Why Black Music Matters While Cities Burn
This morning, I woke up in a curfew
O God, I was a prisoner, too.
Could not recognize the faces standing over me.
They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality.
—Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Burnin’ and Lootin’”
More than forty years ago, President Jimmy Carter declared June Black Music Month. Now, as cities around the world ignite in flames to protest brutality and racial inequality, and black essential workers die of COVID-19 at unconscionable rates, it might not be immediately obvious why black music matters right now.
But black music can be a balm, as D-Nice’s Club Quarantine was for the hundreds of thousands who partied virtually. Or it can be the opposite, as in last year’s Don’t Mute DC movement, when Washington D.C.’s indigenous go-go music spoke back to power structures. Go-go music was the fire in the streets. The music’s Afro-Latin rhythms and signature congas drew crowds to hear fiery speeches from activists and forced conversations about gentrification, cultural erasure, education, health care, mass incarceration, and more.
This Wednesday, June 3, the conversation continues about why go-go matters. I will be joining writer Ta-Nehisi Coates for a concert by the First Ladies of Go-Go and discussion marking twenty years since he published the first oral history of go-go music in the Washington City Paper. The conversation and following performance will stream Wednesday at noon EDT on the Don’t Mute DC Facebook page and be shared on the Smithsonian Folklife page. Register for free. [Post script: watch the videos below]
In the meantime, I share here a few images showing how black music is connected across the diaspora even as COVID-19 has forced the party online.
Click on the image above for full slideshow
While maintaining social distance, the June 3 performance will be live streamed from the site of the future Go-Go Museum & Café in historic downtown Anacostia, Washington, D.C.
I am collaborating with the museum’s founder, my friend, and cultural activist Ronald Moten to help get the museum off the ground. The Go-Go Museum is faced with all the usual challenges we have as black creatives such as lack of access to funding. COVID-19 and social distancing rules are another big hurdle. These have forced this museum to be digital first. However, it is exciting to think about the possibilities of a mobile, digital-first museum that aims to decolonize the archives from the very beginning.
For a people who are brutalized, oppressed, displaced around the world, black music may be as close to a home as we will ever get.
Dr. Natalie Hopkinson is the author of Go-Go Live and an assistant professor in Howard University’s Department of Communication, Culture and Media Studies. Her article “Fluorescent Flags: Black Power, Publicity, and Counternarratives in Go-Go Street Posters in the 1980s” was published in Communication, Culture and Critique on May 23, 2020.