Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Some call go-go music the “beating heart of Washington’s black culture.” Go-go is a uniquely local musical style in a city whose local identity is rooted in the African-American experience. But as the District’s demographics change, and Washington is no longer majority black, Kojo explores how neighborhoods and the city’s own identity are changing through the music D.C. calls its own.
- Natalie Hopkinson Contributing Editor, The Root; and author "Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City” (Duke University Press)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWashington is a city that likes to march to the beat of its own drum. And as a place where so much of the local flavor is defined by a unique blend of African American culture, the beat that people, too, are marching to more often than not is go-go. But D.C.'s demographics are changing block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. The place that was once called Chocolate City no longer has a majority black population, and the home-grown music of the beating heart of that African American community is also changing.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore what we can learn about the District's identity's evolved -- the District's identity's evolution through the music that's completely unique to the city is Natalie Hopkinson. She is the author of "Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City." She's also a journalist and a contributor to TheRoot.com. Natalie Hopkinson, good to see you again.
MS. NATALIE HOPKINSONGreat to see you, too, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you ever needed visual evidence of just how important go-go music is to all Washington and to black communities in Washington, all you had to do is to catch a quick clip of some of the video from the city's recent memorial services for Chuck Brown, the godfather of go-go. But you say the go-go -- that go-go's hold over the neighborhoods around where that memorial took place is slipping. And as more and more new residents move into those places, what do you see happening in Washington through the eyes, so to speak, or through the beat of go-go?
HOPKINSONWell, one of the things that I pointed out in a recent essay that I wrote in The New York Times about "Farewell to Chocolate City" is that you have this amazing display where you had, you know, 10,000 people coming out to say goodbye to Chuck Brown, but many of the people who live in D.C. these days, they're not even familiar with the music. They're like, what is that? You know, D.C. has always been -- you know, part of its identity has also been a transient.
HOPKINSONThere's also been high-level, you know, people coming in and out for various jobs. But the people who stay, like the permanent residents, that's really been associated with go-go culture, and you're actually seeing that pushing eastward into Maryland primarily.
NNAMDIGo-go's something you came to as a young adult when you attended Howard University. It's my understanding that you feel that you're part of a black diaspora that came to Washington. Tell us about your introduction to Washington and, well, to the music itself, music like this.
NNAMDITell us about your introduction to this music.
HOPKINSONMy introduction was actually driving into Howard University in 1994. We turned on the local radio station, and we heard this. I was like, what is that? You know, it's so striking.
NNAMDII've had that reaction so many times.
HOPKINSONYeah, it's so striking, but then something about it was familiar to me. My parents are from the Caribbean. They're from Guyana. And, you know, I grew up listening to soca and, you know, hearing Reggae music. And there was something, especially in the live context, that sort of drew me to it, and it really reminds me of, you know, like, the real intense partying, like, people serious about their partying. You know, the people from the Caribbean will be -- feel at home in the go-go world as well.
HOPKINSONAnd so I actually started covering the scene as a reporter for The Washington Post and where I got an opportunity to, you know, meet people like Little Benny, who were just playing, and Chuck Brown and Backyard Band and all the many, many, many bands that are in this area.
NNAMDIMaybe that's why I stayed here for so long. 800-433-8850. How would you describe the relationship between black influence in Washington and the local popularity of go-go music? 800-433-8850, or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Natalie, you call attention to a quote from Charles Stephenson and Kip Lornell's book about go-go. It's called "The Beat." They wrote that go-go is an expression of values masquerading in the form of party music. What would you say those values meant to you then when you first began to appreciate the music and the city?
NNAMDIHaving been born in Canada and raised in Indiana.
HOPKINSONYep. And in Florida.
NNAMDIAnd in Florida. Yes.
HOPKINSONSo -- well, for me, I mean, that -- that's what I sort of explore through the course of the book. I mean, one of the first shows that I saw -- the first live shows that I saw was Chuck Brown at The Legend Nightclub and -- in Maryland. And I remember after the show was over -- and this would have been around 2000. And I remember after the show was over, band packed up, everybody is ready to go, but Chuck Brown was still on stage reading people's names.
HOPKINSONThey were handing him pieces of paper, and he was giving them their shout-outs. So there was, like -- you know, it was almost religious, you know, like he was giving...
NNAMDIThey have come for your shout-out. You're not leaving before you give your shout-out.
