Photo: Go-go music is a funk-hip hop blend developed in black neighbourhoods of DC. (ABC News: Emily Olson)
For a quarter of a century, a speaker on an inner-city corner has served as a noisy sentinel, keeping guard over Washington DC.
A DC shop that blasted go-go songs was forced to turn the music off following noise complaintsAfrican-Americans in DC say their culture and traditions are being destroyed by gentrificationResidents have suggested newcomers should have to learn about local culture before moving in
It played go-go music — a funky blend of rhythm and blues and old school hip-hop that was born in America’s capital.
Pedestrians stopped to dance. The postman hummed along. Cars honked in support of the city’s unique groove.
But just across the way, a fancy new apartment complex towers over the block. After a resident’s complaint ratcheted up to a legal threat, the music went silent.
The speaker sits outside a phone store whose long-time owner, Donald Campbell, used to run a go-go club.
He still sells CDs out of the back and has been credited with keeping the genre alive.
Photo: The speaker that started the debate about gentrification in DC. (ABC News: Emily Olson)
When the music stopped, a small rally broke out, making the evening news.
A bigger crowd gathered the next day, building into an all-out block party with go-go performances.
"[Locals] spontaneously gathered together and protested this very definitive characteristic of the city being muted," explained longtime local and go-go fan Brian McGee.
Finally, when local officials started weighing in, the mobile phone franchise acquiesced, and the music came back.
It might seem like a happy ending, but really, it’s only the beginning.
Washington, DC, like so many cities in America and around the world, is in the throes of seismic demographic change, and residents are eager to keep the conversation going.
"This particular instance has brought attention to the music I grew up on — the music that a lot of people grew up on," Mr McGee said.
What is go-go?
Local resident Brian McGee advocated for the phone shop owner to continue playing his music.
Go-go music has been DC’s distinctive bop for nearly half a century.
Defined by the persistent percussive beat that gives it its name, the multi-layered sound can pull in elements from anything and everything — jazz, funk, and even Adele power ballads.
"A lot of it comes from the long-ago communications of African tribes using beats to communicate from community to community, tribe to tribe," Mr McGee said.
"You take that, and you mix it with funk and R&B and just the elements of the city itself," he said. "That’s kind of what go-go is."
These sounds capture the era immediately after the civil rights movement, but the genre is still generating new music today.
It remains entirely an African-American music form.
Go-go and hip hop both got their start in the early 1970s.
They took inspiration from their respective urban centres: DC for go-go and New York for hip hop.
"[Both genres shared] the same conditions of an African-American community that was lacking a lot of resources and wanted to express themselves," Mr McGee said.
Yet hip hop is better known today.
Because it thrives on turntables, hip hop was easily replicated in a studio. That may be why its popularity grew faster and further than go-go.
Go-go remained the local’s secret sound due to the magic of its live shows.
The genre thrives on audience participation — plenty of call and response moments — as well as the visual array of bopping, pulsing drumming movements.
DC, known as Chocolate City, is getting whiter by the day
Photo: Near Chuck Brown Way, a modern apartment complex is being developed. (ABC News: Emily Olson )
Chuck Brown is considered the godfather of go-go.
He received a Grammy before his death, and vestiges of his influence remain in the city.
The street between the new apartment building and the phone store is named Chuck Brown Way.
The Washington Nationals baseball team uses a Chuck Brown song as its victory anthem.
But as the city’s go-go venues have all closed, residents worry that these characteristics will start to slip away.
Washington, DC was once majority African-American, earning it the nickname "Chocolate City."
Mr McGee said it was a huge deal that the seat of government was predominantly African-American, especially after the civil rights movement.
The city’s African-American population dipped below 51 per cent for the first time in 2011.
One report suggests over 20,000 African-American residents were squeezed out of low-income neighbourhoods from 2000 to 2013.
Shaw is a predominantly black DC neighbourhood, but wealthy white residents are moving there.
Shaw, the neighbourhood where the phone store is located, went from being 11 per cent white in 1970 to 62 per cent white in 2015.
The hearts of American urban areas were long dominated by minorities and marked by cheap real estate.
Just like in Australia, it is only in the last couple of decades that inner-city housing costs have started to skyrocket as people have moved in and gentrified urban areas.
It is driven by affluent professionals moving to cities, looking for housing close to their workplaces.
Sabiyha Prince, a cultural anthropologist, wrote that the city "rolled out the proverbial red carpet for their arrival".
"Dog parks, bike lanes, condominiums and expensive restaurants now predominate along the local landscape," she said.
Perhaps the biggest engine for gentrification is the influx of new, high-income housing facilities like the one that generated complaints against the go-go speaker.
By some measures, Washington, DC has the highest intensity of gentrification of anywhere in America, but there’s no denying it is a national trend.
Residents fight to keep go-go going strong
Photo: Donald Campbell’s go-go music speaker started the debate about gentrification. (ABC News: Emily Olson)
After the music came back, there has been a new push to keep the neighbourhood’s culture alive.
Residents have started discussing opening a go-go museum, and the store’s owner, Donald Campbell, has said he’d like to transfer his CDs to MP3s to make them accessible to a wider audience.
Other residents have started speaking up about gentrification issues — like white residents letting their dogs romp on an all-African-American university campus, and a lack of minority representation in city planning decisions.
Mr McGee has suggested newcomers should have to learn about DC’s distinctive sounds and tastes before moving in.
"I think it should be in the lease. Along with being able to sign your name, you should know a handful of things," he said.
He would also like to see incoming residents embrace DC’s African-American culinary traditions, like half-smoke sausages and mambo sauce.
But regardless of what happens, Mr McGee was confident that go-go will never die.
"Residents that have moved to the area and have actually embraced go-go as a part of their new city will be the ones that will continue to help it thrive. From here on out, there will be things that will help the music survive."
Locals in DC will often stop to dance to the go-go music blasting from the shop corner.