Who Owns Go-Go in the Capital City?

The popular black D.C. subculture was effectively gutted by the white establishment. Now, an NBA G League expansion team wants to pay tribute to what was lost. At what point does appreciation become appropriation in sports?
photo of Master TesfatsionMaster TesfatsionFeatured Columnist IIN WASHINGTON, D.C.November 2, 2018

Entertainment and Sports Arena, the home of the NBA G League's latest expansion team, the Capital City Go-Go, is located in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast Washington, D.C., the most economically disadvantaged neighborhood of the nation's capital. The $55 million venue is built on land that once served as a 346-acre psychiatric hospital.

Three blocks away, on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Malcolm X Avenue, there's a Popeyes and a Mart Liquor, where corner boys post up day and night. Litter covers patches of dead grass at Shepherd Parkway, a nearby federal park that has long been described as an eyesore for residents.

"This park has kind of been in the bedrock of all the different eras of drug use that we've had in the District—from crack, to heroin, PCP and now K2," says Congress Heights Commissioner Mike Austin, who grew up in the neighborhood. On this Saturday afternoon, he and a local resident give away water, food and supplies to the needy. "It's a joke for most people, but it's really not a joke. We need to continue to provide services for our residents over here, because they have the lowest income in the district and have the most needs."

Austin is one of many residents who are conflicted about the arena. Amenities that come with such an investment, like new jobs and chains like Starbucks and Chipotle, are sure to follow. The question, he says, is a matter of who will reap the benefits. He has seen enough black people get displaced in D.C. over the years to make him skeptical.

"That arena, we'll see how it shapes out," says Austin, who has proposed two city council bills in 2017 to prevent Ward 8—the District is broken into Wards; Congress Heights is located in Ward 8—residents from being displaced. "But I already know."

It's not just the classic signs of gentrification that have black residents conflicted about the incoming Go-Go, who will begin their inaugural season Saturday. It's the gentrification of black D.C.'s cultural heritage: The name Go-Go pays tribute to the funk-, blues-, soul- and salsa-inspired music genre created by the District's black residents, even as the District systematically dismantled Go-Go culture over the last two decades.

Now that the culture is finally receiving recognition—through a basketball organization instead of the genre's founders, influencers and participants—black D.C. residents are torn about whether they should fully embrace it. When does cultural appreciation become cultural appropriation in sports?

During the annual H Street Festival in Northeast D.C., the sound of conga drums lures a crowd of black people to congregate around a performance stage on 14th and H. The DNA Band, which consists of four musicians and two singers, is making its way through its 30-minute set. As the band bounces through timeless Go-Go classics like Junkyard Band's "Sardines" and a remix of Ella Mai's "Boo'd Up," the crowd loosens up; some sway in place, others beat their feet and participate in the band's call-and-response segments.

The newly opened Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., will be the home of the city's new G League team, the Capital City Go-Go, and the WNBA's Washington Mystics.
The newly opened Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., will be the home of the city's new G League team, the Capital City Go-Go, and the WNBA's Washington Mystics.Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images

"Drop it, Sis!" a black woman yells while dancing to a conga drum solo, red cup in hand. The energy from the band and the crowd piques the interest of numerous white passersby.

This is Go-Go at its essence. It's a spiritual experience, driven by the rhythm and live instrumentation of a full band—keyboard, horns, strings, percussion.

"You gotta be in D.C. to feel the whole Go-Go vibe," Warriors forward Kevin Durant, who was born and raised in the D.C. area, told me at a recent game. "You just gotta be there. I think a lot of people would enjoy it if they just go to a show."

Durant says he grew up on Go-Go culture. "Buying CDs from the kiosks at the mall, getting tapes from the swap meets, exchanging tapes, wanting to go to the Go-Go shows, it was just a whole culture for us as kids," he says. "I was hoping it took off and touched all parts of the U.S., but I'm glad we've got our little thing."