HOPKINSONThat's right. And he wasn't leaving until he gave one to everyone. And so, you know, and even in that show at The Legend, there -- you had grandmothers partying with kids, partying with, you know, people in their -- it was a wide range, many generations there partying together to the same sort of slow conga beat that characterizes go-go.
NNAMDIIs that a situation where you found yourself saying, this is family, this is one of the reasons I'm here?
HOPKINSONAbsolutely, absolutely. I mean, it's, you know, and also this being a Chocolate City, you know, which is one of the themes that I played with throughout the book -- coming, you know, coming to Washington, I had never seen anything like this. You know, black schools, black principals, black doctors, black, black, black everything, and, especially coming from Canada and the sort of the suburban areas that I grew up in the U.S., this was very strange to me. And so it took -- but it -- you know, I liked it, you know, to sort of see everything in my image.
HOPKINSONYou know, like, for my parents growing up, it was normal to them to see that. But for me, you know, was a little bit -- you know, it was really a place where you can sort of find your identity and find how it connects to the whole African Diaspora. And so the tower that's go-go music, that's the city itself.
NNAMDI1994 when you first got here. Marion Barry became mayor for his second stint. He famously said, those who didn't like it needed to get over it. It was kind of strange time for D.C. Congress soon took over the city's finances. What sense did you have for how ownership over city institutions was changing?
NNAMDIKeeping the focus away from music for a second because there is now an African-American in the White House for the first time in history, and yet you write that the same social changes that paved the way for that -- for Obama to become president -- also paved the way for the generation of whites who have moved back into urban centers in Washington. Tell us how you make that link.
HOPKINSONWell, you know, as I said, it was very shocking for me when I came -- or I guess disorienting 'cause I hadn't really been in that environment before. But the same way that that was very disorienting, now, to sort of see the radical and rapid transformation of Washington, D.C.'s -- the communities in much of Washington is just as jarring to me 'cause it's like I had just sort of gotten used to the Chocolate City side. And then now it's sort of the -- it's sort of changing up on me again.
HOPKINSONBut, you know, I know for -- and, you know, I write about this in a book in how I was -- it did allow something of a racial cynicism to set in, you know, sort of living in the Chocolate City and being in a chocolate environment. It does allow that racial cynicism. And I didn't believe for a minute that Barack Obama would be elected. I did not.
HOPKINSONAnd when it came down to it, when you're sitting in your booth and nobody else is around, and you don't have to tell anybody -- you know, like, I didn't -- at the end of the day, I did not believe they would put someone named Barack Hussein Obama in. And I linked that. And I also wouldn't have expected whites to move in the communities in Washington, D.C. that they have moved into. I mean, these are neighborhoods that have been disinvested and, you know, suffered from incredibly poor policy planning.
HOPKINSONThere's no -- banks would not give you loans to do some of the things that are being done to the homes now. And, you know, for people to come in and sort of, you know, put their sleeves up and get to work and let go of all the fears that, I guess, our parents' generation experienced, it's -- I do tie them. I do think that they're -- it's a bit of poetic justice that these things are happening at the same time.
NNAMDIThe book is called "Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City." We're talking with the author, Natalie Hopkinson. She is a journalist and a contributor to theroot.com. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Chris in Silver Spring, Md. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHey, Kojo. Good afternoon. How are you doing?
CHRISHey. I wanted to share with you -- I remember going to see the band back in the '70s: Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, Chuck Brown, Experience Unlimited. That aspect of the go-go scene in D.C. is gone. Now that Chuck has passed away, unfortunately, it won't come back. There is no other band that sounded -- originated that sound as much as the homegrown people that were, I guess, born on it and originated it. It's sad. I used to live in D.C. when Marion Barry was the mayor.
CHRISWe all knew that the nation's capital cannot remain the murder capital of the world, the drug capital of the world, a place where everyone is running through the city, craving of all that habits. And it's unfortunate that it's no longer going to be the Chocolate City, but you could see the writing on the wall. D.C. is have or have-not. If you don't have money, you're going to have to leave because it's becoming incredibly expensive to stay in the city. And as sad as that is, it's moving, it's progressing, but I'm sorry to say that it was gone.
NNAMDII guess you talked -- you discussed all -- quite a few of the contradictions, if you will, that Natalie Hopkins -- Hopkinson addresses in her book "Go-Go Live." There have been moments in Washington's recent history where it seemed that go-go and divisive debates about black political power have collided head-on. You seem to feel that one of those moments that, I guess, Chris would be talking about came in the debate over whether go-go should be played in the Reeves Center on U Street Northwest. What did you see in that fight over Club U?
