Washington DC: An Introduction

Washington, D.C. is the seat of power of the United States of America. Its outward persona is commonly typecast with lawmakers, armies of greedy lobbyists and granite monuments teeming with tourists – but the greater Washington area is also an international hub of media, technology, education and business. The current residents of the White House have polished the city’s brand with a new sheen of excitement but, as much good will as the Obama clan generates, they don’t (yet) represent the true Washington beyond the radius of its core of federal buildings.

D.C. stands for District of Columbia, a tenuous status that leaves just under 600,000 citizens without voting representation in the U.S. legislature and as recently as 1961 these citizens couldn’t vote in presidential elections. Only since 1973 has the city had its own local government. Known colloquially as “Chocolate City” due to its predominate (and waning) black population, Washington’s cultural and social spheres are shaped by a dance between self-determination, political limbo and gentrification.

From the first historical March on Washington to Watergate to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, D.C. has played a starring role in world affairs and the annals of history but the city’s creative heritage is as overlooked as it is rich. There are many theories for why this is the case. In the world of American entertainment, it’s hard to gain legitimacy if you’re working anywhere else but in New York or Los Angeles. Washington’s stark racial and economic divisions also play a significant role, with the power and access wielded most successfully by the city’s large transient population as opposed to native residents.

Despite the lack of identity as an entertainment town, D.C. has made an impact in the world of music. From jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Shirley Horn to the genre defining hardcore punk of Bad Brains to Thievery Corporation’s electronica, the inventory of names that prompt people to say “I didn’t know they were from D.C.” is an all-star roster. Mining the list further yields Marvin Gaye, Meshell Ndegeocello and Roberta Flack.

This legacy isn’t a static one. Successive generations continue to build on the foundations. One who still looms large is The Godfather of Go-Go himself, Chuck Brown. At 75 years young, the creator of the city’s indigenous go-go sound still keeps a full schedule of performances. His lineage extends to scores of groups who maintain fervent followings at home despite the genre’s lack of success outside of its borders. Mambo Sauce, with their scorching originals that incorporate elements of rock and pop, is one band to watch who might change that.

As much as it is often framed as being at odds with go-go, Washington’s Hip Hop scene continues to evolve and thrive. Acts like Tabi Bonney and Wale have not only bridged the gap between hip-hop and go-go but have translated it to national audiences and gained a measure of success. The U Street scene has also birthed several generations of noteworthy Hip Hop artists from the Low Budget Crew to Head-Roc to Asheru to X.O.

U Street is a beloved touchstone in the history of black music in Washington. Known as Black Broadway, it was where arts and commerce thrived in the segregated Washington of the early 20th century. The riots following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination left this vibrant corridor a burned out husk of its former glory until artists began reviving it in the early ’90s. Current and past venues like Bohemian Caverns, State of the Union, Kaffa House and Bar Nun nurtured many of the new generation of soul artists that have had tastemakers buzzing in recent years. Raheem Devaughn, Deborah Bond, Wayna, Muhsinah, W. Ellington Felton and many more are part of a community of musicians who cut their teeth on the U Street scene.

The past few years have marked a new chapter in the evolution of black music coming out of Washington, D.C. The term “DMV” (D.C., Maryland and Virginia) is being used as a rallying cry by the current crop of active Hip Hop and soul artists making a name for themselves in the post music industry era. It’s a brand that’s spreading virally through grassroots routes that didn’t exist during the many years that the D.C. area was being ignored by the mainstream. If you weren’t aware until now, here’s an exploration of a few of these key artists: http://soulculture.com/chocolatecityspecial.pdf

Rhome Anderson

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