Like other black music that thrived in small pockets of the U.S.—Miami bass in South Florida, chopped and screwed in Houston—Go-Go captivated the Mid-Atlantic. Pioneered by the late Chuck Brown, the Go-Go sound took shape following the 1968 riots (which arose in response to Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination). Described as "pots and pans" music to outsiders, the drums and conga create a syncopated rhythm that you have to catch. During the 1970s, more and more black Go-Go bands sprouted up, thanks to a strong music program in D.C. public schools. The black radio stations knocked Go-Go jams into the night.

Through the years, Go-Go music remained connected to the black experience in D.C. As black residents dealt with mass incarceration, drug abuse and gun violence, the sounds of Go-Go reflected what black D.C. was going through.

"Go-Go wasn't written in the arts section," says filmmaker Mignotae Kebede, who moved to D.C. in 2010. Kebede is behind an upcoming documentary, What Happened 2 Chocolate City, about D.C.'s endangered black culture. "It was written in Metro, associated with its crime involvement."

In the late 1980s, Go-Go became associated with violence that plagued the nation's capital. D.C. was known as the "murder capital" between 1988 and 1992. Some of these murders occurred at Go-Go clubs, and D.C. politicians blamed the music for the rise in violence. The music was the scapegoat for socioeconomic problems in the district.

"It's this Go-Go," a D.C. police commander testified to shut down a Go-Go nightclub in 2005. "If you have a black-tie event, you don't have any problem. But if you bring Go-Go in, you're going to have problems."

District authorities worked to close the most popular Go-Go clubs, which stunted the movement and erased an economy benefiting working-class black residents who were club owners, musicians, promoters and bartenders. As Go-Go clubs were forced out of the District to Prince George's County in Maryland, they couldn't shake the genre's negative perception. Prince George's County Police viewed Go-Go as "violence masqueraded as entertainment." Meanwhile, D.C. also ended many of the music programs in schools, stifling young, black musicians' ability to build a foundation in music. Although weekend Go-Go radio programs continued through the 2000s, the energy around the genre began to fade. A number of residents even gravitated toward hip-hop.

"It was frustrating because it was the only music I listened to," says Mansa Johnson, a D.C. native working with Kebede on the documentary. "You don't like to see it get degraded and marginalized. That was during a time when I just started listening to more rap music, for real."

The eradication of Go-Go disrupted the sense of connection that the genre delivered to those who loved it. The music was collaborative, communal. Experiencing it was a means of belonging. Go-Go musicians and fans have since been starving for that kind of acknowledgement.

"Imagine if New Orleans didn't have jazz anymore," says Kebede. "That's the way that I see what's happening in D.C. It's silencing what this strong, powerful black culture was. It's scary."

That Go-Go was effectively gutted by the District's police force and policymakers serves as testimony that it was never loved, or taken seriously, by white D.C. With that history, what would it mean for the District to properly honor it?

When the Capital City Go-Go were formally announced on "Go-Go" night last December, during a Wizards-Pistons game, the goal was a sort of revival. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis stood at midcourt alongside Mayor Muriel Bowser, Ward 8 Councilman Trayon White and John Buchanan, a member of Brown's band, in front of two conga drums, and together they unveiled the new G League team's logo on the videoboard.

Capital City Go-Go @CapitalCityGoGo

On-court presentation at #WizPistons announcing our name, featuring @TedLeonsis, @MayorBowser, John Buchanan (a member of the legendary Chuck Brown's band), & @eventsdc! #DCFamily https://t.co/Bdf6rW97Al

On the day of the ceremony, Leonsis told NBC Sports Washington that the name continuously stuck out following deliberations and research. The next step was checking in with the neighbors. The Wizards reached out to their fans and residents in and around Ward 8, a predominantly African American neighborhood where the Go-Go will play, to seek their input.

"It just was a name that we wanted to be respectful [with]," Leonsis said. "We went into the community and asked fans, asked people who would be our neighbors, did they think this was an appropriate homage to music that we kind of grew up with, music that we felt good about.

"The bongo sound, the percussion sound is very, very natural to our city."

Leonsis didn't grow up in the D.C. area. He was born and raised in Brooklyn and, later, Massachusetts. He moved to the DMV to attend Georgetown for his undergraduate degree as the Go-Go movement was taking off. While he might not have been as immersed in the culture as, say, a black person from Southeast D.C., he still felt a connection to it. That's the Go-Go effect. Once you experience it, you feel like you are a part of this kinship.