HOPKINSONYeah, that was such a rich moment. Right when I started doing my -- working on my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, where -- which I looked at go-go for that -- that sort of was unfolding -- and so you had Club U, and, you know, Rare Essence. And everybody played at Club U, and it was one of the most popular venues that were going on. And it was going on from the early '90s to 2005 when there was a tragic incidence of violence, and that ended that.
HOPKINSONAnd, you know, the city pulled the plug, and I sort of analyzed a lot of the discourse around that because people were shocked. They were like, what, this is a government building? There are bureaucrats working there during the day, and then, all of a sudden, the go-go people come in at night? It's like time shifting. And people were shocked about it, but, you know, I felt like it was a perfect way to show go-go's role right at the center of the experience here.
HOPKINSONAnd, you know, one of the points that I make is that, you know, if it were an opera -- and, you know, there are -- well, there are -- people were very shocked and actually appalled that this was happening. They were like, who had this great idea? But, you know, if they were an -- they were singing opera or there was a ballet or something like that, you know, that would be considered, wow, that's very innovative, you know, mixed-use, you know, arts development. Wow, how clever.
HOPKINSONBut because go-go is often, you know, associated with certain demographics that's been said to be undesirable by, you know, officials in the city, like the police, for instance, that testified, saying, look, when you have go-go coming, you have a problem, and they ended up shutting that down. And that was a pretty rich time to sort of look at. You know, that -- I kind of say that was the end of the Chocolate City, like that was really when it ended. That was when it was over.
NNAMDIChris, thank you for your call. We have to take a short break. But if you have called, stay on the line. We'll get to your call when we return to our conversation with Natalie Hopkinson. Her book is called "Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City." Natalie Hopkinson is also a journalist and contributor to theroot.com. 800-433-8850. How will you describe the relationship between black influence in Washington and the local popularity of go-go music? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Natalie Hopkinson. She is the author of the book "Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City." She's also a journalist and a contributor to theroot.com. Natalie, go-go has never been able to escape the orbit of the Beltway. Sure, there are some songs that became nationwide hits like "Da Butt," and there are some bands like The Roots who've experimented with go-go sounds. But why do you think that go-go has remained a D.C. thing? Except, for what you were just telling me, people in New Orleans seem to love it.
HOPKINSONThey do, yeah. And there are places all around the world where they have little pockets of people who support go-go, but...
NNAMDIUsually because former Howard students went back to those places. Yes.
HOPKINSONThat's right. We're everywhere. We're worldwide. But you're right. It hasn't broken out. And, you know, I sort of explore -- like, a lot of the book, I look at the economics and the -- I look at the entrepreneurs that are -- have been holding go-go up. So, you know, I also want to say that it's not dead by any means. Like, you see it's -- the center has shifted away from D.C., but it's -- there's still a thriving scene in Maryland and in D.C., in parts of D.C. as well.
HOPKINSONBut that's because they've really created a live experience. It is not something that translates very well in the studio. It's not really something that you sort of bottle up. And it's not a very commercially...
NNAMDIYeah. When Kip Lornell was on the show back in 2011, he said that it's the songwriting that keeps go-go from becoming a nationwide sound. People can't think of the songs and the lyrics and sing them as they go along. And because in D.C. it's so associated with live performance, then the people who appreciate it here are people who have generally seen live performances themselves. What do you make of people like Wale, who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to fuse go-go with mainstream in hip-hop songs like this?
NNAMDIWhat can you say?
HOPKINSONI think he's done a great job. I mean, his -- first of all, his first album was just wonderful. But then songs like that really endeared him to, you know, I think, the go-go community because he kept it so authentically go-go. He kept the same vocalist. You know, he didn't have -- hire somebody from L.A. to sing the track for him. And, you know, maybe it wouldn't do as well in L.A. and New York and these other places.
HOPKINSONBut that was really important for him to maintain his local fans and keep them happy because, at the end of the day, you know, L.A., New York, those places, they're very fickle. You know, people come in and out of style. But what you have here is, in the D.C. area, is an incredibly loyal group of people. You will eat if you keep D.C. people happy. And so he's done -- I think he's done a good job of sort of trying to balance the two.
