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Since 1995, the owner of a Metro PCS store in Shaw has blasted go-go music from outdoor speakers across the intersection of Florida Avenue and 7th Street.
When a neighbor’s noise complaint forced him to stop, more than 60,000 people signed a petition to bring the music back — and for now, Metro PCS’s go-go music has returned.
Is this a conversation about noise or about culture? We’ll discuss gentrification and the meaning of go-go music in Washington.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Rachel Kurzius Senior Editor, DCist; @Curious_Kurz
- Sudi West Executive Director, Shaw Community Center
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we review new selections of children's poetry from local authors. But first --
KOJO NNAMDISince 1995, the owner of a local telecom store in Shaw has been blasting that kind of music. That is D.C.'s iconic go-go group Trouble Funk you hear in the background. He's been blasting that music from outdoor speakers across the intersection of Florida Avenue and 7th Street northwest. When a complaint from a resident of the neighboring Shay Apartment Complex stopped the music two weeks ago, more than 60,000 people signed a petition to bring the music back, and for now the music has returned if at a slightly lower volume.
KOJO NNAMDIBut what does the debate say about gentrification in Washington and is the conversation really about noise or is it about culture? Joining me in studio is Rachel K. Rachel Kurzius is a Senior Editor with DCist. Rachel K, good to see.
RACHEL KURZIUSGood to see you too.
NNAMDIYou broke the story about Metro PCS. Give us a brief interview of what unfolded over the past few days.
KURZIUSAbsolutely. People started noticing in a bigger scale over the past weekend that the music playing at the Metro PCS was muted or silenced all together. And that's how the hashtag "Don't Mute D.C." started. On Monday, I reached out and was able to speak with Don Campbell, who told me that T-Mobile, which now owns Metro PCS was the company who told him that the music needed to stop, that they had received a complaint and indeed a threat of a lawsuit from a local resident. And he says that that resident was someone, who lived at the Shay.
KURZIUSAnd as soon as this news broke, as soon as people noticed that this change had taken place, the music they were expecting wasn't cranking there was an outcry. We saw rallies on Monday and even that one had maybe about 100 or so people. On Tuesday many many more people gathered at 14th and U. There was a live go-go performance. And really for people who were saying, "Turn down the go-go" this was not what they wanted to hear because there was way more go-go.
KURZIUSOn Wednesday the head of T-Mobile sent out a tweet after there had been outreach from D.C. Council and even Mayor Bowser said, "Don't mute D.C." And the head of T-Mobile said, "We're bringing the music back. We're going to see if we can reach a better volume for neighbors. But we don't want this music going anywhere, we know how important it is to this neighborhood."
NNAMDISo there has been in a way, I guess you can call it a compromise at this point?
KURZIUSYes. It certainly seems that way. Don Campbell the owner says that he's looking to be respectful with neighbors. What exactly that conversation is going to look like remains to be seen. But it does appear that there's going to be a compromise. The music will continue outside and the volume may change a little bit.
NNAMDIRachel, so what exactly are the regulations around noise in D.C.?
KURZIUSSo it's a pretty complicated situation, because it's very difficult under the way that the law currently works to be able to measure it. So for a long time people have been complaining. Well before the Shay came to fruition, there have been residents complaining about the noise. But whenever they bring in D.C. officials to actually measure it, it doesn't reach the decibel level that would be illegal. So because of that that noise has been -- is totally legal. There is a legislation underway at D.C. Council that would change the way that noise is measured.
NNAMDIAnd we'll talk a little bit more about that later, but joining us in studio now is also Sudi West, Executive Director of the Shaw Community Center. Sudi West, thank you for joining us.
SUDI WESTGood afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou're a native Washingtonian, executive director, as I mentioned of the Shaw Community Center. How did you respond when you found out that the Metro PCS store had been forced to turn off its go-go music at least temporarily?
WESTWell, working with the owner and the Shaw Community Center we've been aware of challenges to that go-go cultural tradition for many years. And so, you know, this isn't something that that just came about. There's also been other times that the noise ordinance has come into question, but we definitely showed up to support and for us it's not just entertainment, but a tool for making and keeping a place for residents and youth of the neighborhood.
NNAMDIFull disclosure here, I lived in that neighborhood for 20 years. The last five or so of which was when Metro PCS started playing that music. And frankly I used to go by there every single day and if I went by one day without hearing the music I would be thinking, "Something is wrong." They're closing them down, because you became used to it after a while. For listeners who might not know, Sudi, what is go-go?
WESTWell, go-go is a fusion kind of a music. It's interesting in that it uses the technique of covers of other kinds of music. So it's almost a way of retaking or reclaiming music, the opposite of appropriation. It's driven by African drums particularly the bongo drum, which is known throughout the industry as baby D.C. because it's particular to Washington D.C. And it's a place making call in response genre in which youth and residents are acknowledged for the neighborhood or even the intersection where they're from.
NNAMDILet's give a listen to bit of that call and response syndrome involving the Godfather of go-go after whom that block is named by the way, Chuck Brown.
