Filmmaking Industry, Go-Go Discussed at George Washington University

Sam P.K. Collins | 11/6/2013, 3 p.m.
During a gathering last month that attracted 50 students at the Multicultural Student Services Center at The George Washington University ...
Sowende Tichawonna and Shuaib Mitchell discussed the history of go-go and their careers as independent filmmakers at The George Washington University in Northwest last month. Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah

During a gathering last month that attracted 50 students at the Multicultural Student Services Center at The George Washington University in Northwest, filmmakers Shuaib Mitchell and Sowende Tichawonna discussed the history of go-go and their decades-long career in the independent film industry.

The discussion, which was part of an undergraduate writing course that explores the role of film in analyzing social issues, followed a screening of Straight Up Go-Go, the pair’s award-winning 1992 documentary about African influences in go-go and the music genre’s early development in the District.

“I want the students to [see] the value of what the filmmakers are doing and [understand] the power of our words to change our environment,” said Robin Marcus, 60, an instructor in the University Writing Program at GW and lecture organizer. “This movie could be part of a scholarly discussion. That's why I showed it to this group of emerging scholars,” said Marcus who lives in Northwest.

The one-hour documentary, Straight Up Go-Go explores the origins of the signature go-go sound and culture as well as its struggle to thrive after incidents of violence during the outbreak of crack-cocaine in the District in the 1980s. The film featured a bevy of go-go musicians, bands, and experts including the late Chuck Brown, go-go band Experience Unlimited, Pleasure Band, legendary band manager Charles Stephenson, and award-winning journalist Jill Nelson.

Mitchell and Tichawonna, along with Fred Brown Jr., formerly of The Washington Post, started production in 1987 after the pair graduated from Howard University in Northwest. Mitchell conceived the idea of the film and wrote the rough script, Tichawonna filmed the footage and Brown interviewed the subjects. The project took four years to complete, but not without its challenges.

Many bands and artists initially refused to appear in the film after the release of Good to Go, a 1986 go-go themed film produced by Island Pictures that did not primarily focus on go-go, rather the brutal 1984 beating and murder of Catherine Fuller, a District mother of six, much to the chagrin of many in the go-go industry.

“It was a major obstacle just getting these musicians to participate in [our project] after that debacle with Island Pictures,” said Tichawonna, 50. “When you don’t have someone who’s committed to preserving our history, this is what happens. We were straight out of college [at the time] and just wanted to do the right thing,” the Northeast resident said.

While much of the discussion centered on the filmmaking process, Mitchell and Tichawonna answered questions about the evolution of go-go and the perceived threat to its existence in a quickly gentrifying city.

Mitchell said the film captured a piece of history and encouraged the students to tackle future problems using what they learned from the discussion.

“In African culture, it’s very prominent that [the elders] pass on knowledge to the generation that comes after,” said Mitchell, 51. “It is up to this generation to develop innovative techniques that further society. I live by the African proverb, ‘each one, teach one.’ It’s impossible for us to grow otherwise,” said Mitchell who lives in Waldorf, Md.

Mojolaoluwa A. Ladipo-Obasa, a GW student from Nigeria, said the film and discussion piqued her interest and opened her eyes to go-go’s connection to African culture.

“Every country I have visited [has few] African [cultural elements],” said Ladipo-Obasa, an 18-year-old freshman. “However, you see that connection to Africa when it comes to go-go. It’s great to find that element in an international city like Washington, D.C.,” said Ladipo-Obasa, who lives in Tel Aviv.

At the end of this semester, the students will produce and present their own five-minute documentary about a racial and social issue.

Marcus said the film screening and discussion on Oct. 21 gave students greater insight on the film-making process.

“One of the things artists enjoy talking about is process,” said Marcus. “There may be some ways that we can learn from each other in our discussion of process. [Mitchell’s and Tichawonna’s] intimate experience with their audience was very valuable. Most artists don't get that chance. [These artists] deserve it because they preserved history that people can watch years from now.”