NNAMDIOn to the phones again. Here is Penn in Bethesda, Md. Penn, your turn.
PENNHi. I want to tell you, I am a white woman in her 60s from Bethesda, and I have loved go-go music since the early -- I would say the late '70s, early '80s, when I first heard little kids, elementary school, junior high kids come to Georgetown and start pounding on beats. They pounded out beats on buckets, on...
PENN...trash cans. It was fabulous, and I've loved it ever since Chuck Brown, Experience Unlimited. It's the most authentic music that's come along since -- when I came of age in the late '60s. I love it.
NNAMDIGo to Verizon Center any night when there's an event going on, and you can see the buckets outside still playing out there. There's an internal debate within go-go circles right now about the future of the sound. A lot of younger musicians are carving out a new sound they call bounce beat that go-go traditionalists are, well, not so crazy about. Let's hear what it sounds like.
NNAMDIThat's the band TCB. What do you hear when you hear the new bounce beat sound?
HOPKINSONWell, it's kind of interesting for me because, of course, I'm late to this. You know, I really only started following the scene closely in 2000. So I was going to TCB shows. Out in Maryland is when I was first sort of got into the scene. And that clip and TCB and the bounce beat bands in general, you really, really can't understand unless you're there.
HOPKINSONAnd you're seeing the kids lose their minds. I mean, you see some of the most amazing feats of athleticism on the dance floor ever and...
NNAMDII miss that.
HOPKINSONYeah, it's incredible. I mean, it's incredible. And so that's what I -- actually what got me hooked is just being in that environment. It's not my cup of tea. It's not something I'm going to -- you know, it's not on my iPod and my rotation necessarily, and I think many of the old school go-go people would probably say the same. And, you know, some people -- there's a debate over whether it's really go-go, blah, blah, blah.
HOPKINSONBut, you know, it sort of speaks to the vitality of the world that Chuck Brown created that so many different generations have come in and wanting to put their spin on it. And it's not for me. I'm 35. You know, it's not, you know, it's not even my -- I'm not in the demo.
NNAMDIHere is Greg in Alexandria, Va. Greg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GREGHi. Yeah, I'm from Detroit. Go-go reminds me a little bit of Motown except go-go has, unfortunately, a Negro-phobia aspect to it, and that's why I think it's predominantly the D.C. kind of vibe. Black culture, when it tries to expand, unlike Motown that wasn't -- white people weren't afraid of Motown. They actually start dancing when they used to play it in Detroit. Here, though, when I come to D.C., I see go-go as being marginalized like I see the black community here being marginalized.
GREGI had come to D.C. hoping for a Chocolate City, but what I see here is a swirl city. And so what I see is that -- by the way, Natalie, you're a great writer. I read a lot of your stuff on The Root.
GREGI think you're wonderful. What bothers me about D.C. and sometimes even this radio station is that they only bring black people out to talk about black stuff. You know, I remember...
NNAMDIExcept for the host, maybe.
GREGYeah. Well, I get upset when we just, you know, black people -- we can talk about everything. I remember when -- during the Clarence Thomas thing, there was a guy named John Doggett. And in Detroit, this guy was viewed as a super intelligent black guy with all kind of credentials. So when I came to D.C., I had this vision of a black city, Chocolate City with all these phenomenal black personalities. Now, when I get here, I see this transition. I see this swirl city where black people, again, are being marginalized, and this new white liberal yuppie vibe is here.
GREGAnd I think that marginalizes go-go music, too, because there's always this theme of Negro-phobia when black culture tries to reach beyond here, beyond the Beltway and other venues. There's white people simply get kind of uncomfortable...
NNAMDIIt's funny you bring up the Negro-phobia because I'm old enough to remember that during the Motown era, a lot of black people preferred Stax-Volt because they felt that Motown was too bubble gummish. (sp?) They felt that Motown was crossing over too much.
HOPKINSONWell, that's what it was designed to do. I mean, he created, you know, an assembly line sort of to cater to suburban white audience. That's what, you know, a lot of what Motown was doing. But, you know, one of the -- this is one of the great things about the Chocolate City, when it was a Chocolate City, and, you know, and I'm somebody who very much embraces the future and the swirl. I love it. I love -- I don't think any -- we cannot stay stagnant.