NNAMDIThe Godfather of go-go, Chuck Brown, responding to the audience's call to wind them up. And that's exactly how he wound them up. Sudi, how is the city's identity and history tied to go-go music?
WESTWell, the city really evolved through one of its formative periods throughout the 80s and 90s with go-go as a backdrop for the native residents of the city. We know it's an international city. But go-go is a participatory, live, place making genre that is indigenous to Washington D.C.
NNAMDIYep. And Chuck Brown had a big hand in creating that sound himself. Over the past decade you've witnessed a dramatic transformation in the Shaw neighborhood. Tell us about some of those changes.
WESTWell, many of the changes do fall along cultural lines. And then as we're seeing a lot of development in Shaw and a lot of businesses including restaurants and entertainment venues as well as places to live there's a kind of a conversation or a guessing about what's wanted to attract those dollars. I think that a lot of times we overlook the fact that people are attracted to Shaw and to other places for the culture just as if they would be to Beale Street in New Orleans. And there are also cultural institutions and religious institutions that have been pushed out along with that.
NNAMDIRachel, you've been talking with a lot people both in support of the music at Metro PCS and opposed. What are you hearing from Shaw residents in particular?
KURZIUSIt's interesting how this story has played out, because there's such an easy narrative of people at the Shay come in and they just want to shut everyone out and move everyone, who was already there out of town. And it's a little bit more complicated than that.
KURZIUSOne of the voices, who has been calling for at least the -- what she calls the excessive volume of the go-go music to be turned down slightly is Anita Norman. She is the A&C Commissioner, meaning the very local level politician that includes Metro PCS and for years she's tried to involve D.C. officials to lower that music. And she's not a new resident at all, She went to Howard University. She was born in Washington D.C. But she says that the music is a quality of life issue, and she also says that the music that she hears coming from nightclubs is a quality of life issue too.
KURZIUSI've also heard from people at the Shay, who have said that frankly they're quite embarrassed about how one resident has allegedly made these claims and complaints. And that they're delighted to be a part of this neighborhood. So I think that you're hearing a lot of different things from different people in the neighborhood.
NNAMDILet's hear a bit from a conversation you had with one resident of the Shay Apartment Complex, who had this to say.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERIt's not like a one size fits all, everyone in the Shay is trying to shut down the go-go music, you know. I think most people feel oppositely. So it's sort of, again, just being kind of embarrassed and feeling like not everyone here feels that way.
NNAMDIShe went on to add that it's not the music that Metro PCS plays that bothers her so much as the sounds of the nightlife in the neighborhood.
SPEAKERI definitely hear more noise from that and more annoying. Like 20 something drunk people walking down my block yelling than I ever do from the Metro PCS, you know.
NNAMDIBecause Metro PCS is not open 24-7.
KURZIUSThat's exactly right. They're only playing their music during business hours whereas a lot of other noise that you might hear in that neighborhood would be happening in the early hours of the morning of late at night.
NNAMDIWe reached out to a number of people including those with different opinions on the noise, but this issue has become so sensitive that people seem reluctant to speak about it. A number of people that we were inviting to this broadcast, who we thought would be pushing back against the broader community support declined the interview. It's that sensitive.
KURZIUSIt seems that way. And I think that part of it has to do with the idea of the narrative that has coalesced about who is good and, who is bad in this case. And I think people who would be defending the person complaining might feel kind of embarrassed to do that right now.
NNAMDILet's go to the phones. We're getting calls from Alexandria, West Virginia. Here's, Sheila in West Virginia. Sheila, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHEILAHello, Kojo. I'm a native Washingtonian born and raised in the District. And I grew up to go-go music. In fact, I went to school with some of Chuck Brown's children. So I am very very familiar, but I moved to West Virginia about 13 years ago. When this came up, some of us in West Virginia, where there is a venue that plays Appalachian music and broadcasts it all day during their business hours, we had a great discussion about this and why this was important, because ultimately these businesses reflect a certain aspect of cultural heritage.
SHEILAThe only determiner in here that I could see and the residents in West Virginia that I spoke to could see was that Appalachian music is considered heritage music and it is respected for that. But go-go music, because it is African American and because it -- even though it has an international following is not as well known by white people is not respected by that. So that's my opinion. That was the discussion that took place in Thomas, West Virginia. And I will take any other -- I listen off the air. Thank you so much.
NNAMDISudi West, do you think there needs to be some education here about what D.C. heritage is all about, because it's not like go-go music is 50 or 60 years old. It's been around for the past 30 or maybe 40 years at most.
WESTAbsolutely. As the caller pointed out, go-go music is a cultural asset central to the character of Washington D.C. And it should be acknowledged within our -- it should be a Smithsonian asset. And that intersection right at 7th and Florida Avenue, Boundary and Main Street has become a hot point for a conversation that I believe is just beginning.
NNAMDIHere now is another Rachel in Silver Spring, Maryland. Rachel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RACHELThank you for taking my call. This situation reminds me exactly of what happened with Strathmore Hall up in Bethesda. After they opened they had outdoor concerts. Then they built some very high priced housing right next door to it. And, you know, you just knew what was going to happen, people in the housing started complaining about the outdoor concerts. And I happened to be working at the box office then so I got to hear the other side of, you know, the people, administration worrying about, you know, what that was going to mean. You know, Strathmore had already been there for two years doing music and very popular outdoor concerts. And then people are buying these multimillion dollar houses that were named Strathmore Circle. So you could guess how close they were.
