When go-go music fills a space, it animates everything in striking distance. It isn’t just the passion in the playing, bolstered by funk flavor and a reverberating big band sound; there’s a connective tissue, a shared energy between the participants—players and patrons alike. The relationship between the lo-fi music and its people has made Washington, D.C.’s homegrown genre a predominantly live-music format. It is a sound and attitude birthed in the city’s black lower-class neighborhoods, in response to their proximity to the seat of federal power, but lack of real of agency. At a go-go, blackness is unimpeachable. We are free. But such spaces continue to disappear in a city pushing out the poorer longtime residents and the music they hold dear.
This impermanent force holds together DMV native GoldLink’s new album, At What Cost. His music doesn’t try to replicate the go-go music that D.C. bandleader Chuck Brown birthed in the 1970s; it seeks to reanimate the vanishing spaces in a rapidly gentrifying city that the genre’s death has left behind.
Throughout the album, GoldLink brings life to sketches of the neighborhoods that raised him, through their unique styles, vernacular, and local forms of expression. Heavily influenced by the District and neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, these recordings document coming of age in a changing city—flashbacks of chasing young romance at parties, violence in the streets, and wrestling city control from rivals and feds alike. It’s about proudly calling a place home, even as it seeks to systematically displace you. “Lord I pray for wealth and power over all these motherfuckers,” a voice pleads in At What Cost’s waning seconds. “For the DMV to reign for many moons.”
The new album, the latest in a three-project process of self-discovery, is about growing up broke and black on the fringes of America’s center of power, as the Nation’s capital loses its soul—not only to gentrification and police antagonism, but also community efforts to end go-go in the name of public safety.
Adrian Fenty served as D.C.’s mayor from 2007 to 2011, a period that coincides with the At What Cost timeline. During his re-election bid, Fenty enlisted local artists to help reach black voters, using what the Washington City Paper referred to as “go-go politics.” It was a somewhat empty gesture from a man desperate to make up ground in the polls, but it spoke to go-go’s enduring impact. During his run, the homegrown culture of D.C.’s black residents bloomed for the last time.
GoldLink, born D’Anthony Carlos 23 years ago, cares about art’s value and what it can mean to a community. The value of his art is directly linked to his ability to see precisely where paths intersect: His early work connected several types of black music, and his more recent recordings cross-reference his nomadic upbringing. He spent his formative years bouncing between D.C., Maryland, and Virginia in changing neighborhoods. Even now, he doesn’t live more than 40 minutes away from the Chevy and Marshall Heights areas he grew up in. Being near his roots is important to him—especially since his music is about memorializing the city and the go-go scene as he remembers it.
“I grew up in a pivotal time period,” he says. “My father grew up in D.C., in the crack era. He was selling crack [in the early ‘90s] and all this other shit with his homies. Going to go-gos then was a little different—the punk rock scene was popping off and there was the drug scene. It was really segregated at that time.” The go-go scene GoldLink remembers was one of black inclusivity and warmth, where young people would congregate to frolic and party to jamming, seemingly endless live-band performances.
Since the 1970s, go-go music has been the pulse of the D.C. metropolitan area, born in the crime-ridden, lower-class neighborhoods of the Chocolate City. “Go-go is D.C.’s indigenous music,” says Howard University professor Natalie Hopkinson, author of the 2012 book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of the Chocolate City. “It came about in the years after the Civil Rights Movement, when D.C. was devastated by the fires of the riots in 1968 that burned black communities. It’s the art form that emerged from the void created by white flight and black middle-class flight.”
Go-go is funk-based, jam-style soul music. It’s highly interactive and thus built primarily for live spaces. The songs are drum-heavy, highlighting congas and syncopated rhythms. Early iterations were groovy. More contemporary versions of go-go, pioneered as rap began dominating pop culture, use what’s called the bounce beat, adding roto-toms and timbales. Go-go frontmen, called lead mics or simply talkers, engage with the crowd like hypemen through call and response.
