Book Club: The Beat! Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C.

Read: The Beat! Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C. by Kip Lornell and Charles C. Stephenson, Jr.
Stars: Three

Drinking: Water 😦

Go-Go is a musical genre unique to African American culture in Washington, D.C. While it briefly was popular in Europe and parts of the United States in the early 1980s, go-go’s home is the District. Lornell and Stephenson attempt to capture the feeling and culture of go-go in The Beat!. They do a great job discussing the D.C. African American culture that sprang up around and influenced go-go. Using interviews and the authors’ own experiences, they trace the history of the style from its beginnings in the 1970s through today.

According to Lornell and Stephenson, go-go was created by Chuck Brown in 1976 as a melding of jazz, funk, and disco with a layered, rhythmic beat that is perfect for hours of dancing. They attempt to describe the music, but admit that it is best consumed in a live show. I found some of Chuck Brown’s recordings online to try to get a feel for the music, to see the appeal.

Stephenson became interested in go-go from less of a musical standpoint, and more from the view that it was a positive activity for young people to get involved in. He agreed to manage a young band that has been one of the most popular go-go bands for the last three decades. Unfortunately, despite Stephenson and many others advocating the positive impact of go-go on youth culture in D.C., the government of the District, as well as the U.S. Congress, which makes laws for the District, became convinced that go-go and its shows were intertwined with the drugs and violence that marred the city in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, go-go was much more restricted from clubs.

While go-go is still well known in D.C., it is not as popular as it once was. Lornell and Stephenson note that it is the difficulty go-go has had in gaining popularity outside the District, compared to other urban music such as hip hop, that has led to its decline.

The book club did not so much discuss the book or go-go music itself as we did the cultural and racial divide that it represents in the city. There is a vast difference between the experiences of primarily white, middle class residents and the African American residents in Southeast or Northeast D.C. We, as primarily white women, discussed these differences and if they could be melded.

The Beat! is a fascinating look at the District of Columbia from a perspective that most tourists, and even residents, will never see.

I occasionally participate in a book club that focuses on books about Washington, D.C. and politics.

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Author: Lisa Fry

Freelance Writer & Editor. Book lover. Feminist. International development professional

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