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Conga Player Reflects on Storied Career

Sam P.K. Collins | 5/7/2014, 3 p.m.
Six-hundred fans of Milton "Go-Go Mickey" Freeman packed the Howard Theatre in Northwest on April 12 to celebrate the musician's birthday. Stacey R. Palmer

His name has become synonymous with go-go.

Since breaking into the industry more than 30 years ago, Milton “Go-Go Mickey” Freeman has emerged as one of its leading musicians. His unique drumming patterns are time tested and he has a loyal following of fans, many of whom still chant his name when he performs.

“I did things on the congas that others tried to emulate,” said Freeman, 47, who now performs with the go-go band Familiar Faces. “Many conga players would not put themselves out there. I was not afraid to experiment and mess up. Many times, the great music people heard when I was onstage was nothing more than what I practiced at home,” said Freeman, who lives in Northeast.

Freeman received a GoGo Honors Lifetime Achievement Award and industry colleagues announced a D.C. Council Resolution that recognized him for his contributions to the genre during his birthday celebration at the Howard Theatre in Northwest last month.

More than 600 guests purchased $40 tickets and listened to remarks from Freeman’s friends, family, and colleagues before grooving to the sounds of the Reality Band, Ayre Rayde and Familiar Faces throughout the evening on April 12.

Freeman, who celebrated his actual birthday on April 2, tapped on the congas during Familiar Faces’ set. His three sons, Milton “Lil’ Mick” Freeman, III, Brion “B.J.” Scott, and Malik Freeman, later joined him on the stage, pounding the rototoms, a hollow drum set that’s used to create the bounce beat, a rhythm often heard in contemporary go-go.

Freeman considered the celebration at the Howard Theatre another night on the job in a city he’s always called home.

“I get my energy from the people,” said Freeman. “While I like going on the road [and showing people in other places our sound], there’s nothing like home. I want to keep playing in D.C. I’m one of the few artists still playing go-go music from our era.”

Music has been a part of Freeman’s life since the age of two when his parents, Mickey Freeman, Sr., a guitarist, and Chicquita Hawkins, a singer, purchased a drum set for their only son. While relatives often recalled seeing Freeman banging on tables at home, his interest in go-go piqued during visits to Emery Recreation Center in Northwest with a friend to see the Pump Blenders perform.

Freeman later started a go-go band of his own with two childhood friends at what was then known as Holy Name Catholic School in Northeast. The group, called Ebony Funk, performed during their 8th grade graduation ceremony and disbanded shortly after. Freeman’s aspirations, however, didn’t fizzle. He joined the Reality Band a year later in 1982 after showing band members his skills on the congas at the Washington Coliseum in Northeast.

“As a child that wanted to play music, joining the Reality Band was a big move,” said Freeman. “Not too many 14-year-olds were playing in local clubs. Any young person would love that opportunity. But Rare Essence was always the biggest band in the city. People thought that I would eventually play for them.”