At the height of the music’s popularity, a go-go could range in size from anywhere between hundreds and thousands of people, held in a nightclub or college gymnasium or bar or sportsplex. Small lounge spots that catered to jazz and soul crowds would host the music; nightlife spaces with large dance halls used it to draw young people; concert venues like the Icon in Maryland billed go-go bands as must-see acts. Even the more popular clubs in the DMV—since-closed venues like Ibiza, Love, and Legend— were once homes for go-go. The music would boom out of storefronts and cars; its presence in the city was undeniable.
“I watched the city change from being the blackest city to being less black and nobody [being] outside. The police are out all the time."
The art form, in its early stages, functioned in a similar way to hip-hop for young people, according to Kato Hammond, longtime band member and go-go historian, keeper of the online archive Take Me Out to the Go-Go. “D.C. has always been a live-band area, even before go-go—it and hip-hop basically started off with the same roots,” he says. “Because [early hip-hop pioneers] couldn’t afford instruments, they did [music] with records. D.C. had the same thing—the kids couldn’t afford it, but they were able to obtain it in school programs. It’s hard to be from D.C. and there’s not one or two or three bands from your neighborhood.”
As part of the last generation truly touched by go-go, GoldLink doesn’t try to recreate go-go’s sound with At What Cost, but it shares the same energy. The album is a kind of time capsule. “I tried to preserve the space between ‘06 to 2011 because that was a live time for go-go as far as the essence,” he says.
The music has become synonymous with D.C. culture—but only a certain part of the city has claimed it.
“Go-go remains really entirely an African-American music form,” says George Washington University professor Kip Lornell, co-author of The Beat: Go-Go Music From Washington, D.C. “And there’s been a very uneasy relationship between the government and go-go over the years. The city council in the late 1980s wanted to basically legislate go-go out of Washington, D.C., because it was perceived to be too black and too dangerous.”
“It’s an expression of a hypersegregated environment,” Hopkinson says. “D.C. is the Chocolate City in part because of the unique history of slavery in D.C., so it’s got a very close relationship with decisions policymakers made in the city, both nationally and local. Because go-go is associated with black, working-class culture, it’s marginalized. But it can be a way to reach a large number of voters. So politicians over the years have embraced it and rejected it depending on what part of the election cycle they’re in.”
As violence continued to erupt outside of go-gos, in parking lots, on corners, and occasionally on the streets, the DC and Prince George’s County police departments cracked down, drawing a direct relationship between the music and the shootings. They began secretly circulating what became known as the “Go-Go Report,” an updated list of go-go events to be monitored. Growing police hostility only furthered the bloodshed and stigma surrounding go-gos, tying the two together further, much to the chagrin of Hammond. “If go-go didn’t exist and going to skating rinks was the most popular thing, the violence would’ve been happening there,” he says. “Wherever the people are, the violence follows. And the violence and drama draw attention.”
Still, there was something thrilling about being so close to the action. Half the fun of attending go-go was being adjacent to the drama, living in that tension. GoldLink captures it in the final moments of “Meditation,” when shots ring out unexpectedly. “You never knew when you were going to die,” GoldLink recalls. “It’s crazy how on edge everybody was and how all these thing lead up to this event and you never knowing you could die. And that was the exciting part, the suspenseful part—that literally something could happen every time you go out.”
“It’s not a perception that’s completely out of step with reality: there have been instances of violence,” Hopkinson says. “Where [the city has] gone wrong is they’ve said that the violence has to do directly with the music—that the music attracts the wrong people. Because it is a community, [and] they’re just saying that everybody associated with it is dangerous.”
“Kathy Lanier, the police chief at the time, really attributed a drop in crime to this Go-Go Report,” Hopkinson remembers. “And people took their cues from that. So as a result, club owners would reject bands that play go-go music.” Go-go became harder and harder to book.
