The project, Go-Go Scene Unseen: Women in Washington, D.C. Go-Go, is the product of a semester-long research effort to unearth the seldom-discussed contributions of Black women to the legacy of go-go music in Washington, D.C. from the 1970s to the present. Women have been involved in go-go since its genesis, and have been the driving force behind many of the genre’s creative evolutions. Women managers have ensured the practical success of many well-known artists while their own names have faded into relative obscurity. Additionally, women fans have been behind the scenes of nearly all of go-go’s economic and social successes; the scene as we know it today, as representative of Washington, D.C.’s proud Black history, would not exist without women.

What is Go-Go?

Go-go is a party music that combines funk, reggae, hip-hop, and Latin drumming. It was developed in Washington, D.C. in the mid-1970s by Chuck Brown – the “Godfather of Go-Go”. Over the years, though go-go has faced challenges from gentrification, criminalization, and racism, the music has remained the steady heartbeat of the Chocolate City

Go-Go and Activism

In recent years, movements like Don’t Mute DC have used go-go as a rallying cry for Black D.C. residents to push back against gentrification in the city. In 2020, in response to community-led initiatives, Mayor Muriel Bowser made go-go the “official music” of Washington, D.C.

The Women Behind the Music

Famous artists like Chuck Brown, Rare Essence, and the Northeast Groovers have received widespread acclaim for their contributions to the D.C. go-go scene. Yet since the 1980s, many less well-known women artists have also been pushing go-go in new directions. They have made the scene more inclusive, creative, and introduced go-go to national audiences. Although their work has not been as visible, many women have also influenced the scene by managing, promoting, and designing clothes for all-male groups. Furthermore, women’s presence at the go-go has helped to foster community and advocacy among fans of the scene. There would be no go-go without women. Despite facing intersecting challenges from gender and race, Black women have persistently contributed to the go-go scene’s vibrancy and activism. In a traditionally male-dominated scene, women have carved out spaces for themselves as vocalists, instrumentalists, and organizers, challenging traditional gender norms within the music industry. 

This project pays tribute to the women both onstage and behind the scenes who have led efforts to protect, preserve, and commemorate the go-go scene and sound.

Curator of the Go-Go Museum and Cafe, Dr. Natalie Hopkinson has become known as Dr. Go-Go through her work as the leading go-go historian. Her book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City solidified her spot in the scene and has allowed her to make strides in the community through advocacy work with groups like Don’t Mute DC.
Daughter of community arts activist John Mercer, Dr. Nina Mercer successfully highlighted the recurring themes of go-go in her theatrical work Gypsy and the Bully Door. Nina has found solace, community, and home in the beats that travel through the streets of DC.
Tina Short was one of the first African American women to serve as a National Park Service Ranger. She aided in the creation of Summer in the Parks, a NPS concert series which ran from 1968-1976 and featured many local go-go artists. Kym Elder is Tina’s daughter and carries on her legacy as a Superintendent of the National Park Service and advocate for go-go. She manages the same summer music series her mother did and has played an important role in bringing go-go back to the parks.
Long time manager of Rare Essence, Annie Lee Mack, or “Miss Mack” has been referred to as the “Godmother of Go-Go,” by Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliot. Miss Mack was more than just a manager, she was a mother, treasurer, stylist, and bodyguard. She, her mother Mattie Lee Mack, or “Miss Sis,” and Margarine Neal would work together as the manager, treasurer and secretary of Rare Essence. For years, Miss Mack was the only woman to be so closely and intricately involved in the scene, and has inspired many with her legacy.
Half of a duo with Darryll Brooks, Carol Kirkendall has been a powerful woman in the entertainment industry since the early 1970s, founding the non-profit “Compared to What, Inc.” with the purpose of exposing Washingtonians to art, broadening the reach of go-go and other genres of music in DC.
Takesa “KK” Donelson, Chuck Brown’s daughter, still performs with the Chuck Brown Band, spreading songs like “Chuck Baby” that she used to play with her father to new generations of fans. After Brown’s death in 2012, Donelson and her brother Nekos Brown formed the band to complete his final, unfinished album, Beautiful Life. While many women in go-go contribute vocals more reminiscent of soul or R&B, Donelson is likely the most well-known woman go-go rapper.
In 1996, Maiesha Rashad founded Maiesha and the Hip Huggers as a soul and R&B cover band which later added a go-go beat. Her command over a variety of musical styles pushed go-go forward into what became known as the “grown and sexy” subgenre. The Hip Huggers wore 1970s-inspired styles like Afros and bell bottoms, and drew larger, older crowds than had traditionally been associated with go-go. Rashad permanently changed the role of women go-go artists. More bands began adding female vocalists, a change that also cut down misogynist lyrics. In 2020, following a five-month illness, Rashad passed away from stomach cancer. Go-go groups, radio stations, and newspapers alike celebrated the life of “the first lady of go-go”.

Past Events

Anacostia River Fest

The “Women in Go-Go: Scene Unseen” project debuted at the Anacostia River Festival on May 4, 2024. The exhibit curators, Anna Kutter, Isabelle Houseman, and Inaya Rivera attended this event, showcasing a physical version of the above exhibit, set out prompt cards to encourage public engagement with the history or women in go-go, and set up an interview station inside the Humanities Truck to interview go-go fans of all ages. 

Upcoming Events

Saturday, June 29, 2024: Anacostia Late Skate @ Anacostia Skate Park 

Saturday, July 20, 2024: Home Rule Festival 

Saturday, July 27, 2024: Anacostia Late Skate @ Anacostia Skate Park

Saturday, August 31, 2024: Anacostia Late Skate @ Anacostia Skate Park

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