HOPKINSONBut one of the great things about the Chocolate City is that it's not -- I never felt marginalized, and I don't feel marginalized. I feel like this is go-go, and this is right at the center of the American experience. This is Washington, D.C. This is the nation's capital. And just because some people maybe are unaware that it's going, it does not make it any less valid or any less central to our understanding of this country.
NNAMDIGot to take ownership of the city you live in. Greg, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Peter in Washington, D.C. Peter, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETERHello. I want to ask Ms. Hopkins if she was familiar with the book called "Diamonds in the Raw" by Sidney Thomas. It's the history...
PETERThe D.C. hip hop and go-go movement.
NNAMDINatalie Hopkinson, "Diamonds in the Raw?" I'm not...
HOPKINSONYou know, it's ringing a little bit of a bell, but I can't say that I'm -- like, I -- the title is ringing a bell, but I have not read that.
NNAMDIAnd same here. Or maybe one of my producers will remind me that I did. But, Peter, thank you very much for your call. Here is Kelly in Northeast Washington. Kelly, your turn.
KELLYHi, Kojo. First of all, thank you for playing Wale. I love Wale, and I think, you know, he's up and coming. And he's playing go-go, so I'm happy for that.
NNAMDIUp and coming for too long. It's time for him to arrive.
KELLYI know. I agree. But anyway, I just wanted to say to, you know, the author that, you know, I lived -- I'm a fifth generation Washingtonian. I've lived here -- except for maybe 20 years out of my life, I've lived here. My grandparents went to Howard. My parents went to Howard. This city has been, you know, there's always been a core community of African Americans in this city. Any city in the country over a 20-year, 10-year period, you can't go back and say, it hasn't changed. I mean, things change. That doesn't mean we can't embrace change. And I know you said that earlier, and I...
NNAMDIYes, the book acknowledges that.
KELLYRight. And I just -- I get upset when I hear people like, oh, it's no more Chocolate City. There's always going to be a vibrant black community here, and it's up to the people that live here to kind of embrace and promote themselves and the culture. And instead of moving out to the suburbs and lamenting how expensive it is, just figure out a way to be connected to it. And, you know...
NNAMDIYou know, we're running out of time very quickly, but just last Friday -- and she said it before -- Eleanor Holmes Norton, the D.C. delegate was on the show, and she said, I grew up in a predominantly white city. And so the things that people are now experiencing as a surprise are things that I grew up with. But I guess you can't knock a little nostalgia, huh?
HOPKINSONNo, you can't. Well, especially if, you know, I mean -- and this is what I sort of was trying to get at in The New York Times piece that I did a couple of weeks ago, especially if it's sort of portrayed as well when it was chocolate, it was when it was, you know, that they basically destroyed the city and so white people have to come in and clean up their mess. I mean, that's what I really push back really, really hard on.
HOPKINSONYou know, go-go was one of these roses that grew out of the concrete when they just left the city for dead, you know, and it filled places that people had abandoned and burned. And banks refused to give loans to revitalize, and yet we created this amazing culture that was here. And so I think as we move forward, we do have to remember and to appreciate and acknowledge that history and not allow it to be -- and not allow this to be, I guess, framed as a black failure and white success.
NNAMDIOne of my favorite poets, E. Ethelbert Miller, once said, hey, chocolate melts. Here is Pat in Silver Spring, Md. Pat, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATOh, hi. I'm enjoying your show very much. But when you keep referring to Chocolate City, I'm thinking of the flavor chocolate and -- specifically ice cream. I think I'm hungry for lunch or something. But I was thinking...
NNAMDIDon't start that, please. I'm going to get hungry. Go ahead.
PATOK. But, you know, if Washington is no longer the Chocolate City, maybe it's something like fudge ripple. I used to love that. And then because you're saying, well, more whites are moving into traditionally black neighborhoods and so on, and then I thought, no, that doesn't capture it. What about -- you know, there are so many different ethnic groups.
PATWhat about something like Heavenly Hash? I mean, I believe that it consists of things like chocolate and marshmallow and all kinds of nuts and other flavors, you know, what I think might be a better description. Maybe it's now, you know, the city of Heavenly Hash.
NNAMDII think we're all in agreement here that what used to be Chocolate City is no more, that it is changing, it is evolving, and there are a variety ways of describing it. But, unfortunately, we've run out of time. Natalie Hopkinson, thank you for joining us. Natalie Hopkinson's book is called "Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City." Natalie Hopkinson is a journalist and a contributor to theroot.com. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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