go,” Chuck Brown. The resolution would establish a holiday called Chuck Brown Day to honor his contributions to shaping the music and D.C. heritage.

Embed from Getty Images

Meanwhile, Councilmember Kenyan R. McDuffie has introduced legislation that would make go-go the official music of D.C. The law would require D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to implement a program supporting and preserving go-go music in recognition of how it represents the lived experience of native Washingtonians.

In addition to policies that recognize go-go’s significance, the movement has elevated the importance of go-go at the community level, as seen in the viral video of a neighborhood mailman teaching kids outside the Metro PCS store how to do a go-go dance called the “hee-haw.” Young people and artists have gotten more engaged in the music through the movement, contributing to this sense of the genre’s rebirth. The popular go-go band Rare Essence even held its first concert in 30 years in Fort Dupont Park last month.

“Go-go is a symbol of D.C. culture, like jazz music in [New Orleans] or trap music in Atlanta,” Yaddiya said. “We can use the music as a tool of communication to the community, to inspire them to be more active and also preserve and sustain the culture.”

Going forward, the movement will keep engaging people in cultural events and rallies, and organizers hope to inspire more people to join bands and pick up instruments to keep the culture thriving. But the movement will also continue to drive policy in the city by concentrating on “displacement-free zones,” and engaging people in the preservation of D.C.’s culture and history.

“We have always known that go-go music is resistance music,” Hopkinson said. “Just the fact that it exists and has persevered through all these attacks. But now more people know that this is a really powerful stream of American culture we’re tapping into.”

Recent Stories

  • Long Read

Think #MeToo didn’t make a real difference? Think again

and Paul Engler
November 28, 2023

It takes effort to track the impacts of mass mobilizations like #MeToo, Occupy or Black Lives Matter, but understanding social change is impossible without such work.

  • Analysis

How incarcerated people are helping at-risk youth avoid prison

November 22, 2023

By sharing our lived experiences, I have seen how incarcerated people can stop the pipeline funneling troubled teens to prison.

  • Analysis

Bayard Rustin knew that winning required a team

November 17, 2023

As the new ‘Rustin’ biopic shows, the great organizer of the 1963 March on Washington was always working to join more people together in the struggle for greater justice and peace.

  • Analysis

Cease fire, not aid

November 13, 2023