By J. Plunky Branch
What happens to go-go now?
I don’t know where go-go is going from here, but I do know the music will stay alive. It may become an historic or classical artifact, which has happened to other genres of our music. When we say something is classical, it means it lasts over several generations. Jazz music has become classical because it has survived and it can now be used as a historical reference. Go-go music almost assuredly has in its destiny to become a significant part of our regional popular legacy. Nothing lasts forever, but hopefully our art and music and culture will survive us.
Studying the music of the United States, and that largely means Black music, you can almost designate decades by the styles of popular music. We say the 1920’s was the jazz age; the 30’s was big band swing era. The 40’s had be-bop and then the beginning of R&B. The 50’s had R&B and the beginning of rock & roll. The 60’s was hard bop, avant garde jazz and soul music. The 70’s was the decade of disco music and the 80’s saw the advent of hip-hop. Most of those musical genres had a peak of popularity spanning about ten years and then waned. So, Go-go may have already had its peak. But none of those other music genres disappeared. You can still hear swing music. You can still hear bebop. You can still hear R&B and soul music. So even though go-go may have had its peak, it doesn’t mean it goes away; and, it can still have influence.
Another thing we know about history is that often styles, events and even personalities and proponents recycle and have comebacks. They make a spiral. They continue to go upward but they often “come back as an old school track.” The whole idea of sampling and hip-hop music is an example of that. It has a higher technological basis but with sampling, basically you are going back to get something from the past and then updating it. So I believe go-go will continue to be sampled and used in hip-hop and other new forms.
When I think of people who might represent that future I think of not only the current and younger go-go groups and artists coming up in DC, but also, some of the national neo-soul artists. Even someone as popular and at the top of the game as Jill Scott has used some go-go influences in some of her songs. Her song “It’s Love” and the Grammy-nominated song she did with Chuck Brown, also called ”It’s Love”, represent a kind of trans-generational, genre-bending possibility and a passing of the torch.
Go-go may become a historic cultural music. In ten or 15 years, people may be receiving grant funding to study and preserve this music, like today people get grants to do jazz music. At many jazz festivals, R&B and soul acts are being added to the line-ups. Some jazz purists may want to keep those genres separate but for others there is the recognition that those musics share a common heritage; and R&B and soul music, now 40 and 50 years old, are historically relevant and significant. So I think go-go will find its way into that milieu. In ten years, Rare Essence will be as old as I am now and people will book them in some jazz festivals; and maybe some educational institutions will study go-go as the soundtrack of DC culture in the 70’s and 80’s.
I believe the music will definitely have an audience in places like Europe. Europeans pay homage to and ascribe great value to things that have proven themselves by standing the test of time. It doesn’t mean they don’t like Beyoncé and the latest pop divas and teen idols, but Europeans definitely appreciate and pay tribute to things that last. Internationally, traditional Black music is appreciated as art that has impacted and influenced world culture. So, go-go artists will likely be able to go to Europe and be treated with some measure of respect, because the music had impact on the culture of DC, the US and in many places around the world for more than 30 years.
Chuck Brown’s importance can be measured in the number of gigs performed or record sales or critical acclaim and even awards received. But one can also look at his longevity and Chuck’s influence on other musicians to begin to assess how important he was to the area’s music scene. He spawned a generation of followers, imitators, co-creators and adherents. And he had legions of fans.
Chuck’s band and mine shared the stage together many times, at least five or six times in Richmond, VA alone over just the last two or three years. It was a logical billing in my neck of the woods, maybe because he and I were from the same generation; maybe because we both feature African and Latin kind of rhythms and percussion and our sounds were so compatible. Chuck was always cordial, supportive and very kind. I read an article in the Washington Post that said Chuck would never fail to allow himself to be photographed by and with his fans. He would endlessly pose and flash that gold-toothed smile and had untold amounts of patience.
But I’ll just share this anecdote: at one of the gigs we did together I handed him a CD. Two weeks later Chuck called me personally, long distance to tell me how much he enjoyed my CD. That’s not the response of a normal, egotistical superstar musician. He took the time to call me personally and said “Man, you gave me that CD; we listened to the whole thing on the bus and I just wanted to let you know I thought it was killing.” He just went on and on about it. So that’s just an example of how sharing and giving he was. That’s my story about Chuck…
We probably appeared together 20 times and most times I would do my hit and be gone and he would do his hit and be gone. But I had warm relations with not only him but also his band members and his management. So from top down they were good people. And that’s the way it is among musicians in DC. There is a kind of community spirit that is almost palpable.
To go further, go-go music is communal. I mean it’s not a virtuoso’s music. Even though we pay homage to Chuck as an individual, as the godfather, go-go is a group experience music. And it is groove music, and the groove doesn’t happen without people. Groove is rhythm we all feel together. It means we’re all in this together: everybody in this room, in this club, on this playground, at this festival is feeling something together. It is not like jazz, where you go in the woodshed and practice for years and when you come out you set out to show how accomplished you are as an individual artist. That’s not what go-go is about. Go-go has an African denominator which says “We’re all part musician, we all have a voice; we all can sing; we all can dance. Now let’s all do all of that, all together; and make something that’s bigger than we are as individuals…”
We should all use our individual voices and talents; join in and groove together: musically, socially, culturally and politically. And do it until we’re satisfied. Let’s keep go-go go-going…
© 2012 J. Plunky Branch