The battle over preserving the cultural heritage of Washington, D.C.’s Black community in the face of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood recently made national headlines when the mayor signed a law declaring “Go-Go” the official music of the District. I believe we can learn a lot from the community campaign that gave birth to this law.
Go-Go music is considered the only indigenous music and expressive culture of D.C. It was created in the 1970s by guitarist, bandleader and singer Chuck Brown. Known throughout the District as the “Godfather of Go-Go,” one of Mr. Brown’s signature songs, “Bustin’ Loose,” was once played and sung by cheering fans after every home run hit by the World Series-winning Washington Nationals.
For nearly 50 years, Go-Go music has been the soundtrack of D.C. block parties, community events, parades and entire neighborhoods. The signature beats and percussive rhythms of the music are African- and Latin music-inspired, with elements of blues, gospel, soul and funk. Mr. Brown, who died in 2012 of pneumonia at the age of 75, used to say he created the fusion of the rhythms to keep people on the dance floor with a beat that “just goes and goes.”
The latest battle in D.C.’s culture wars began in the doorway of a business located on the corner named for the “Godfather of Go-Go.” For nearly three decades, Central Communications, a Metro PCS vendor, has played Go-Go in its doorway. and has been a gathering place for local youth and neighborhood residents. But in April of 2019, a resident living in a nearby luxury apartment complex filed a noise complaint with the city and then with Central Communications’ parent company, T-Mobile. It was the call from T-Mobile to long-time store owner Don Campbell that finally silenced the music.
Within the hour, the store was inundated with inquiries about why the music wasn’t playing, and word about the T-Mobile directive spread throughout the neighborhood. Protesters hit the streets. They blasted Go-Go music in front of the luxury apartment building into the night, as well as throughout the neighborhood. Other local businesses also began playing Go-Go in solidarity. During the protests, Mr. Campbell told the local media that the situation would have likely had a different outcome had the complaining resident took the time to come to the store to speak to him about the volume of the music.
A Howard University graduate started the hashtag, #DontMuteDC, because she believed D.C.’s indigenous culture was being disregarded and eroded. Howard University also has been immersed in a gentrification issue stemming from new neighbors using the campus as a park to walk their dogs, sun-bathe or picnic.
Gentrification is having a profound impact on communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, and that has far-reaching implications for all of us. A 2019 study conducted by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity found that Washington, D.C.’s, low-income residents were being pushed out of neighborhoods at some of the highest rates in the country, second only to Los Angeles. In some D.C. communities, the white population growth in previously black and/or low-income neighborhoods exceeded 200-percent. A subsequent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition also found that D.C. residents have to earn $32.02/hour to afford a two-bedroom home in the District, while the average minimum wage is $13.25/hour.
On the one hand, some argue that gentrification brings economic development to neighborhoods. But we must also keep in mind its long-term and often under-reported negative effects on the cultural life of the community. In a previous post on Arts & Culture Connections about gentrification in Brooklyn, NY, I quoted the work of Associate Professor Themis Chronopoulos, who teaches American Studies in the U.K. He wrote: “Gentrification actually goes beyond displacement and includes the replacement and exclusion of certain populations from a neighborhood.” He also noted that gentrification can lead to the “decline of a cultural and commercial infrastructure” cherished by the previous residents.
The Go-Go music returned to Central Communications within one month, but it took close to a year for community organizers to press for the bill, which was unanimously passed and signed into law. I believe the heart (and heat) of the battle in D.C. was over “cultural infrastructure” not the volume of the music. The community was fighting to ensure Go-Go music’s preservation, as well as fighting to preserve the cultural traditions of its neighborhood. Recognizing what was at stake, City Council member Kenyan McDuffie, who wrote the bill making Go-Go the District’s official music, told the local media he hoped the city also could use Go-Go’s history and cultural significance to attract tourists, create jobs and foster art and creativity.
What’s most important in the effort to preserve cultural infrastructure in the face of gentrification is the recognition, preservation and protection of indigenous urban/community cultures. A community is more than people living in housing; it also is the evolved way of life of its residents. More than the arts, culture incorporates the behaviors, beliefs, values, customs, traditions and the social or religious institutions that are part of the community’s daily life. Preserving the cultural infrastructure also means ensuring that the value of that foundation is understood, respected and shared amongst old and new residents.
For those of us involved in community engagement work, it’s important to remember that it’s a holistic process. More than just offering our work—performances, exhibitions, productions, etc.—it’s imperative that we invest the time in learning and understanding the cultural infrastructure of the neighborhoods so that we are not only offering access, but also creating value. Armed with that understanding, we can then utilize the arts as a bridge for dialogue and understanding that can bring together the diverse groups of people inhabiting the changing neighborhoods we seek to serve.
What do you think? I look forward to your posting comments below.