Tale of two sounds: Go-Go and punk in the Nation’s Capital

Neighborhoods that lay along the green line and the red line are very different; their respective counties, Prince George’s and Montgomery have distinct histories, cultures, and populations.
Maleke Glee
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Neighborhoods that lay along the green line and the red line are very different; their respective counties, Prince George’s and Montgomery have distinct histories, cultures, and populations. However, the District brings these ends of the region together, often around culture. For Black D.C. natives and Prince Georgians, go-go was the de-facto sound before Mayor Muriel Bowser legislated it as the “Official Music of D.C.” in February. 

Go-go holds relevance in D.C. because it’s the soundtrack to parts of the city not often observed by tourists, or afforded equitable attention by the city government.  

Since its inception in the 1970s, the poly-rhythmic percussive sound has sonically represented the once Chocolate City. Go-go was inescapable as it played in clubs, schools, recreation centers, and even barbershops. It was the sound of Black D.C. As gentrification pushed out much of the native Black population, the go-go scene adjusted and continues to maneuver a new landscape.

At this moment, given the #DontMuteDC Movement, Moechella, and the newly debuted Go-Go Museum and Café, go-go is getting much overdue attention. For the genre’s creators, this attention needs to be matched with stabilizing city funding and legislation. The city has placed challenges on go-go’s development, namely in club restrictions that severed bands’ relationships with venues. 

Meanwhile, D.C.’s punk scene echoes from the city expanding throughout Montgomery County. Punk music was introduced in the late 1970s with immediate reception. Its roots reflect the global trend in the time of inception, namely the movement from the British punk scene. What made punk in D.C. unique was its acknowledgment of its posture, nestled in a political city. The punk scene, similar to go-go, directly addresses injustices, on and off the stage. It is an escape, presenting a world different from the conservative streets of D.C., full of happy hour bars and government employees. At night, clubs and basements blast loud with punk fans bouncing and yelling in sync with the grudge sound. 

Together, punk and go-go set D.C. apart from other east coast cities. The music scene in D.C. is insular, with substantial local patronage, and a few whose visibility grew nationally, and internationally. 

Outside of the Beltway, punk bands Bad Brains, Fugazi and Minor Threat represent a generation. Chuck Brown, E.U., and Trouble Funk represent a go-go generation outside of the Beltway with national and international fan bases. Within the Beltway, these genres encompass dozens, if not hundreds of bands over their over four-decade existence. While perhaps not intentional collaboration, the genres support a cultural ecosystem of creative entrepreneurs who provided promotional and technical support.

The genres have commonalities: a heavy D.I.Y. culture, high-energy performances, and often jointly progressive political messaging. In the 1980s, they began to collaborate. Go-go/thrash concerts were held around town, produced mainly by D.C. promoter David Rubin. The shows brought white teenage punk fans and Black teenage go-go fans. While there are some Black punk bands and musicians, the genre is predominantly white. Conversely, while all enjoy go-go, the genre’s artists and audience are primarily Black. This brief moment of collaboration brought these groups together, and in 2020 with the advent of more unified activism, there is potential for these genres to unify their audiences.

In 2020, go-go and punk are in a state of transition. Both genres, whose start was with the youth, are vying for relevance with younger populations. Undoubtedly the lack of all-age venues informs the limitations of young audiences experiencing this sound, amongst other factors. At this moment, amid a pandemic and hypervisible national terror and inequity, the two sounds have the potential to continue their legacy of activism in tandem. Looking behind, there are two genres with similar histories. Still, varying levels of support and public reception are informed by racial barriers and stereotypes. Ahead, there is potential to further connect these distinctly Washingtonian sounds further and unify their advocacy efforts around the common good. 

At this time, one common good is the preservation of D.C. culture as gentrification sterilizes what is unique, and makes it readily marketable and profitable. Go-go and punk have stood for their people. Their audiences have been and feel disserviced by the political and economic system. The marriage of these genres that had a brief life in the 1980s could produce sonic and political mergers that shape a generation.

(Photographer:: Farrah Sheiky | @reallyfarrah)

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