Wednesday, August 31, 2011

We're All Chuck Brown's People

Image via

There are two types of people whose lives take place in Washington, DC: those who measure time in generations and those who mark it using elections. The folks who ride into town via the popular vote bring with them everything they ever loved about their home districts. The folks who were born in the District have only a few things to call their own: the Redskins (cringe), mumbo sauce, that DC slang (bamma), New Balance sneakers and Go Go music.

Last week, after a potent combination of natural disasters worked the psyches of the people whose lives take place in our nation's capital, the folks who are from DC checked their wounds then crammed into the 9:30 Club to celebrate Chuck Brown's birthday.

It's okay if you don't know who Chuck Brown is. He achieved modest success with this song. He recently earned a Grammy nomination for pairing with Jill Scott on this one. He is, more importantly, the Godfather of Go Go Music. This point is not disputed. It is only celebrated. And it is only celebrated by folks who are from DC.

Go Go doesn't travel. The public radio station in Seattle doesn't allocate a 120-minute Sunday night block to it. JAM'N 94.5 in Boston doesn't carve out lunch hours to give listeners a taste. People of a certain age will remember "Da Butt." People of a different age will remember "Let Me Clear My Throat." Apart from that, Go Go doesn't really exist. Except for in that sweet oasis that still can't get a seat in Congress.

Chuck Brown made Go Go up out of funk and jazz and whatever else he could find more than 30 years ago. And he gave it to the people from DC. There isn't any explanation that will help an outsider understand it. In addition to drums, guitars and keys, there are conga drums, horns and as much cowbell as you can stand. The instruments combine to create multiple layers of percussion that can make a song lazier or more frenetic. It can be polyrhythmic in a way that is utterly confusing. It can also free anyone--even the stiffest, saltiest cracker--to let their hips sway. It's Go Go. It's much better as a felt experience.

Image via The Meta Picture

As August drew to a close, the DC air smelled unsettled and eager. Congress had solved that whole Debt Ceiling problem, but hadn't really made any progress on the Debt. No one was happy. No one felt as if there were a choice. Thousands of plastic chairs sprouted from the grounds of the National Mall in preparation for the grand unveiling of the MLK Memorial. Proud Americans wearing church clothes marched into town to sneak a peek and scout a spot from which to watch President Obama commemorate the perfect moment that consumed those grounds 48 years ago. Summer was ending. And no one knew for certain what was about to begin.

Hurricanes rarely blow through the District of Columbia. Earthquakes are even more foreign. The city endured one of each in less time than it took the good Lord to do all that creating. Buildings shook. Some cracked. Trees went down. Power went out. A few cars were smashed. And a number of basements were flooded. Residents whose home states are Florida and California, respectively, shrugged them off. In comparison to what is normal elsewhere, the disasters that struck DC last week were hardly disastrous.

By Sunday morning, the wrath had passed. Neighbors spilled into the streets and were greeted by sunshine. It was a pretty day to clean up leaves and broken branches. If you were so fortunate. If you found yourself wrestling with insurance companies over who would pay to replace your car after the neighbor's decaying tree flattened it...well...the disasters were indeed disastrous.

The earliest casualty attributed to the hurricane was the MLK Memorial unveiling. It had been cancelled two days after the earthquake and two days before the hurricane. It didn't deter folks from making their pilgrimages, but it did postpone what was to have been a bright, shining moment for the President. And it made thousands of bootleg t-shirts emblazoned with "August 28" oddly irrelevant. As if that date could ever lack meaning.

Dr. King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech a week after Chuck Brown's 27th birthday. Chuck was originally scheduled to wind some folks up the night before his 75th at the 9:30 Club, another DC institution. The hurricane bumped his annual birthday concert to Sunday. After a week unlike any other, 1,200-some people streamed into the U Street corridor--many from the surrounding neighborhoods in Northwest DC--to celebrate with Chuck.

Image via The Washington Post

DC will always be bifurcated. The divergent tension that arises between the people who stay in the city and the people who pass through makes it unique among American metropolises. The District compares favorably with New York and Los Angeles in that it is built to absorb the unusual ambitions of a large number of transients. DC is much, much smaller than either of them and, traditionally, it absorbs only one kind of ambition.

That has begun to change in our nation's capital as government has grown. The tech and start-up communities have ballooned alongside it. More and more transients are measuring time in generations. Where they do, gentrification creeps into neighborhoods at its own pace to wash away the presumed sins of the people who came before them.

The folks who are from DC still suffer the Redskins (cringe) with pride. They still argue over which Chinese spot has the best mumbo sauce. And they still love Go Go. The things that combine to attach a sense of meaning and belonging to their place do not wane even if their place in the city does.

The decay of its indigenous culture is not confined to DC. You can witness this in nearly every American city. Some have matured without really developing a coherent identity. Others have resorted to fetish to preserve theirs--with good reason.

A key part of what makes us American is not that we pledge allegiance to a particular flag, but that we take pride in a highly localized sense of place. We are blessed (or cursed) with an unmatched combination of space, freedom and a minimalist national identity. Everyone could be American so anyone can choose a place to represent and bring it with them to the great American party. Provincialism isn't unique to the United States but we have definitely perfected it here.

There are fewer and fewer opportunities for any city to experience a perfect moment. For the people who are from that place to have their character tested and be invited to express themselves using the poetry that defines them.

There is poetry in the strings of Chuck Brown's guitar. At a moment when the people of his city were tested, he played for them. And they danced. Like they always do.