Some in black D.C. see Leonsis' efforts as a measure of Go-Go culture finally receiving the respect it deserves.

"I think I feel much better because we're finally getting the proper recognition that it needs," says Kennie Lee, a Go-Go musician for the last three decades and currently with the popular Junkyard Band. "When the basketball team plays in different arenas, people will always be curious about what is Go-Go. Whenever they come to the city, they can find out places where Go-Go is played and see where the name comes from."

But others see Go-Go's complicated history—its rise and fall and revival—as a microcosm of how black people in the District have long been treated. Black residents, who were segregated into neighborhoods like Southeast D.C., built a culture that was then stripped away. Now, they are being priced out of the neighborhood they were quarantined to (D.C. is being sued for $1 billion for discriminating against poor and working-class black residents), and the culture they built is being refashioned from an outsider's perspective.

The Wizards organization has tried to gain the approval of the community in which the Go-Go will be playing, but to some, the new arena is another step in diluting the culture of the neighborhood.
The Wizards organization has tried to gain the approval of the community in which the Go-Go will be playing, but to some, the new arena is another step in diluting the culture of the neighborhood.Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images

A similar cycle has happened with other sports franchises that have looked for innovative ways to fill up their arenas and connect with their hometown fanbases, a large percentage of whom are black. The Notorious B.I.G. never got to see the Nets play in Brooklyn—he was tragically killed 15 years before the franchise moved to his New York borough in 2012. Yet, he has his own banner hanging in the rafters. Last year, he had his own day on the Nets' promotional calendar, Biggie Night. In two weeks, the Nets will rock their "City Edition" jerseys inspired by the rapper's colorful Coogi sweaters.

There isn't a direct association between the legendary rapper and the franchise, which was based in New Jersey when he was alive. But following the move—and a co-sign by Brooklyn rapper Jay-Z, who sold his less than 1 percent ownership stake in 2013—the Nets adopted Brooklyn's black culture. The move has proved fruitful: Despite posting only two winning seasons in a decade, the team has remained culturally and commercially relevant.

"I feel like black people are the ones that carry the culture," says Johnson. "Wherever you go, we're the trendsetters. In D.C., I don't think it's different."

By using the Go-Go name, the Wizards' G League affiliate hopes to have similar success in the Mid-Atlantic region. Whether displaying an appreciation of D.C.'s culture will prove as fruitful as the Nets' Brooklyn experiment is anybody's guess. The fabric of the District's black identity is difficult to replicate. Is it doing it for the sake of capitalism or to honor the culture? Or maybe the organization thinks it can do both.

Not far from Shepherd Parkway is a mural painted on Mellon Market, which some locals feel accurately reflects what has happened in Congress Heights. The mural is of Martin Luther King Jr., who has a teardrop spray-painted on his left cheek. To get a better look, I step out of the car, walk over, hoping to take a picture. A corner boy confronts me on the sidewalk, asking what I want. His hand hovers next to his right hip. I tell him I'm here to snap a picture of the mural. He permits it, and then I return to my vehicle.

A mural of Martin Luther King, Jr. adorns the side of a market in a neighborhood of Southeast Washington, D.C.
A mural of Martin Luther King, Jr. adorns the side of a market in a neighborhood of Southeast Washington, D.C.Master Tesfatsion

Before I leave the neighborhood, two young white men on the other side of the street catch the attention of the corner boys. The visitors are casually walking toward the arena. One has a calzone in his hand.

They're from South Carolina and in the area for the concert. In a ward that's 90 percent black, they definitely stand out.

"If I look around for a second, yeah, I can see that," one of them says. "I can see how two white boys walking can be a little bit different. I walked around the corner, and they were playing music. So my first response was just to start dancing with one of the people. They laughed and walked away. I'm like, 'OK. It's all good.' They seemed to not mind me at least."

Ten years from now, Southeast D.C. will not look the same. Developers are buying houses for very little money. There's evidence of construction work underway all around—the start of a $100 million development near the arena.

But when the dust clears, a familiar symbol will still remain: Go-Go, minus the rhythm.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.