Those familiar with the history of music in the U.S. and the significant contributions made by Black Americans understand the special and unique relationship that exists between the people born in particular cities, states or regions like New Orleans (jazz), Mississippi and the 19th century, antebellum plantations of the South (the blues), Detroit (the Motown sound represented by an upbeat fusion between pop and R&B) and Chicago (house) and the music whose origins can be traced to those places.
Here in the DMV, no style of music holds greater sway or commands greater reverence than go-go — a blend of funk, R&B and old school hip-hop that emphasizes a percussive beat and live audience call and response created between the mid-’60s to the late ’70s.
Native Washingtonians give credence to singer-guitarist Chuck Brown, “The Godfather of Go-Go,” for having developed most of the essential elements of the style. Still, it’s a musical movement that cannot truthfully be traced back to a sole person or band, including early innovators like the Young Senators and Black Heat who, like Chuck Brown and his band, had the greatest influence on the development and evolution of go-go.
Many of the early go-go artists, all of whom wanted this new art form to flourish and spread throughout the U.S. and around the world, eventually took younger musicians under their wings, serving as teachers, mentors and confidantes. In this way, go-go maintained its core elements, intricacies and hallmarks that distinguish it, still today, from other musical genres.
Few bands took greater advantage of the lessons provided by their elders than the BackYard Band, who Brown took under his wing, shortly after the talented then-teens first burst on the D.C. scene in the early ’90s.
Just ask Anwan Glover, AKA Big G, a founding member of the band and the band’s lead talker for most of their 25-year history, who attributes both his personal development and the collective success and longevity of the band to “the Godfather.”
The Early Days — Lessons From ‘The Godfather’
“We learned from Chuck who was a master at reaching out to youth and bridging the generation gap, equally having the discernment to realize what was needed to grow the go-go fan base and better expose our sound to those who had never seen us perform live,” Big G said.
“We’d sit down with him over a drink, maybe a Tom Collins or a St. Ides, and share, learn and experiment. It wasn’t about getting high all day on drugs. It wasn’t about the negative stuff that’s often said about go-go — we weren’t about any of that — no then, not now. It was about making the music, making it better and understanding what made go-go so powerful, so much fun.”
“It’s been 25 years since BackYard Band hit the scene and we’re still the same band with the same members. That’s what Chuck told us we should try to maintain. If your engine and transmission are tight, which means the car won’t break down, then you don’t want or need to change the combination, the elements, the parts that make everything go smoothly. Our fans have been with us for a long time and we keep feeding them fresh stuff, new versions of old standards — a mixture of old and new.”
“Most important, we realized early on that we had a special kind of chemistry — we liked it and our fans like it — and we refused to mess with it. Other bands chose to switch members in and out but that only messed with the sound and the vibe. It made it difficult for people to become familiar with the band’s unique sound — it made it tough for fans to fall in love with their music.”
Big G, now 43, a proud Washingtonian who resides in Northwest today, has had the good fortune to spread his wings in other ventures after embracing his growing fame as a founding member of the band, including acting (most notably being featured in the HBO TV series “The Wire),” doing his thing in several music videos, modeling — even hosting a nightly radio show in the greater Washington area.
But he remains devoted to D.C.’s homegrown form of music, maintaining the belief that the culture that has since evolved out of the go-go phenomenon and its history must be honored and preserved. And he wants to do his part to make go-go live, thrive and spread to every mountain and molehill across the globe.
“We need to hold a big meeting here in D.C. with the Mayor, the City Council and other leaders and talk about how go-go music is so much more than just music,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle; it’s something I do every day. It should be included in our schools so we can educate our youth. They need to understand that go-go is their music — they need to know the story, the history and the founders so they will be proud of their music, their heritage and their hometown.”
Big G recalls how he first became introduced to and quickly interested in music. He worries that today’s youth may not have the same opportunity.
“When I was student at Lincoln Jr. High, we learned how to play instruments which was then an essential part of the curriculum,” he said. “The band room was our safe haven. Even if we messed up we were allowed to be there, to listen — we just weren’t allowed to participate. You had to earn that right. If you wanted to participate you had to be disciplined.”
“That’s what we need more of in our schools today. Our children don’t even know where our music came from — like New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. I learned from Mr. Gibson, our band director, when I was in school at 16th and Irvine Northwest. What I learned back then shaped my life. It made me who I am today. It made me want to do more. It made me believe that I could do more. It made me want to stay focused and positive and certainly kept me from getting into trouble and out of the streets.”
And the Band Plays On and On
It’s been an eventful year for the BackYard Band, including the completion of their first West African tour, “BACK2Africa,” co-hosted by The Ghana Tourism Authority and promoted by Diallo Sumbry, leader of the Adinkra Group; weekly gigs at popular local venues; concerts and special appearances within the U.S., most notably the always-anticipated Summer Spirit Festival in August at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland — even being featured in a soon-to-be released documentary, “Straight Crankin: A Go-Go Documentary,” which premiered Monday, Sept. 10 at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Northwest.
“The trip to Africa really broadened our horizons and helped me understand that the future of go-go rests in our ability to stop blocking or hating each other and for us to team up so we can put a national tour together,” Big G said. “It’s time that we all take off our ‘big boy hats’ and take our music — all of our music — everywhere in America.”
“Africa was everything I ever imagined but it was nothing like I was taught in school. The people, the land, the water, the environment — everything was beautiful.”
“As for the Festival in August with my man, Darryll Brooks and his crew, we were invited back and this year we were given a much better time slot so more people would already be there and could enjoy our set.”
“We love traveling and touring but there’s nothing better than coming home — showing the kind of love on stage that our fans have given us for so very long.”
“It’s true — there’s no place like the DMV — there’s no place like home,” he said.