Don’t call it an occupation — they’ve been here for years. In fact, until an untimely — well, actually quite timely for DC’s ravenous real estate developers — fire put it out of commission, there were a bunch of guys occupying space in front of the DC Farmer’s Market building, across from Gallaudet University in the Northeast quadrant of the city. They erected structures with wood, pallets, and tarps, but they weren’t camping there, and they weren’t protesting. They were working, selling, their hours as long as the market’s, six days a week. And what they sold was illegal.
No, not drugs. The vendors sold bootleg and counterfeit merchandise. Knock-off Nikes, mysteriously cheap Newports, CDs and, to use the jingle, “all new movies.” I quickly learned to avoid the DVDs: the new X-Men movie was terrible enough without the intrepid camcorder jockey munching popcorn and explaining plot points to his companion. My table of choice was the CDs, where I received a weekly lesson in go-go, the Chocolate City’s indigenous urban music.
Go-go is live band funk rooted in clip-clopping conga polyrhythms mastered by Chuck Brown’s band in the 1970s. When the rise of hip hop overshadowed any nationwide interest in go-go, the genre went resolutely local, and has stayed that way ever since. It’s still live band music, though by no means retro — bands have consistently experimented with the latest technology, including drum machines, samples, and delay effects. And bands incorporate current hip hop and R&B hits into their repertoires as fast as they hit radio, developing inventive cover versions of the latest Beyoncé or Drake hits. It’s been called the soul of Washington, a city most people assume sold anything resembling its soul a long time ago.
It’s fitting that I have to skirt the law to find go-go. Like hip hop, and like jazz and rock ‘n’ roll before it, the music and its fans have been criminalized and persecuted as instigators of violence. The police department issues a “go-go report” listing the clubs where go-go can be found (and harassed), and a black guy carrying a conga drum into a bar is grounds for a liquor license inspection. “Local” radio abandons the sound for all but an hour a day. Even go-go’s core audience is being pushed over the Maryland border as virulent gentrification runs amok; the city’s black population dipped below 50 percent this year, amid cheers that were as reprehensible as they were tastefully circumspect. If I want a primer on go-go history and a chance to catch up on the sound, Don and Darrell’s table was the best place to do it.
Stacks of silver CD-Rs shimmer in plastic sleeves, emblazoned in Sharpie with all manner of codes: “WHAT BAND TRADEWINDS 2-22-10,” “SUTTLE THOUGHTS L.F.B. 2009,” “YOUNG BANDS #32.” I get commentary while Darrell plays tracks for me off a battered CD mixer connected to an amp. “L. F. B., that’s Le Fontaine Bleu. Suttle Thoughts was cranking that night.” Go-go bands rarely bother with the studio, instead recording live sets distributed through bootleggers. As I’m shopping a man inspects a CD with a date from the late nineties. He tells the vendor he was at the show, and purchases the disc with a smile. Don and Darrell aren’t just vendors, and they aren’t just my erstwhile docents to go-go history; they work as librarians too, preserving community memories and making them available to the public for a nominal fee (one for three, two for five to be exact). And they’re redistributing income while they do it. Go-go bands may work with some DC bootleggers, but I’m pretty sure Rihanna and Trey Songz don’t, and their CDs are here too. And their songs show up in the go-go sets: corporate-funded culture appropriated and transformed for local tastes and local economies, akin to folk traditions. The flow of wealth into multinational media conglomerates is siphoned off at a thousand points, like Niger Delta oil pipelines. A small and devoted community continually fights to carve out its own autonomous niche in a hostile environment of racist policing, grinding unemployment, and overproduced entertainment by staying mobile and creative, sometimes underground, sometimes in the light of day. Somewhere, underneath his balaclava, Tony Negri is smiling. In a perfect world he’d be listening to “Bounce Beat Freak” too.
It might seem absurd to portray local music bootleggers as a political force. But the practices associated with certain groups’ pleasure — and survival — have always been political, subject to state repression while serving as creative inspiration for cultural gentrifiers. Crack down on raves, but let people listen to DJs in places where there are dress codes, the bathrooms are monitored and the drink costs are in the double digits. Annihilate wildstyle graffiti from trains, but let a few art speculators round out their painting collections with works by a handful of artists. Push go-go off H Street so gimmicky bars and indistinguishable indie bands can soak up some of the strip’s remaining gritty authenticity. Hanging on — occupying — in the face of this is its own political statement.
Ensconced among monuments and the headquarters of international organizations, its participants working for NGOs and think tanks, DC’s occupations have been slow to discover their local character. DC’s unique role in the national movement may very well be to keep pressure on organizations’ capital to manipulate national policy. But it has done little to engage with the majority of DC residents, outside of its admirable care for some of the city’s homeless and its support for the brief occupation of a shuttered homeless shelter. Go-go music has long been a component of city politics and community activism, and some go-go percussionists could enliven the occupation’s drum circle. But so far the funk is far from McPherson Square.
I’ve heard people say the Occupy movement is about taking back public space. I don’t agree. There is very little meaningfully public about public space. Unless you’re content with jogging or walking, a labyrinth of rules and regulations confronts anyone who tries to use spaces like city parks the way they wish. Occupy Wall Street has highlighted how often “public” spaces such as Zuccotti Park are actually privately owned. Even the police — supposedly supported by taxpayers — fund themselves through private donations and seizure of contraband. We are occupying private space — the power of accumulated wealth manifested in localized private property and the forces of the state marshaled to protect it. So far, the occupations haven’t stressed occupying the means of production as much as occupying the means of reproduction: the spaces in which we live, rest, recuperate, learn, and love that are increasingly commodified, policed, and dismantled. Go-go has fought this on multiple fronts. It speaks the language of struggle, even when it’s using Beyoncé’s lyrics.