Chuck and the Baptist Beat

I only saw the beginning of Chuck Brown’s home going services at the Washington Convention Center.  Donnie Simpson, the long time, Washington D.C. disc jockey, opened the service by playing “Go-Go Swing,” Chuck’s signature tune from the 1980’s that showed the world that Go-Go was real and powerful.

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It was appropriate because Go-Go, at its essence, is church music, a festival sound. It is participatory at its best and it is there that it comes together. Thomas Sayers Ellis, the Washington D.C. poet, once wrote a poem called “Baptist Beat” that makes the connection between Go-Go and church. It becomes more evident each time I hear the music and each time I read Ellis’ poem.

Chuck was taken to church today by his people and blessed by the people, anointed one last time on his way home. His music was church those of us who love it know, a religion, a call and response concoction capable of an energy and greatness difficult to explain.  Chuck now belongs to the ages, but mostly, Chuck Brown, as he would have hoped belongs to the people. His music belongs to the world.

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Photo Credits: DCist; blackamericaweb;

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Washington D.C.: History and Policy

There are probably some residents of Washington D.C. who don’t know that it wasn’t until 1960 that the city became majority black. In 1920, the black population was less than 30 percent and it wasn’t until the 1950’s that it was above 30 percent.  Then integration came to the city, and the long time black residents of the city could actually move to neighborhoods where they once never had access.  In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education decision occurred, and soon, Washington D.C., like many cities in the U.S., were scenes of social shift in mass.

Whites, of course, headed for the suburbs, and many African-Americans moved into the central cities even more. By 1960, it was so obvious in D.C., that the public school population was nearly 80 percent black even though the black population was only slightly above 50 percent. This should have been a sign; it meant that the whites, in the city, were not likely sending their children to the public schools. In other words, either the schools were performing badly or this was a subtle sign that whites did not want their children attending schools with blacks. Either way, it was a sign of bad things to come. One of my law school classmates once noted to me that by the time he graduated from Anacostia High School in the 1960’s, he was like the last white student remaining. No one reacted to this; it just played out.

This little piece of population history is to stress that those who are having problems adjusting to the changing demographics of Washington D.C. should be aware that when legal segregation ended in Washington D.C. in the 1950’s, there was a dramatic demographic shift then as well. It is the way of the world. By 1960, blacks had come to the city in mass and whites began to depart in mass. The difference today is it is believed that this shift was policy driven as well but the departure of many blacks today is involuntary.  They didn’t want to leave but, as many on the streets might contend, they weren’t wanted here anymore. The city had other plans to preserve it, to revitalize it.

The price of living in the city shot up most of us know. The value of property skyrocketed doubling property tax bills. Old apartment building located in sought after locations were targeted for aggressive enforcement of housing laws forcing subsidized, low income tenants out of the buildings. The landlords, who owned these wasted structures, were threatened with arrest or sell the building. The developers were salivating. There was cheap cash to borrow and they had credit. They borrowed and purchased and then borrowed more. The city began shifting. Wealth changes things.

Just this past week, The Washington Post reported how the city wanted “20 somethings” to come to the city and they catered to them.  Thus in order to get them, you need small expensive apartments, “wifi” eateries and coffee shops, public transportation, and bike lanes. This is not everything but it helps.

There is probably hard evidence lurking. We will look for it. Some of it is well known. We will post it. We want to know. History tells us to look.

The Real Live People – Chuck Brown 2012

At the viewing in Washington D.C. for the now late, great Chuck Brown, the Go-Go king of the world, it was no surprise that nearly everyone I saw pass through the Howard Theater to bid Chuck well one last time, was African-American. Most of the people were older African-Americans, I would guess, at least 40 years old, and a number more than likely over 60 years of age. This was Chuck’s core audience.

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When “Bustin’ Loose‘ announced the beginning of Go-Go in 1978, those born in 1960 or even 1950, were probably Chuck’s loyal listeners in the clubs, and so, as Chuck passed our way one last time they were there again, listening to his music, and showing their love and support.

