Review

C

ongas, cowbell, intricate horn lines, and call and response vocals — it’s the essence of go-go music.  Natalie Hopkinson’s new book, Go-Go Live, gives the reader a great sense of this dynamic music.  The book is simultaneously a history of this Washington, DC-based music and a critique of race in the United States. In addition, she provides a unique, blow-by-blow, annotated transcript of a legendary go-go concert, giving outsiders access to this musical and cultural phenomenon.

Using a largely ethnographic approach, Hopkinson explores the importance of this music for black culture in the District of Columbia and in Prince George’s County, Maryland.   Outside of that area, only a few go-go hits are known, such as Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” and EU’s Da Butt.  But inside the Chocolate City, it’s popular, party music with a distinctive cultural context.

Go-Go Live begins by quoting funk icon George Clinton in Parliament’s “Chocolate City” and ends with a 14 page annotated transcript of a go-go concert.  Both are fitting for a book analyzing DC’s black musical culture over the past roughly 30 years.  In between are approximately 160 pages of thoughtful analysis and a narrative based on careful research.

The book is complex and innovative in its attempts to straddle academic and popular audiences.  Most chapters follow the format of a history or social science text meant for mass consumption — focusing on the story and occasionally engaging the academic literature.  Two chapters, however, are quite unusual.  One consists primarily of a transcribed interview with a suburban drug dealer and the other is a transcription of a go-go concert, showing the importance of shout-outs and audience interaction to the music.

The book is ambitious.  In addition to go-go, Hopkinson engages ethnomusicologists and European social scientists.  She explores the changing patterns of racial residential segregation in the nation’s capital.  She even draws links between the election of Barack Obama and the gentrification of urban areas.

She also emphasizes the importance of go-go as part of the local black economy.  It provides incomes for musicians, promoters, club owners, bouncers, music store staff, graphic designers, and many more.  She places go-go in a historical context of post-riots DC which, perhaps unlike other cities, provided a place for black owned businesses to exist.

But the ambitious scope of the book also produces the book’s main shortcoming, which is that it fails to meet all of its goals.  The reader is left with only the brief sketches of what appear to be important points.  Perhaps  scaling back in one area would’ve been wise.  It could even have been expanded into two books.

Most successful is Hopkinson’s telling of the history of go-go.  She clearly understands the importance of this music to many in D.C. and Prince George’s County.

Among the interesting tidbits is the story of how Chuck Brown — often considered the creator of the go-go sound — created the unique music.  Brown, an African-American, was friends with the leader of a local Latin musical group called Los Latinos.  Brown liked the music, so when he created his own band, he incorporated some of the Caribbean instruments that he heard, such as cowbell, congas, and timbales–adding a unique flavor to his funk music.

An interesting, recurring theme is understanding why go-go hasn’t expanded beyond D.C.  Hopkinson compares go-go to hip-hop and reggae which both broke big internationally and to Nigerian ju-ju music which, like go-go, hasn’t caught on outside of its home turf.

Island Records’ attempted to break go-go into an international phenomenon, similar to the explosion of reggae about a decade earlier, but failed, leaving the rest of the country with few opportunities to know this impressive music.

 



About the Author

Michael Starkey
Michael Starkey
Michael Starkey is an engineer 9-5, but in his spare time he writes about music and cultural history. His work includes "'Mercy, Mercy Me, The Ecology': Environmental Themes in Black Music" and "Hidden from Sight: African Americans and the Wilderness", presented at the annual conference of American Society of Environmental History, in 2006 and 2007 respectively. He is currently working on a book based on his master's thesis, "Wilderness, Race, and African Americans: An Environmental History from Slavery to Jim Crow." Michael lives and work in New York, NY. He currently resides in East Harlem with his wife and splits his work time between offices in Queens and Manhattan. He enjoys bicycling, listening to music, and playing soccer.