How a Celebration of Go-Go Music Became a Scapegoat For Violence in D.C.

Written by on July 3, 2022

On a warm afternoon in June, crowds in Northwest D.C. celebrated Juneteenth by filling the air with the sounds of drums, toms, and voices, singing throughout the streets. I’m speed walking to catch my train home in order to spend the last few hours of Father’s day with my dad, himself a drummer, who just lost his oldest child and only son, my brother, unexpectedly that Monday. I zoom past the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where I’d spent part of my morning with Pharrell, recapping his second Something In The Water festival, which took place the same weekend. Despite being pressed for time, a sound distinct to the area brings me to a sudden halt: A crowd is dancing to live go-go.

Here, the rich history and culture that museums and music festivals hoped to cultivate played out in real-time. I wonder, briefly, if should just catch a different train and get home a little later. I choose my dad, but the sound is so enticing that when I arrive at my parents’, I play a Youtube jam session of go-go songs for my dad and recap my weekend. A few songs into BYB Jamz Session Volume 2 he falls into a peaceful sleep.

Later that evening, on 14th and U street, a shooting that left four people injured and resulted in the death of fifteen-year-old Chase Poole would mark an otherwise joyous weekend with tragedy. Quickly, media outlets began connecting the shooting to a festival known as Moechella. The narrative placed blame on the grassroots event, which was founded as a celebration of the city’s Black cultural expression, due to what critics described as improper planning — in particular, the event’s lack of permits. “Gunfire at D.C. Music Festival,” The New York Times reported.

In a statement on Instagram, Moechella’s founder Justin Johnson stated, “We are deeply saddened by the tragedies that occurred in the hours following Moechella on June 19th, 2022. We send our condolences to the victims and their families affected by this senseless tragedy.”

Despite how national news outlets spun the narrative, Moechella functions as an event for the people and by the people. The name is a brilliant play on words. The prefix derives from the DMV area’s multi-purpose pronoun “Moe.” Its suffix comes, of course, from a certain well-known music festival in California. “The name Moechella came about as a juxtaposition and parody of the major pop festivals, specifically Coachella, which have become party grounds for the rich and famous, unaffordable for the average D.C. resident,” Johnson tells Rolling Stone.“It’s always free for the community and continues to uplift the voice of the disenfranchised, advocating for D.C. statehood and encouraging the Black community to vote.”

moechella 2022 washington dc

Moechella 2022

Johnnel Kyri

Johnson, who is also the founder of the organization Long Live go-go, draws from both his background as an activist throughout D.C. and a musician (he raps under the name “Yaddiya.”) His previous demonstrations, which were held on federal grounds and without a permit, hosted notable entertainers like Kamau Bell, Kathy Griffin and Rosie O’Donnell, who all came out in support of speaking out against the government during the era of Trump. “I knew the stigma that go-go had attached to it, so our response to that [2019] situation was to intentionally name Moechella as ‘peaceful demonstrations,” he said.

When it first started, in the spring of 2019, it was a response to white gentrifiers’ attempts to silence go-go music on the corner of Florida Avenue and 7th Avenue. The area, which had recently seen the rise of luxury buildings, had always been a “noisy,” mecca where go-go music could be heard pouring into the streets, especially at the corner where the T-Mobile Metro PC store was located with its loudspeakers. But after Shaw neighborhood’s new neighbors complained to the T-Mobile corporation about volume, the store was forced to turn off its speakers and the avenue went silent. As a result, D.C. natives came with more “noise” and a hashtag #DontMuteDC.

In the first year of the demonstration, go-go bands like TOB and Mental Attraction came out to play music in protest and support. The event was stationary on 14th and U street, where the live go-go bands cranked on a flatbed truck. Then there was 2020, which had the biggest turnout, when demonstrators marched from Black Lives Matter Plaza during the George Floyd protests that summer. Johnson estimated about 40,000 people came out. The demonstration had no permit and like every year, the police were in attendance, blocking off the streets. There were no issues.

In the four years that Moechella has been in existence, this year’s tragic act of violence has been the only negative incident. Many in attendance, including Johnson, said the shooting happened once the demonstration was already over and the music had been packed up. The event has never held a permit because as Johnson understood from his White House protests, peacefully protesting by way of art is his and the community’s First Amendment right. 

Moechella is not a once-a-year type of protest. It continues throughout the course of the year, using its platform to play go-go but most importantly to educate and spread awareness about its mission: peace within the community, supporting D.C.’s fight for statehood (which would allow its residents, many of whom are Black, representation in Congress) and the importance of voting. This Juneteenth demonstration, which focused on voting that Tuesday for the Primary Mayoral election, was no different.

“Having a permit is not a solution to gun violence,” Natalie Hopkinson a Howard professor and author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, says. “These [Moechella, go-go bands, and their audiences] are victims too, how did they become the perpetrators? Somehow go-go becomes the main character villain and this has been for decades. And the Conga players are like what? I was just playing the Congas. If you’re going to hold someone accountable, how about holding the structures that have made guns proliferate and protected them accountable. How about we hold accountable the person who pulled the trigger, where was their permit?”

