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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.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrates local Washington, D.C., music movements and communities. It explores how music, social practice, and sense of place intersect atop the ever-shifting grounds of a city that is at once a hometown, the nation’s capital, a tourist destination, a sanctuary city, an international crossroads, and a Chocolate City whose once black majority is now a black plurality.

D.C.’s punk and go-go scenes reflect the tensions and legacies of these contrasts.

These homegrown DIY, youth-driven music communities embody histories of migration, displacement, segregation, and political activism in the city. Over the months leading up to and during the 2020 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, punk and go-go anchor presentations of a constellation of music making in the metro region. Through performances, discussions, and new web features, we explore the diverse sources, creative conversations, and musical departures emerging from these scenes and resonating in the sounds and communities associated with other genres.

How does music create a sense of local identity? How does it respond to the region’s changing landscapes? How does music making in D.C. reflect challenges and efforts in shaping a region that is a livable place for diverse communities and generations?

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 Washington, D.C., as a place, and documentation from these programs—thousands of audio recordings and photographs—are preserved and accessible to researchers through the Smithsonian’s 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.