I was joking on Twitter the day before I was scheduled to read and sign “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City” at Politics & Prose, the legendary bookstore near the Chevy Chase neighborhood, one of the city’s whitest and wealthiest corners of D.C.
Apparently, it isn’t.
A few minutes before my reading, store employee Marshall popped in my CD. Not 30 seconds into my go-go playlist, a white woman went to the cashier to complain. The song in question wasn’t even a go-go song. It was Parliament’s 1970s funk classic “Chocolate City”—a song that took on a moniker that was being used by Washingtonians celebrating the city’s first elected mayor, a black man named Walter Washington:
What’s happening, C.C. They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition…
The blonde woman marched straight to the cashier, who referred her to the owner of Politics & Prose. She said the music was “racist” and demanded they stop playing it.
I am so very sad to report that the store actually complied.
The music was shut off. A P&P employee tried to move to the next selection, one of my personal favorites by the late Godfather of Go-Go Chuck Brown, “Run Joe,” he was told to shut that down, too.
I had not even begun my reading yet.
A bookstore is a place of ideas. If I expect to greet open minds anywhere, that’s it. It is not the place where I expect a random, apparently uninformed person to be handed a gavel to judge what constitutes appropriate racial discourse.
If the woman had bothered to stay around to hear what I had to say, I could have used the Q&A period to really engage with her. What exactly was objectionable about the Chocolate City? How does a song about black self-determination and uplift somehow bend its path and point to her, becoming a personal affront to her whiteness? What is offensive about a song celebrating black leadership, a victory gained through centuries of bondage, sweat and blood spilled right here in the nation’s capital? And how could she come to this conclusion 30 seconds into a song that is 5 minutes and 27 seconds long?
The fact that such people live in D.C. and have these views is not surprising. What is surprising is that the deciders at Politics & Prose would go along with it. With a wave of a white hand, an Other’s culture is erased.
But this is what I love about go-go. It has never begged any outside institution to give it a voice. Since 1976 when Chuck Brown developed the sound, it’s been black owned and operated, going, going. And going. In backyards and firehouses. At high school proms and rec centers. In parks and nightclubs. In black-run government buildings. It has neither sought nor been granted approval from anyone outside the community that created it. Gentrification may be pushing it out of the city limits. But it’s still here, daring anyone to try to snatch the mic. Go-go could give a shit if Chevy Chase is ready.
Politics & Prose turned out to be a great reading. The seats were filled; books sold out. I met many people of all races, ages. Most of them had never heard go-go. Those who stayed revealed open minds, good hearts and I had a truly wonderful dialogue about go-go music and the history of the Chocolate City.
And, as I signed books, many of them, from graybeards to an intern just visiting DC for the summer, asked me for the aborted Go-Go Live playlist. So here it is:
For future readings, signings and other information about the book, click here.
I’m glad P&P regrets the music was turned off, but they are dodging the main questions this incident raised, which was why? They did not elaborate about the reasons given by the customer and why they caved to her demands.
Silencing the music, however “briefly,” may not have been a big deal for them, but for me, it had a chilling affect on the whole reading. The book is about music. I intended to pepper music throughout my talk. Their actions made it clear that the music and even the subject was offensive to at least one person. That the store acquiesced to that person said volumes to me about how welcome the musical dialogue was, and I changed my presentation accordingly.
UPDATE 8/9/2012: More than a week and thousands of hits to this blog post later, this Q&A I did with InReads.org, a project of WETA (public television) gives a good summary of the aftermath, links to posts on the Washington Post, Washington City Paper, We Love DC, the Awl, and some other perspectives on l’affaire Chocolate City.
One bit of clarification: the P-Funk song was not “paused” or shut off briefly at Politics & Prose. It was turned off, along with the rest of the playlist, a few minutes before my talk. The P-Funk song and the entire go-go playlist was put back on the sound system only AFTER my talk was over and most of the customers (including the angry white woman who, arms folded, gritted at me from the back row for the first 10 minutes of my talk) had left or were leaving. I did play a different go-go song by Chuck Brown during my talk, but I was not sure if P-Funk was “allowed” given the sensitivities at P & P.
I don’t know if they will release the audio from the event being that I’m probably their least favorite author, but both I and the other store employee mention the incident, and you can probably hear my voice shaking with anger at the beginning until I calmed down and settled into my talk. Even if it was not part of my presentation, it is not acceptable to censor P-Funk or any artist, literary or musical, in place of ideas and discourse.
Clinton Yates at the Washington Post wrote a great piece that looked at the larger culture of entitlement at in Chevy Chase.
Many have asked if I have heard from P & P directly. I did. I exchanged voicemails with David Bradley, the owner of P&P last week. He left me a long voice mail and said he meant no disrespect. I believe him. It would be crazy for a bookstore to police certain ideas. Clearly it was not his intent, but that is what happened.