Priscilla Ward writes how go-go went from the streets of D.C. to become the heartbeat and safe space for black churches in our nation’s capital.
The African American church has served as the foundation for so much of black music. As long as there are black churches in Washington, D.C. go-go will always have a home, even as the city continues to rapidly gentrify and displace culture. These places of worship have traditionally been safe spaces where black music tradition lives and go-go is no exception to this.
Go-go came from the streets of D.C. as the people’s music, language, economy and, in some instances, a community news network. Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go, and the Soul Searchers introduced the congo-infused blend of funk and R&B with the call-and-response tradition from the African American church. He did so following the riots of 1968, leaving the city a wasteland few could employ enough hope in rebuilding. However, amidst this Brown cemented D.C.’s own indigenous sound.
“Even more important than a sound, Brown also created a whole economy built on an ever-shifting constellation of local, independently owned clothing boutiques, music stores, and venues. Hundreds of musicians, graphic designers, club promoters, club owners, and security companies went on to eat off that sound,” Natalie Hopkinson writes in her book, Go-Go Live.
Go-go music became a meeting ground for D.C.’s black youth culture. Youth from all different parts of the city, as well as Maryland and Virginia, would come to see their favorite bands play at area venues. One of the most popular of these was Club U, located just off the lobby of the Franklin D. Reeves Municipal Center on 14th street NW, in the heart of “Black Broadway.”
However, this jubilation was quickly interrupted. The violence that took place in-and-around go-go clubs caused the art form to become synonymous with crime. In 1997, a D.C. police officer sitting in his patrol car at a red light on Georgia Avenue NW was shot to death by Marthell Nathaniel Dean who apparently was seeking revenge after being bounced from the nearby Ibex nightclub where a go-go party was happening by another officer, reported the Washington Post. This shooting and others prompted an all-out-war against go-go by the local police department.
These places, bubbling with go-go, something black people in D.C. could call their own, a creative economy of sound and language, shut down like a vicious domino effect. The occupation of rebuilding D.C. meant policing culture. Go-gos became places with caution tape, construction signs and bulldoze notices. These days in D.C. it’s a scavenger hunt to even find a bar or lounge playing go-go. Gentrification pushed it out and police silenced it. However, gospel go-go has managed to save space for the music and its culture.
While many of these venues closed, church sanctuaries across the DMV began to open up to the idea of weaving their worship with go-go music to reach youth in a relatable way. In the process, many of these Christian go-go bands made sure D.C.’s indigenous art form remained accessible while ministering to communities.
“It’s more or less a move of the holy spirit when you are preaching the word of God through music the beat is the same, but the music is different. It’s the lyrics behind the music that causes the stigma of people wanting to do things in an ungodly manner. Go-go is basically the rhythm, being predominant in the music changing the atmosphere of the music,” said Micky Wilson of Posse 4 Christ go-go band. This stream of thought inspired gospel go-go.
“Understanding what I went through, I developed a passion for helping people who were lost. We started doing outreach to people and we needed a band that they could relate to,” Wilson said. He notes he was homeless in the basement of a crack house when he accepted Christ after watching a Christian show. Ever since then he has committed his life to making sure other lost souls are led to Christ without compromising the authenticity of go-go. “I consider go-go to be the heartbeat of D.C.,” Wilson continues.
In 2002, Ken “Icy Ice” Moore birthed the gospel go-go movement. Ken and his wife, Samantha Moore were on a mission to change the negative stigma associated with go-go. Although some thought the idea of mixing a secular art form with gospel music was completely asinine, Ken and Samantha’s case was, “The angels in heaven worshipped him with music… why can’t we praise God with go-go music?” as reported by the Washington Post. The couple was on a mission to reach people where they were at. They believed gospel go-go was a place where this could happen.
The Moore’s goal was to see people saved by attending one of their gospel go-gos. However, the two gospel go-go evangelists came with histories that weren’t always as sanctified. Ken was once known as “Ice” and Samantha was known as “Pleazure.”
Ken reportedly ran several businesses, a crew of exotic dancers — Daddies Girlz — a porn website. He was responsible for a number of highly publicized soft-porn videotapes of go-go pool parties. He was also responsible for managing a number of go-go bands. However, he made most of his money by running the Icebox, an all-ages go-go club in Northeast D.C. Meanwhile, Samantha was an exotic dancer with the group Entertainment With Class. Pleazure’s resume included being dubbed “Miss Buns” and “Rumpshaker of D.C.”
However, the couple’s lives took a drastic turn in 2001 when they attended a church service at Heart to Heart Christian Center where they decided to do a 180 and get saved. Their response to the sermon that day redirected the course of their lives and the way they chose to use their influence in D.C.’s go-go scene.
Ken and his wife opened up the venue Complex for the “Holy Ghost Workout,” a party with the area’s leading gospel go-go bands. The event took place every Saturday, drawing hundreds of teens out to turn up to go-go without dealing with evasive security measures. Like the Moores, many teens lives were transformed while in attendance at the “Holy Ghost Workout.” The couple reportedly had altar calls between go-go band sets allowing attendees to pledge their lives to Christ in a judgment-free zone. Hundreds of youth were turning to Christ at their weekly Holy Ghost Workouts. Following the model of the Moores, several other gospel go-go bands begin to form.
Like Holy Ghost Workout, the Klub Kingdom, a monthly club-like ministry, serves as space where go-go “cranks” and the gospel is preached. Christ Style is on the roster of bands that play during this monthly event. “We are helping maintain or sustain go-go by giving the secular audience the opportunity to praise and worship while the music is going on,” said Mike Marable of Christ Style go-go band. Christ Style came about January 1, 2014. “It was just a direction from God Almighty himself,” Marable said. Their formula, “Every 10 or 15 minutes the band pauses to give people a brief sermonette,” Marable continued. Marable has played go-go since 1977. However, he begins his career as a member of secular bands. “The Lord gave me a word, ‘It’s time for me now,’” Marable said. This testimony has outlined the rest of his career.
Many of the gospel go-go bands remix songs from groups such as Jesus Culture and Hillsong to a go-go beat. “So we took a lot of those songs and we put go-go on it. So outreach is more like outreach. It’s a lot of spirituality with the go-go,” said DK Thomas, the leader of the gospel go-go band, Body of Evidence (BOE). “We play in clubs with other bands. Usually, we are the beginning band that starts off the whole event. It sets the tone. It sets the mood for a more peaceful atmosphere,” Thomas said.
Shutting down the stigma that go-go is violent and maintaining its relevance is essential to the sharing of this art form even through a gospel lens. Thomas recounts how gospel go-go is remaining relevant despite gentrification.
“You can stay relevant despite the gentrification, you can still be relevant in the market, but you just have to be connected to purpose. BOE won’t have that problem because being connected to the police department and doing the outreaches with the police department, we will always be in D.C. You just have to be relevant, you just have to have a purpose,” Thomas said.
Despite gentrification and the policing of D.C.’s indigenous music culture, it’s here to stay and gospel go-go is serving the people by creating safe spaces for the music to be experienced.
Priscilla Ward is a celebrated writer whose work has been featured in Essence, Salon and is also the creator of #BLCKNLIT. You can find her tweeting about bell hooks, sandwiches and art shows @MacaroniFRO.