When the late, great sage of urban planning Jane Jacobs wrote evocatively about a city’s “sidewalk ballet” in 1961, she could not have imagined the viral scene currently making its rounds on social media: In the video clip, which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, a dozen black schoolchildren surround a D.C. corner store. The voice of Chuck Brown, the “Godfather of Go-Go”—D.C. ’s indigenous brand of funk music—blasts through loudspeakers installed above the door of the store. A postal worker has paused his deliveries to get down to the serious business of orchestrating the group. His hands rise and fall with the majesty of Carlos Kleiber, but to a hopped-up beat commanded by conga drums. “Shake it now, shake it now,” Chuck croons. Kids rise and fall all around him like popping kernels of corn.
It’s a scene of pure, unscripted joy, the kind of scene I have been privileged to witness on a daily basis for the past two decades I have been living near Shaw, the neighborhood where Central Communications sells go-go music and prepaid MetroPCS mobile phones on that corner. The tweet went viral, though, because gentrifiers in a nearby luxury apartment building looked at scenes like this and saw not joy but noise, not neighbors but blight. Noting that T-Mobile acquired MetroPCS in October, they initiated a campaign to corporate headquarters. T-Mobile ordered the store to silence the music. The muting of the music led to a ferocious response led by the local community that is guaranteed to resonate in the weeks and months to come.
At this intersection of Georgia Avenue and the historically segregated U Street corridor, just a few blocks from Tally’s Corner, the site of an iconic 1967 urban ethnography of black street corner men, we have yet another on-the-nose metaphor for the city dubbed by cultural anthropologist Sabiyha Prince as “Washington, District of Gentrification.” A recent national study showed D.C. has been the most aggressively whitened city in the nation in the past two decades, and this location, steps from the Shaw/Howard University Metro station, is ground zero. Changes in the city (which, as it happens, a team of faculty and graduate students in Howard University’s department of communication, culture, and media studies, where I teach, has been researching for five years) reflect the ways that urban markets amplify the cultural erasure that gentrification brings to cities. The Central Communications debacle should be a lesson to anyone who cares about the future of cities.
I am not a D.C. native, but as someone who has been writing about go-go for nearly 20 years, I have felt the sting of white privilege at the intersection of where ignorance about D.C.
history meets arrogance. At a launch event for my 2012 book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, a customer at the Politics and Prose bookstore in nearly all-white upper Northwest demanded that the store turn off the music that was part of my presentation. Like T-Mobile, the then-owner of the bookstore immediately capitulated. (This rage-inducing audacity at least led to a great headline in the Awl: “Funk Terrifies White Woman.”) A couple of years later, I was speaking at a panel on gentrification at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the center’s vice president smirkingly introduced my work studying go-go, quite literally, as a punch line. “I don’t know how people in life get research projects like go-go,” he told the audience, leading them in hearty chuckles. “I don’t know what these grants are,” he said.
What is it about go-go that makes white folks so uncomfortable? As I told the audience that day, if an art form is practiced by skinny white girls en pointe, or by rotund Italian men with booming tenors, only the most anti-intellectual ignoramus would dare question their value as areas of inquiry. But when they look the way go-go artists do—usually young, black, and male, and wielding multiple layers of percussion, including cowbells and, occasionally, plastic buckets—not so much. Ultimately it speaks to the place of the go-go community itself: devalued, criminalized, silenced. Pushed even deeper into the margins from which it was born: late-1960s Washington, discarded by policymakers and investors for decades, burned out and scarred by the uprisings following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
My greatest fear is that this vital history and culture will ultimately be erased. Can go-go survive outside the city in which it was born and thrived for decades as a community art form and a network of black-owned businesses? Like the black church, go-go has never been officially sanctioned and therefore controlled by powerful white institutions. It has survived for four decades by repeatedly proving its worth to the community and passing around a hat.
That is what connects go-go to historically undervalued people and cultures across the black diaspora. These cultural entrepreneurs and musicians are the folks who continue to make a life and living out of black expression, despite these economic, social, and cultural signs that all point to one thing: don’t.
Donald Campbell, who owns Central Communications, is one of those cultural entrepreneurs. He owned several go-go clubs in the U Street area in the 1990s and 2000s. All had fantastical lives and spectacular deaths. His store at the corner of 7th and Florida Avenue (which turns into U Street just west) was his most recent, and perhaps his last bricks-and-mortar act in D.C.
Starting in 1995, he sold pagers and go-go cassettes there, and later CDs. When he saw the market changing, he decided to supplement his income by getting into the cellphone business. He sold prepaid mobile plans by carriers such as Boost Mobile, MetroPCS, and the like, and called his business Central Communications. The dismantling of affordable housing across the city hit his customer base hard. But they still faithfully came to his store, fighting traffic and parking tickets to pay their bills. As the fancy restaurants opened around him, many of those service workers came to him before or after their shifts to pay their cellphone bills. Part of what has made his business successful was the ongoing need to serve working-class city residents. No doubt, many of his clients were also drawn by the booming sounds of go-go music that came out of store speakers.
As the neighborhood added high-price condos and housing, a cavalry of officers from the fire and police agencies descended on Central Communications regularly, checking to see that his decibel levels were within legal range. One day in March, in the wake of a letter-writing campaign by residents of the nearby condos, Campbell got a surprise visit from a high-level T-Mobile executive. (Like the gentry who invaded U Street seeking to explore a new market with lower costs, T-Mobile has invaded the prepaid mobile market whose lower rates target a working-class consumer base.) Later, he was told to turn off the music outside the store.
The community noticed. First came a viral tweet about the “yt” neighbors killing the music. Our “Don’t Mute DC Go-Go Music and Culture” petition drew 65,000 signatures. Next came musical protests. Emergency town hall meetings. Press conferences and lots of bad press. On Wednesday, T-Mobile CEO John Legere (somewhat) capitulated: “I’ve looked into this issue myself and the music should NOT stop in D.C.,” he benevolently tweeted. “The music will go on and our dealer will work with the neighbors to compromise volume.” None of us elected John Legere D.C.’s sound police. And it’s hard for me to imagine compromise when one side is anonymously calling the police and, according to Campbell, threatening lawsuits behind the other party’s back. Still, if all of this leads to a sit-down in which everyone airs their concerns face to face, human to human, anything is possible.
Campbell himself is eager to make peace with the neighbors and get on with his business. “I am thankful for the support that organizers and everyone in the community has given me to bring this to life,” he told me hours after Legere’s tweet. He noted that the hundreds of protesters coming to the store could not patronize his music collection because they don’t have CD players. So he has decided to use his collection of upward of 30,000 live go-go recordings to set up on online subscription service. He set up a GoFundMe page to raise the money to get it started. “I want to preserve the music,” he said.
Cities and corporations need Becky in the condos. But they also need the postman who spends his break jamming to Chuck Brown. Cities are complex organisms, with many nuances and constantly moving parts. We need workers, and we need entrepreneurs. We need people who pay a lot of taxes, and we need people who work in service. Everyone deserves a place. Everyone’s presence is required.
And if you try to cancel a whole culture, there will be hell to pay.