RACHELAnd complaining about the music. And, you know, don't move next door. The go-go music was already there. Strathmore was already there. The airport was already there. People moved in and complained about the noise. So I really think that aside from cultural importance and everything else, there's also a logic situation here that people are, you know, not looking at an apartment before they move into it and then complaining. Is that what's going on? I don't know.
NNAMDIYou mean, we can't move the airport? I thought we could. Thank you very much for your call, Rachel. Rachel, I'd like to get to the gentrification piece of this. Tell us about the Shay. What is it and what does it represent in a community like Shaw?
KURZIUSThe Shay opened a couple of years back. It's a luxury mixed use apartment complex, there's a lot of retail on the first floor and expensive apartments for rent throughout Florida Avenue. It spans more than a block. And I think that more than any other apartment building that I can think of in D.C. it's taken on a kind of symbolic heft. There is a very close by apartment complex developed by the exact same people, JBG Atlantic Plumbing that for some reason doesn't really get any guff. And yet when we talk about the Shay it has come to me in this idea of a very wealthy newcomer entering a neighborhood and trying to change it.
KURZIUSI think some of that has to do with JBG originally trying to rename the neighborhood North End Shaw. It has to do with some of the advertisements for the Shay that had a woman who kind of resembled Marie Antoinette and it said, "She is coming." And we certainly saw a lot of memes about that in the aftermath of what was happening at Metro PCS. But, Sudi, I'd be curious what you thought about what the Shay means in your community.
WESTAbsolutely. Being there on a daily basis, you see the natural tension and opposition. A 50 foot tall mural on one side saying, "She has arrived" on the other side having the go-go store. What I think was under -- unanticipated was that go-go isn't a fixed thing of history. It's an active process and so the youth and families that we work with at the Shaw Community Center are using it as an active place keeping tool. Their response was to have a skit on the cultural meridian of gentrification featuring the lady from the Shay and the go-go store. And then more recently the Wizard of Shaw in which they practiced go-go performance in the themes from "The Wizard Oz" as active place making expression. In fact, one of our youth board members here who plays Dorothy in that at Art All Night last year and some upcoming performances is here.
NNAMDIHi, Sydney Lewis. She's nine years old. She's a youth representative at Shaw Community Center and she's got the role. She's playing Dorothy in the go-go music "The Wizard of Shaw." So congratulations to you, Sydney, and good luck to you.
WESTAnd she says she's 10, not nine.
NNAMDIOh, well, you grew up since I last talked to you. Rachel, there's a noise ordinance before the D.C. Council right now. We've talked about it on the show. What are they considering and do we know if it would have any effect on this situation?
KURZIUSThat's a big question right now. So it's called the Noise Amplification Bill. And the name of the bill is actually part of what a lot of buskers and musicians are concerned about. And you also heard this with what's going on at Metro PCS. They said, "You're calling it noise. This is at least sound. And we believe music. To call it noise is insulting." And so right now the question at the D.C. Council is if the current way that we measure sound isn't working then what is the appropriate way to do that? And they introduced a bill that was basically the exact same as a bill that was introduced last session and never came to a vote due mainly really to the outcry that we heard from musicians and buskers who organize.
KURZIUSAnd right now what the new bill will actually have in it when it comes to a hearing is very much up for question. D.C. Council Chair, Phil Mendelson, has said that he's trying to work with musicians as well as people, who live in areas where they feel like they can't rest. They feel like they can't work from home. They feel like they're getting headaches and migraines from the sounds of the noise that they're constantly hearing in their apartments.
WESTAnd aside from people's esthetic perceptions there's also selective enforcement by the city. It was not lost on any of us that Metro PCS was first served with a noise ordinance on the eve of Ardal Night in which for the entire evening the space would be filled with the sounds and culture of everything, but go-go.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to people who just want the music to be a bit quieter? Is that an unreasonable request?
WESTNo. I think that that's a reasonable request. Go-go is a very inclusive and welcoming genre if you've ever been to one. It starts with acknowledging the neighborhood and the venue in which it occurs and then it acknowledges anyone who they recognize in the crowd. And you can put up a sign and say, "This is where I'm from." And be acknowledged on the microphone. It's one of the few things that does that.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're just about out of time during the course of this broadcast. Coming up next, we'll review new selections of children's poetry from local authors. Rachel Kurzius is a Senior Editor with DCist. Rachel, thank you so much for joining us.
KURZIUSThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDISudi West is Executive Director of the Shaw Community Center. Sudi, thank you for joining us. And I may have omitted to mention that along with Sydney Lewis in the control room is Adi Lewis. Is that Sydney's mom?
WESTYes. And she is a community liaison to our board and a great advocate and lover of Chuck Brown.
NNAMDIYeah. That's my old neighborhood. Thank you so much for joining us. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back.
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