As I passed through the viewing, and the crowds out front, some noted that Chuck said their name at the shows. Others could state to the day when they first heard Chuck or a Chuck Brown show.

Yes, it was rugged and beautiful on T Street at the Howard Theater, on Ellington Plaza. Hot. Muggy. Typical Washington D.C. weather as the long hot summer begins to descend upon the place.  Those coming from work in their suits were shown no mercy by the elements. They sweated profusely but like everyone, they stood in line to pay their respects.

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There were T-shirt sellers everywhere, all selling some version of Chuck. His face was everywhere.  There were people selling CDs, DVDs, buttons, posters, photographs, and because it was so hot yesterday, people, dozens of people, were selling water. The street (Seventh Street) was blocked off by the police and the sidewalks were crammed with merchants.

Chuck’s music boomed all day outside the viewing. Go-Go is a constant sound but the playing of it yesterday was also constant.  

The news cameras were there. All day long. They were there for all of it. It can perhaps be said that the city of Washington D.C. has never experienced a cultural loss of this magnitude, or at least one that they all accept is huge.  Anthony Harley (Little Benny), Go-Go’s other icon, died two years ago, but Chuck was “The Godfather,” he made the music happen, in this town, in this era, and at a time of great political and social movement in the city. And just as quickly, as the city gained home rule with African-Americans leading the way in 1977, so it is that Chuck invented the city’s freedom sound, a music created by the peasant class of the city, but loved by all for its energy, and its nerve.

I saw so many people I knew and so many I did not know and don’t see ever anymore even though I spend much time outside the city.  The number of people at the viewing hanging out and taking it all in is probably just more of an indication that despite the changing demographics of the city, there is still a huge African-American presence in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area.  They just might not live in the city, or they don’t feel welcome anymore so they have retreated back to the neighborhoods where they feel comfortable.

Most interesting of all the things I observed was the interior of the Howard Theater where Chuck laid in state. This venue, once the scene of some great Go-Go shows I attended, is now an upscale supper club. Well known acts come and perform for smaller crowds and there are tables and a bar inside. It looks elegant and moody inside, a place that will likely not ever host a Go-Go show (maybe it already has).

S Street which is just behind the theater is named for Chuck Brown now. The entire neighborhood, in fact, is like Little Afro-America. Across from where the viewing was held is LeDroit Park, the city’s first suburb. Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Afro-American poet laureate, lived in this neighborhood. One block down, Waring Cuney, another poet, and one from Washington D.C., was born and raised.  The plaza where the theater sits is the Ellington Plaza, named for Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. 

The history is here now and some of it is preserved. Chuck Brown is part of that history. One does not know what the city will become culturally without Chuck. We will soon find out. 

Gil Scott Heron

Gil Scott Heron lived and recorded in and around Washington D.C. He taught Creative Writing at what is now the University of the District of Columbia. His song, “In the Bottle,” was written here. He is part of the city’s history and especially so during its recent rich cultural renaissance where Go Go music rose, black poetry flourished, and the pulse of the city was for the most part, the black pulse.

This song is one of his great songs, of his many great songs. Of course, while it is a song about nuclear disaster and Detroit, it has appeal outside of Detroit now. Just a year or so ago, Japan was up against nuclear disaster. Gil Scott Heron was before his time, surely.

He transitioned off the earthly plane one year ago today and we are vulnerable without his voice.

Chocolate City, for the Ages

Another day, another set of writings in The Washington Post as to how the city is changing. And also, more chatter from local citizens who are also irritated that the local politicians catered to young urban professionals and altered the city. For black people, long time residents, it is especially vexing considering many of them lived here for years and the city government delivered sub par services, joke food establishments and shopping outlets and an overall deteriorating quality of life. I remember; I grew up here but, for me, it wasn’t half bad. In fact, it was pretty decent until crack showed up in the 1990’s and life here got stupid and violent.