The music has been displaced. “There was a case in Petworth where a music venue that was a big go-go back in the ’90s reopened,” Hopkinson remembers, “and the community, as a condition of supporting their liquor license when this venue was opening in a more gentrified context, said that the venue had to [promise] that they would not have go-go anymore. Even some of the black club owners have openly said they won’t play go-go—Mark Barnes [a prominent D.C. club-owner] said that a DJ who played go-go in his club would be fired. It’s not just the new gentrifiers. Between the economic pressures and the social pressures on go-go, it’s made it very difficult to function.”
With less spots to play, this music has started to fade from the street corners it used to permeate. There also less interested ears for go-go to perk up. In 2011, the city’s black population fell below 50 percent for the first time in 51 years. The change is even more dramatic in certain areas: The Shaw neighborhood in D.C. was 78 percent black in 1980. Thirty years later, that figure had fallen to 44 percent. No longer a majority black city, D.C.’s interest in its blackest art form has waned. Hammond cites many reasons for the decline: not just gentrification and club closings, but the internet, fatigue, and the pervasiveness of rap, with its simpler means of production.“The generation right now isn’t as inspired by it as they were. You used to need at least 10 people to be in a band. Now, if I want to be an artist I can just use Pro Tools. I don’t need no band.”
“The best way I can keep go-go alive is by preserving that energy—because the kids still have that energy.”
GoldLink draws a direct line between the uprooted go-go scene and the ongoing gentrification. “When that shit got banned and then seeing the aftermath of the city, we were lost,” he recalls. “I watched the city change from being the blackest city to being less black and nobody [being] outside. The police are out all the time. Certain streets you grew up on, it’s like I didn’t know there was a Costco there, or a Whole Foods. I used to go to Corinthian Baptist Church on I Street my whole life. Across the street from there was a park where all the homeless people sat and my dad would go to AA meetings. To see that strip change and that church get bought out, and where there was a park there's a hotel now….” He breaks eye contact to glare out the window. “I’ve seen it happen, and I’m only 23.”
At What Cost pieces together a portrait of the old DMV and its people. This is a glimpse of the Chocolate City with local personalities of all shapes and shades. D.C. veteran Kokayi plays the lead mic at a go-go on “Hands on Your Knees.” Wale, who situated himself at the intersections of rap and go-go in the middle of the Fenty era, bridges the gap between two generations. Kokamoe Freestyle, named for D.C. transit’s legendary rap freestyler, carries his spirit. Local up-and-comers like Ciscero and April George are flanked by Mya and Shy Glizzy.
“The challenge of the tape was conveying that feeling,” GoldLink says. “Go-go and this D.C. shit is so hard to understand unless you come here, and we can’t bring everybody here. So our whole thing was, how do we find a middle ground?”
The trickiest part about manufacturing an album out of an art form that demands the in-person intensity of a live performance is finding a way to get a very intimate experience to transmit. Something in go-go gets lost when the sound is compressed; it’s less dynamic, less visceral. You can’t feel its vibrations seeping into your pores. The jams don’t erupt. There’s no call to action, no compulsion to throw yourself into movement. At What Cost subverts this issue by opting to focus on the spaces that held the music and the moments created in and around those spaces. Instead of remastering the sonics of past go-gos, GoldLink concentrates on the feelings charging the events.
“The best way I can keep go-go alive is by preserving that energy—because the kids still have that energy,” he says. “Go to a little local show. Them kids are still turnt like they were at go-gos. It's not the same music, but it’s the same feel. My parents and my grandparents’ go-go was different from our go-go, but it’s the same essence. They was shooting at go-gos too! But it was different. They had Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, EU (Experience Unlimited), the Soul Searchers. Their shit was a little smoother. Then when my brothers and them was growing up they had CCB, Backyard Band,Junkyard. They shit was dirtier, a little raunchier than Chuck Brown. But it’s the same essence.”
He pauses for a second, as if to reaffirm.
“You can’t take the essence out of the people. That’s one thing I realize. Go-go is never gonna die.”