In the streets and online, go-go’s drumbeat for social change remains a constant

Faye Kyzer

Still, a broader message seemed to bloom when the band segued from “You Can’t Mute Us” into a percolating rendition of Sade’s classic carpe-diem love song “Cherish the Day.” As ever with go-go music — that District-born style of hyper-funk where bands use timbales and congas to stitch a set of disparate tunes into one contiguous piece of dance music — it was difficult to mark where one song ended and the other began. And so Pure Elegance was drumming home one of go-go’s central metaphors: Everything is connected.

With our city’s nightlife shut down for the foreseeable future, Washington’s go-go scene has fought hard to keep itself connected this summer. Out in the streets, go-go music became the de facto soundtrack of the District’s Black Lives Matter protests, with various groups rolling around the city’s grid on parade floats, offering a propulsive rhythm for protesters’ marching feet. Online, go-go groups have been doing similar work, hosting live-streamed performances that continue to draw attention to the intertwined civic issues cited in Pure Elegance’s “You Can’t Mute Us.”

All of this comes more than a year after the launch of the #DontMuteDC movement, a series of petitions and street concerts arguing for the go-go’s fundamental right to exist. (The movement was sparked after a complaint from a resident of a luxury apartment building in Shaw silenced the go-go music being played outside of a neighboring cellular phone shop.) Since then, city officials have declared go-go the District’s official music, but more importantly #DontMuteDC appears to have reinvigorated the go-go community’s activist spirit and mobilized it as a voting bloc.

One of the most highly visible groups this year has been TOB, a younger troupe that, back in June, performed on a float that coasted down 14th Street NW to the freshly painted Black Lives Matter Plaza. In August, the band added its thunderous rhythm to protests near the White House during the Republican National Convention, and mere days later, was making a similarly righteous noise outside Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s apartment building, protesting voter suppression and DeJoy’s hindering of the Postal Service.

TOB clearly understands the power of rhythm as a synchronizing force, but also as a tool that can be used to different ends. In addition to protesting the actions of the federal government, the band has been working to fortify the local community, performing digital concerts that promote education and wellness. On Sept. 13, TOB soundtracked an aerobics class filmed at Audi Field. On Oct. 4, the band is scheduled to perform a virtual back-to-school bash organized by the nonprofit group Beyond the Classroom, which provides school supplies — this year: computers, flash drives, desks, chairs — to area families in need.

Not every virtual go-go performance addresses a specific social cause, but in 2020, celebrating the music’s continued existence still counts as a political statement in and of itself. On Saturday night, Backyard Band will perform at the online season finale of the Fort Dupont Park Summer Concert Series, an annual sequence of weekly summer blowouts that had to migrate onto the bandwidth this year. Also on Saturday, Rare Essence will stream its 45th anniversary concert, and plans to unveil a music video for “Hit the Floor,” a new single featuring Snoop Dogg.

How will that big Saturday night out in the go-go feel when it’s confined to a tiny computer screen? Like good times, but also like strange times, distant and deficient. The music will crank, and the people will dance, but they’ll be doing it alone. Everything connnected, everyone disconnected.

This is the cruel paradox of a live-streaming nightlife. All the fun you’re having reminds you of all the fun you’re missing. And in this case, the word “fun” feels deeper than usual. It contains a sense of communion, commitment, determination and hope — which might be why watching the music video for Pure Elegance’s “You Can’t Mute Us” feels more fun than watching the band’s live concert from Tuesday night. The music video is crammed with footage from the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the District this summer, offering a portrait of a community united behind a variety of causes.

In the disorienting isolation of quarantine, it’s still easy to dance along with this video, a tacit reminder that go-go remains connected — to its principles, to its politics, to itself — even when togetherness isn’t an option.

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