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Of course, the overall failures of the city is not that simple though some of it is on the government. Fact is the shortcomings about Washington D.C. is really about tax revenue and the history of wealth in America but that is a college lecture I can’t give right now.  If you need a hint, look at Rockville and Bethesda and you know where all the tax revenue moved to after the riots of 1968 and who had all the money anyway as a result of historical institutional racism in Washington D.C. and the area. But, lets not digress, the review will discuss those in future posts.

However, some comments of locals is very disturbing. People getting their I-phones snatched. Young whites getting mugged. Community tension.  Disrespect of elders (again).  Black people increasingly frustrated at the changing city.  

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A few describes it as the “indigenous” people striking back at invaders. This would be true but for the fact that Washington D.C. was only a majority black city for a short period of time.  Strangely enough, it became majority black and that is when it gained its democratic functions: elected government. Votes in the presidential election. Home rule. Elected school board. All brought to you by African-Americans who were committed to equal rights to all. Now some of these same African-Americans (and some whites as well) who fought for democracy in Washington D.C. – Marion Barry included, and what they did to achieve home rule, is in danger of being forgotten.

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Some of it is preserved. The John Wilson Building is for John Wilson, one of those civil rights heroes. The David A Clarke School of Law (my law school) is named for David Clarke, former D.C. Chairman of the SCLC. There is more history there but if the locals are smart, and if the many long time African-Americans are smart, begin documenting the important history of Washington D.C. They should make sure that the democratic and cultural history of the city’s recent rise is preserved. That is all you can do. You can complain all you want about the changing city but change is a constant in life. The failure to institutionalize that history would be the real tragedy. Perhaps, in these pages suggestions can be made that will be implemented. 

Suliamon-gate: D.C.’s Political Immaturity

The latest political scandal in Washington D.C. Suliamon-gate reveals again the real problem in Washington D.C.: the colonial status of the city.  This is mainly why the city does not produce a large core of great politicians and also why the city is immature politically. Marion Barry, totally past his time as a politico in the city, is still a player in this town. Even Vince Gray, who is mayor now, and looks like he is headed for recall, is really not a seasoned politician. He was elected for the first time to elected office in 2005, Ward 7 Councilmember, and two years later, when Linda Cropp eased out, he ran for City Council Chairman. He then ran for mayor in 2011 against Fenty in this now controversial and destructive campaign that again exposes the city’s lack of political development.

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The only real political development in the city, and the period that produced the most political players and operatives is the late 60’s and 70’s when the civil rights workers streamed into the city, seeking to gain “home rule” for the city and local autonomy outside the constitutional atrocity of the U.S. Congress. Somehow, Congress continues to believe that the drafters of the Constitution meant for the city to be governed by unelected Congressmen even when the city expanded into a large city in need of daily governance. This is foolish. This is why the civil rights workers came in the 1960’s, to get the city some democracy.

Marion Barry was in that group, as was John Wilson, who the city’s city hall is named for today. David A. Clarke, the D.C. chair of Martin Luther King’s SCLC D.C. chapter, came as well (the city’s law school is named for him), and there are many others, known and unknown. Frank Smith, former council member. Ivanhoe Donaldson, former city administrator. The list is very long.

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Yet, other than this group, the political maturation of the city is lacking. This is why episodes like Suliamon Brown can occur. The fact that Gray had risen through the ranks so quickly exposes the lack of political development not to mention most of us from the city, even felt that Adrian Fenty had risen much too quickly as well and was extremely young to become mayor.

If anything, this scandal that will likely topple Gray should force the city to re-examine itself and its democratic structure. Do they actually need all of those city council members? Maybe they want to shrink government? Have they forgotten that the real issue is the city’s lack of control over its budget and its own money? How do you begin to develop politicians without a colonial mentality or who accept the colonial status and use it to exploit the city even further? These are the real questions.

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For even if Vincent Gray goes down, the city still lacks political maturity. No current politician has any presence or any respect locally. Where is that guy or gal no matter their race or where they were born?  As Rahm Emanuel would say, every crisis is an opportunity. Does the city need a constitutional convention?