Go-Go 101: The History, the Culture, and the Music

Some background on Allie Martin’s project on Go-Go

Allie’s project serves as an attempt to educate herself about music that she grew up listening to but didn’t fully understand in order to educate others who know little to nothing about go-go.  In her podcast, she discusses the origins of go-go and what the music means to the DMV (the District, Maryland, and Virginia areas).  She gives several musical examples in her podcast so that listeners will become familiar with “the beat.”   Allie has also written a commentary on her experiences being an African-American going to a white school doing a project on go-go.

Allie became interested in this project simply because of the title of the class: Musical Worlds of Washington D.C.  As far as she knows, go-go is the only music that she studied in class that was completely indigenous to the DMV.  She felt like it had to be represented. She loves the music, so she decided to further her knowledge.  Her original research question was, simple as it may be, “What is go-go?”  A lot of her enthusiasm for her project came out of the fact that she could not answer that question before she started, and now she can.

Go-Go 101 podcast:

Allie’s Go-Go narrative to accompany the podcast:

For this project on go-go, I interviewed Kip Lornell, a professor at George Washington University and author of “The Beat!”  During the interview, in addition to talking about go-go itself, we also discussed race and the role it plays in go-go.  While on the topic of race, we talked about my life, and how interesting it is.  On the one hand, I am an African-American that lives in Prince George’s County and listens to go-go music.  On the other hand, I am a student at American University, studying to become a classically trained violinist.  I told him that it feels as though I don’t fit in either box; he told me that I fit into both.

I don’t remember when race became an issue for me.  My mother says it started “when I started going around white people.”   I do clearly remember being at a chamber music camp at 13 years old, and being one of two black students there.  At one point, one of the piano faculty members asked me what it was like to be at camp with my brother.  I was confused; at this point in my life, one of by brothers was 20, the other was 5, and neither of them was at camp with me.  I told him I didn’t have a brother at camp, and that was the end of it.  But it wasn’t the end of it.  It didn’t take me long to understand that he assumed the only two black children in the camp had to be related.  And as I get older, it doesn’t get any better.

When you are black, and you are in an environment full white people, you are sometimes put in a box before you even do anything.  Based on things that they have seen or heard, people sometimes stereotype you.  Every day, I attempt to defy these expectations.  My life defies these expectations.  According to statistics, because I come from a home in PG County of a single mother with four children, and not all of us have the same father, I am supposed to have children of my own.  I am not supposed to be in college, and I’m definitely not supposed to be a violinist.  It was strange growing up and playing violin, because the number of professional black female violinists is probably in the single digits.  I didn’t really have a role model.

So what does my life have to do with this project on go-go?  Everything.  I was one of the only ones in the class who had heard of go-go, and the only one who would consider it for a project.  I almost chose the safer route of going with blues music in DC, but then I told myself that go-go had to be represented and that I was going to have to be the one to do it.

In addition to my project on go-go, I also thought about race a great deal in our class discussions. The interesting thing about Musical Cultures of DC was that all of us had completely different life experiences, which led to insightful and thoughtful discussions.  Because I was the only black person in the class, I often found myself able to relate to some things that my colleagues could not, and vice versa.

We discussed in class once the idea of multiple identities in regard to assimilation.  One of my classmates said that he did not understand why multiple identities were necessary, that people should just be who they are.  I almost interjected, but stopped myself.   In hindsight, I probably should have said something.  I often consider the fact that I have multiple identities and some issues with assimilation.  In three out of my five classes this semester, I have been the only black student.  In my other two classes, there were two of us.  In many ways, I have had to assimilate into the culture of both American University and Northwest DC.

Before entering college, and even to this day, I worry about being judged for my mannerisms, by dialect, and even where I come from.  In order to avoid this judgment, which is often nonexistent, I assimilated as best I could into my environment without losing myself completely.  Now, as a rising junior, these fears have all but subsided, and I would like to think of myself as having found a happy medium.  I am known as both the concertmaster of the American University Symphony Orchestra and the girl who walks the hallways with crazy, colorful, shoes, which have clearly been influenced by hip-hop culture.

Exploring go-go, this music that I grew up with, has taught me a lot about the music, but it also taught me a lot about myself.  Prof. Lornell was right; I don’t have to confine myself to one county, one box, or one stereotype.  I can play violin, I can listen to go-go, I might even find a way to play go-go on the violin.  Either way, I am thankful to Prof. Ayyagari for pushing me to do this project, because it really helped me to learn about the culture of the DMV.  I can only hope that others can learn from my experiences and realize that they too can fit in ALL of the boxes.

How the project changed over the semester

The project definitely changed over the semester.  A big stumbling block for Allie was that although she has seen go-go live, she has never been to a go-go.  A turning point for me was when she realized she was learning about herself as she was learning about the music.


Allie would like to thank Kip Lornell for giving her a great interview, and for telling her that she fits into both boxes.  She would also like to thank her brother, Ricky, for teaching about the music that he grew up with, and for banging out beats on tables.


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