Moechella has even been supported and advertised by government agencies and officials. That same weekend, the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio was hosted on DC’s WTTG-TV’s morning show promoting the different attractions taking place in the area. With much enthusiasm, he told the D.C. community: “In addition to ‘Something In the Water’ and the Nationals, Moechella is doing an event at 14th and U, which is free and open to the public.”

“It was backed by officials but if you look at the flyer, it was co-sponsored by at least two D.C. agencies, the Housing Finance Agency which is independent but a government agency and 202 Creates, which is under the mayor,” said Janeese Lewis George a D.C. councilmember for Ward Four. “The Deputy Mayor obviously knew about it too, everyone in government knew about it.”

The flyer that Lewis George is referring to has both the logo for the Housing Finance Agency and the 202 Creates logo underneath it. 202 Creates logo also appears on a flyer for a May Moechella demonstration, which was held in Leimert Park in Los Angeles for the second year, and was also a free event that advocated the music but also and again their mission: D.C. statehood. On both flyers, the words “Peaceful Demonstration” is printed clearly. 

“There’s a long, troubled history of associating go-go music with crime and gun violence and blaming the music for causing the violence, which is simply not the case,” Lewis George adds. “go-go is about D.C. pride, Black pride, and joy. Music has always been a unifier, we have always used go-go to mitigate crime and bring peace to neighborhoods and that’s what Moechella is all about.” 

Rolling Stone reached out to HFA, 202Creates, and the Mayor’s office for comment but has not received a response.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - JUNE 19 : Groups gather in Black Lives Matter Plaza for the Million Moe March on Saturday, June 19, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Participants marched from downtown DC, alongside the Moechella truck playing go-go, to the U Street Corridor in a march aimed at promoting equity and justice.(Photo by Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post via Getty Images) https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/juneteenth-celebration-washington-region/2021/06/19/49afa57e-d101-11eb-8cd2-4e95230cfac2_story.html

Groups gather in Black Lives Matter Plaza for the Million Moe March on Saturday, June 19, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Participants marched from downtown DC, alongside the Moechella truck playing go-go, to the U Street Corridor in a march aimed at promoting equity and justice.

manda Voisard/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Go-go, which was founded in the Sixties by Chuck Brown, is the fusion of funk, soul, jazz, R&B, African rhythms, gospel, and even Latin Music (Chuck Brown was a musician for the Los Latinos before forming his own band). But for the past few decades, go-go has been scrutinized at the legislative level, which is not a new phenomenon. Black folks drumming in America has always been a mix of community bonding and education, spirituality and expression, and protest and resistance and because of that, it has been regulated as early as 1739 when drumming was banned in South Carolina for its “enticing” slave rebellions.

D.C. is known colloquially as the “Chocolate City,” thanks to its large, and diverse Black populace. Even amidst concerns over gentrification, many of its politicians are Black. Yet, classism and ageism seem to play major roles in the strict policies that impacted go-go music, and some D.C. natives feel that its regulation and tie to violence has both historically and currently been done to appease white gentrifiers. 

Not only were there curfews but the city came down hard on many venues whenever tragedy struck. According to Hopkinson, venues would lose their liquor licenses immediately or have to pay thousands of dollars in fines that they could not afford. As a result, venues were not willing to take the risk of hosting go-go events, forcing the genre underground. This issue would persist well into the 2010s, a time when D.C. rappers were also coming on the rise with the likes of artists like Wale and Shy Glizzy, who both incorporate go-go in their music.

“When we were coming up, there were kiddie cabarets but kids were being killed and robbed and they started shutting more venues down, so the crowd dwindled down and then people were saying ‘I don’t fuck with go-go no more,” said Christopher Proctor lead rapper and vocalist for TOB, a go-go band who got its start back in 2003 when its members were in middle school. The band played at Moechella in Los Angeles, worked with Wale, and performed on Juneteenth at Something In The Water. “The government really turned against go-go because they didn’t want to see Black gatherings, so they shut the venues down and they started putting limitations on where we could play at.”

Despite the crackdown, and despite the eagerness to blame violence on go-go, the genre is making more strides than ever, thanks to the relentless advocacy of its fans, and a few notable supporters joining the fight. For one, acts like Backyard Band, TOB and Reaction performed at Pharrell’s Something In The Water festival and participated in a panel discussion with the rapper/producer to discuss go-go and its impact on the world. 

“It was a surreal experience and something I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life,” says Proctor. “Us playing at Something In The Water could potentially spark something, this shows that the world is watching and we have to capitalize and use our resources. The world doesn’t give go-go its flowers enough but I fuck with Pharrell because Pharell understands the culture, he understands the music, he understands this is something we can take around the world.” 

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