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When #DontMuteDC went live in May, in response to gentrification tensions that threatened to silence the go-go music blaring out of the Metro PCS store at the intersection of Florida Avenue and U Street, Matt Miller, aka Swamp Guinee, founder of the artist collective Crank LuKongo, was front and center.
Not only was the multifaceted musician defending the foundation of his genre of music, dubbed “Afro Go-Go Roots,” he also defended the right to deconstruct and reconstruct the music of his roots as a musician and a native Washingtonian.
“Growing up in Washington, D.C., dubbed by many as Chocolate City, you are surrounded by echoes of our very own homegrown go-go music, led by the likes of groups such as Chuck Brown, EU, Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, Mass Extinction, Junkyard [Band] and more,” said Miller, a master percussionist. “Its sound, its rhythm is a language that’s rooted in African history and culture. It is part of our identity as native Washingtonians.
“All throughout my life, I have been exposed to the wide world of music of many genres from various cultures throughout the world,” he said. “I was always inspired to go beyond my D.C. native roots by listening and playing music created by our cousins throughout the diaspora and became heavily impacted by artists like Bob Marley and the Wailers and Fela Anikulapo Kuti to name a few. It was not only their music that attracted me, but their stories of triumph, rebellion and spirituality that resonated with me.”
In 2008, Miller joined the legendary Virgin Islands reggae band Bambu Station, which afforded him the opportunity to travel the world and bring the go-go flavor to parts of the African Diaspora that were completely unfamiliar with the rhythmic, syncopated beat so familiar to DMV residents.
“I had already been a longtime fan of the group before joining them in the studio and on tour,” Miller said. “The tours were nothing short of amazing as we traveled throughout the U.S. and many different countries abroad spreading the message of love, unity, revolution and advocating for human rights.”
“Wherever we traveled, I found that fans were intrigued by my D.C. vernacular and would always ask the question, ‘where are you from?’ It was then that I realized that this curiosity of my place of origin came from the fact that the band is from the Caribbean and so their speech and dialect is distinct from mine. I would then share information and stories about being born and raised in Chocolate City, Washington, D.C., USA.”
That revelation gave rise to the creation of “Born Again,” the debut release of Crank LuKongo, a collective of artists from different genres and each with their own creative outlet. Yet all contributed wholly to the recording, nominated this year for the Wammies awards in two categories.
Afro Go-Go Roots is a diaspora-based cultural music rooted on elements of go-go music, progressive soul, jazz, reggae, blues, rock, salsa, Afro-Cuban, Afrobeat, world beat, folk and hip-hop.
Some of those artists are household names — Junior Marvin, guitarist with Bob Marley and the Wailers and a longtime associate of Miller’s (he plays with Marvin on regional and national gigs), reggae artist Tuff Lion on lead and backing vocals, guitar and percussion, Desi Hyson on keyboards and Mighty Moe Hagans of Experience Unlimited (EU) on the all-important congas. Those are just a few of the stellar, experienced musicians who weigh in on “Born Again.”
“The recording is made up of some serious all-stars,” Miller said. “We have Grammy-nominated artists like Desi Hyson from Dominica. The live component is a 12- to 13-member group. When we did the recording we had far more than that. We brought in different musicians to do different things on different songs.”
You can hear all those influences on “Born Again,” which switches from reggae to jazz to Afrobeat and even gospel. But regardless of the song and the overlaying influences, the go-go beat is always present. The recording even addresses the plight of the original people of the area, the Anacostia Nation of Native Americans. The song “Ghosts of Anacostia” calls on the talents of a Native percussionist,
the Piscataway Nation’s own Sebi Medina-Tayac.
“All of the musicians on this project have their own projects, so it is a real family vibe,” Miller said. “I wanted to have that spirit so that the music just comes off more pure that way. I wanted to represent Chocolate City D.C. properly. This experience gave me the idea to embark on a recording project using our D.C. staple rhythm, layering it with musical elements that’s not so familiar with go-go, and with the lyrical substance with a similar resonance and impact as artists such as Burning Spear, Fela Kuti, Salif Keita, Gilberto Gil, The Afro Cuban All-Stars and many more.
“I thought to myself to do something new and different so that we could use this platform to educate to the rest of the world about who we are and what our culture and history in D.C. is all about all while establishing D.C. cultural pride among our own people,” he said.
What comes next for Crank LuKongo? Big plans are in the works, including the pressing of a limited edition vinyl version of “Born Again” for the European market, more unplugged performances like the recent show at the Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival after the successful launch of the live show recorded on Miller’s 50th birthday at the Eaton Hotel last fall.
“The reception we got was beautiful,” Miller said. “And the most beautiful thing was the diversity. Go-go as we know it is predominantly supported by Black people. That’s cool because it is us. Crank LuKongo has a pretty diverse core. That’s what Crank LuKongo is. That is who we are.”
“Born Again” is available on CD and streaming. Those formats and further information about Crank LuKongo live performances can be found at www.cranklukongo.com.