Skip to main content

D.C.: The Social Power of Music


Washington is a fascinating town because there’s so much emphasis on the federal government that there’s this shade that’s created. And what grows in the shade? Something nutritious and profound.

Though perceived as a transient city with a constant turnover, Washington, D.C., is a place of storied communities and inherent culture. A site of contrasts, it is at once a hometown, a tourist destination, a federal city, and a Chocolate City whose black majority is now a plurality.

The local punk and go-go scenes reflect the tensions and legacies of these contrasts—and were the inspiration for 2019 D.C. music programming. Go-go music, developed in the city’s African American communities, draws influence from church music, funk, and blues, featuring driving percussion lines of Latin and Caribbean rhythms. Direct, unadorned and emphatically do-it-yourself punk rock in D.C. was pioneered by youth in response to mainstream rock ’n’ roll, and conservative politics and social mores. Rebellious and resourceful, both of these homegrown music movements have gained national and international recognition—while primarily operating from a base of independent local venues, producers, collaborators, and live audiences.

Precipitated in part by a five-week partial government shutdown earlier in the year, the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival presented a two-day schedule of programs instead of its usual ten days. D.C.: The Social Power of Music adapted to this format. Working in collaboration with producers, artists, and activists, it produced a series of events in sites around the city and focused on documentation, preservation, and digital content.

Since the first Folklife Festival in 1967, the Smithsonian has featured the creativity and resilience of D.C. artists, alongside those from around the world. Several programs specifically focused on D.C. as a place, and documentation from these programs—thousands of audio recordings and photographs—are preserved and accessible to researchers through the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.

At a time when dramatic changes in the city’s demographics, built environment, and economy are impacting local communities, the Festival recognizes D.C.’s distinct heritage. It affirms its commitment to collaborating with local knowledge keepers and artists to promote cultural equity and support them in the preservation and promotion of their local histories and culture.

Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, sustainability projects, educational outreach, and more.