Editor’s Note: In this latest installment of the IASPM-US Interview Series, Natalie Hopkinson chats with Dorothy Berry about Go-Go Live, Hopkinson’s exploration of the infamous yet somewhat secret DC genre. We’re cross-posting this as an installment in our monthly series, “The (Sometimes) Political Machinations of Popular Music,” as Hopkinson and Berry discuss both the politics that are central to go-go as a genre and the politics of studying a music scene that prefers to keep to itself.
Go-Go Live: The Musical Life & Death of a Chocolate City (Duke 2012), by Natalie Hopkinson, explores the past, present and future of Black Washington, D.C., via its signature sound, go-go. Go-go is a very local musical form of black popular music influenced by funk, salsa, the blues, reggae, and hip-hop. But through the frame of the author’s Caribbean identity, the book explores the music’s uncanny links to black experience around the world. It is striking how American political and economic systems, as well as local geography and urban history, are all mapped on to the music. Go-Go Live considers local fashion lines, dance movements, the ever-shifting constellation of record stores and venues, and the fading spaces in Washington, D.C. as Chocolate City fades to black, and the music finds new life in far-flung suburbs. Go-go music is the perfect metaphor for the life and death of Chocolate Cities all over the United States. This project began as a series of articles published in the Washington Post’s Style section.
Dorothy Berry: Throughout Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, you discus the identity culture around Go-Go, the political culture, and even provide some textual analysis, but you never really get deep into a description of the musical sound itself. Was this a conscious decision?
Natalie Hopkinson: It was a conscious decision in the sense that I realized that this was happening. I was talking all around the music, the context, history, people’s life stories, geography—all of that. But it is sort of an admission that it is very, very hard to describe what happens in a go-go.
I quoted one of the kids at a school to ask how one would describe it. Their response: You can’t. It is sort of one of those indescribable things. So I did what I could.
I actually thought it worked out quite well. An undergraduate here asked to borrow your book while he was reviewing a Go-Go album, and when he asked why there weren’t more musical descriptions, my first response is “Well, you have the album, how would you describe it!”
He couldn’t do it right? Also, one of the great things about go-go, it is not really well described even in a recording. As the British director Don Letts said, it is even too hot for celluloid. It is an experience. It isn’t just a sound. You can’t really divorce it from the context and energy and movements swirling with it and around it. I mean, it isn’t well-conveyed in a recording.
Exactly. That is a good transition to my next question! Chuck Brown’s songs are described as capturing what’s happening. Do you think the localized nature of Go-go has made it more of a likely vehicle for being what Chuck D. described as “the CNN of the ghetto?” while still keeping it a DMV party style music, and not a style that transitioned towards, say, a “conscious-rapper/backpacker” genre.
To clarify, do you feel that the incredibly regional aspect of Go-Go has helped it to balance real talk about urban life and real music for just getting down to, in a way that isn’t often seen in more national genres (there isn’t much “conscious rap” that’s good to twerk to).
Yes, haha. I do think it is an even more authentic “black CNN” because there is no outside gaze. There aren’t the record companies and the handlers. It’s not even mediated through a studio and recording. It is a live, in-the-moment, real-time expression of “What’s Happening.” It’s a negotiation between all the people in that room that make the music what it is. So it is not a one-way conversation.
The lack of an outside gaze is something that has always interested me about Go-Go. I don’t think, until I read this book, I could necessarily identify any Go-Go outside of Chuck Brown, but I did know of Go-Go as that DMV music.
The outside gaze concept reminds me of something else that really stuck out to me. Go-Go Nico was a really engaging and fascinating figure. I was especially interested in his, sadly negative, experience with the folklore students who made some documentary about him? Do you have any more information on that, or about his experience with them?
Yes. Nico is amazing. You know, his mother is a Ph.D. When she moved to Alaska when he was a teenager, he chose foster care so that he could stay in the Chocolate City. So he’s been on his own for most of his life and estranged from his family. He is one of my favorite people in the world.
So, to talk about the folklore student, Nico was mild compared to most of the go-go scene. Outsiders are shunned. There is a reason you never heard anything beyond Chuck Brown. The go-go scene likes to keep it all to itself. It was a big struggle for me to get access. I had a whole chapter about that in the dissertation version of the book.
There are race divisions, class divisions, and then as a member of the Washington Post, I was seen as “The Enemy.” I eventually overcame a lot of it, but I am not considered part of the go-go community. I did a panel discussion at the Congressional Black Caucus last week and a woman came to interview me. She jokingly said “How you gon’ write a book about OUR music.” But she was serious and that is pretty much the norm. I am no hero, haha!
I think that is a pretty common problematic in popular music studies/ethnomusicology/folklore in general. I was intrigued by the folklore student example because I’ve seen people in my department who I could see doing the exact same thing! Living cultures present a challenge in that they run completely opposite to that academic urge to view everyone as “subjects” and “case studies.” Nobody wants to be called a subject!
Exactly. It is a difficult line to walk. I did most of my coursework in Ethnomusicology and I also studied Life History research in American Studies. I really, really appreciated those texts we read because they dealt with the ethics of life writing in a way that the field of journalism has not done to this day. The basic exchange is problematic. I get a book, I get my name out there, but what does Nico get? You hope that it contributes to the body of knowledge, but I am also thinking about ways to give back. One of my ideas is to get some funding so he can digitize his whole collection.
I also had another research partner, Kato Hammond, who I also did extensive interviews with. Once I asked him a question and he said to me: “I don’t know!! Black people, we just do. White people, they the ones trying to analyze everything, write down everything.” I resolved this in my mind because it is important. Both on the basic level of making sure go-go is appreciated for its contributions, and also the meta level. Go-go is about being recognized. It’s about having a voice. One thing that academic work does is make sure these ideas are available to scholars for generations.
Natalie Hopkinson is a former writer and editor with the Washington Post and The Root, and is currently a fellow with the Interactivity Foundation, where she directs the Future of the Arts & Society public policy discussion project as well as the IF…Urban Initiative. She earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from Howard University and her PhD from the University of Maryland-College Park. She is also the co-author, with Natalie Y. Moore, of Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation (Cleis Press, 2006).
Dorothy Berry is a second year dual masters student in ethnomusicology and library science at IU-Bloomington. Her research focuses on the commodification of race in turn-of-the-century African American musical theater and on creating functional, accessible performing arts archives. She also performs as an indie-musician under the moniker Dorothy and the Originals.