#DontMuteDC has been trending for the last few months as a cultural movement that started locally and has attracted national attention. Most recently highlighted on the BET Awards by native, Taraji P. Henson, the hashtag created by a Howard University student has given name to the underground fight for DC’s cultural preservation.
Pieces of the story have been told though there has yet to be a full account of how they all fit together. Speaking with Dr. Natalie Hopkinson (@TheNatHop), author of “Go-Go Live: The Life and Musical Death of a Chocolate City,” and the cultural historian working with #DontMuteDC and Domo (@Dora_Winifred), DJ, activist and organizer of the District Cultural Sustainability Initiative (DCSI), I learned about the different collaborators and how the idea of saving Go-Go created a surge of emotion that empowered many of D.C.’s forgotten residents.
Many natives and long-standing residents can recall the moment they realized that Chocolate City, a term used to describe D.C.’s predominately Black population, would soon be no more. And that’s really where our story begins.
“I was an intern for the Wall Street Journal after graduating from Howard University, and I was assigned to cover the Mayor’s race. I ended up interviewing a bunch of D.C. politicos and they told me. people have been talking about “the plan” for a long time and it’s about to go down with this Anthony Williams election in 1998.” Hopkinson said. “Then my political science professor told me if you see white people in a neighborhood after dark, it’s about to go down.” Hopkinson said she purchased a home in the early 2000’s after being quickly priced out of the Logan Circle neighborhood where she lived while attending Howard.
For Domo, things set in as the U Street corridor became less recognizable. “I think it started when we lost some of the innately black establishments we had along U Street and Florida Avenue.” she said. “Patty Boom Boom was a big signal to me… I think before that, we started to see areas being renamed. NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) wasn’t a thing 10 years ago. That is something used to rebrand an area for people coming into the city.”
It was the erasure of these long-time establishments that brought Hopkinson and activist Ron Moten together again in community work. Having previous experience with Ron’s organizing skills, Hopkinson began working with him to document instances where black cultural businesses were being systematically displaced to make way for newcomers.
These businesses helped to support a completely black-owned economy that provided for many of the districts 70,000 returning citizens and others who fall outside of the mainstream. Metro PCS, located on 7th Street and Florida Avenue NW, was one of the businesses being tracked. “I always watched that corner.” Natalie said. “I knew it was going to happen and I see how people act. They start it on a listserv outside of you and by the time they have mobilized, it’s done.”
Don Campbell, owner of Central Communications, tried to accommodate the initial complaints about the music blasting from his store. He said he even tried playing smooth jazz, but he found himself caught in the middle of a neighborhood feud as he brought his speakers in only to receive complaints from customers demanding he turn the music back on.
“With Don’s store it really hit home because of what Go-Go means to us.” explained Domo. “Part of what drove me to becoming a DJ is that I felt there wasn’t enough Go-Go being played when I was out… there are only a few places you can go to buy a physical CD and know that they are going to have the most recent stuff. So, to hear that the sound was stopped was really crazy because [Metro PCS] is such a cultural staple.
“New residents are only comfortable with certain kinds of culture. And it’s not just one person [complaining],” Hopkinson said, as she attempted to delineate the chain of events. “No, it was an organized campaign within The Shay, a nearby luxury apartment complex. Tenants were sending 25 to 30 emails a day to the headquarters of T-Moble demanding the music stop. Then you had the vice president of T-Mobile showing up at the store, saying turn off the music. They wanted to annihilate this business that means so much to so many people. Mo [Ron Moten] and I were just trying to work with Don to help him do what he needed to continue business.”
Then along comes Julien Broomfield, creator of the #DontMuteDC hashtag, bringing mass attention to Campbell’s predicament. Moten and Hopkinson organized officially under the name and created a petition on Change.org to keep the music on. It received 80,000 signatures, drawing widespread attention to the store and its divided community. It also galvanized several key activists who rallied around the cause.
Domo was one of the early organizers of the DCSI, a group formed to connect the different organizing arms supporting the store. “There were people like Ron Moten. Tone P., Yaddiya and Tony Lewis trying to drive awareness and all of these community leaders have different backgrounds and strengths. I really just wanted to gather the people I knew so they could work together in an even more powerful way.”
The success of the petitions, the early protests organized by Tone P., Kymone Freeman of We Act Radio, and Tony Lewis of T.O.B., and a persistent hashtag won Campbell his “right” to continue playing Go-Go music from his store on the corner of Georgia and Florida Avenues, NW. Though victory was bittersweet as it gave rise to a shared consciousness of cultural loss and disenfranchisement caused by gentrification.
From that momentum emerged Yaddiya and Long Live Gogo DC. “Yaddiya is a Go-Go programmer, a profession he’s engaged for over 15 years. As a reaction to the impact [of the T-Mobile store events] he decided to throw a Go-Go at 14th and U Streets NW in response to the Metro PCS debacle. “It was massive. so we did it again and it was even bigger and got a lot of national press.” Domo said. It was Yaddiya’s deep connections within the Go-Go community that made the events so successful, attracting crowds in the thousands. These outpourings of support and reclamation of D.C.’s identity continued the wave of awareness for the cause.
DCSI followed by bringing its stakeholders to the table to discuss the community’s needs, Domo recounts, “We tried to intercept the District budget in hopes of making some changes based on things we needed like affordable housing, funding for Banneker HS and reviving the funding for United Medical Center (UMC), the only hospital serving Wards 7 and 8. We knew most council members had already made up their minds, but we had to try something.”
The DCSI worked with a team of lawyers and various organizations including Bread for The City to fine tune their points for a rally at Freedom Plaza, signaling to elected officials that the native populations were wide awake and ready to fight for their right to the city.
#DontMuteDC has evolved into a battle cry by Washingtonians seeking to regain a sense of ownership and equity in the city. As the summer warms up and the steam from the initial incident cools down, it’s important for activist groups to remain focused,
“It’s like Tony Lewis said, ‘We cannot protect D.C. culture that is innately black culture without protecting D.C. black people,’” echoed Domo. “We want to keep millennials involved and that’s why we had to take a knee after the budget stuff to take some time to see, over the next year, what our work will look like and what we should be striving for.”
How will this fight shape up over the next few years? The determining factor lies in the ability of the organizing bodies to keep citizens engaged and in motion. Though pushback from native residents is ever growing. Some might say the scene is set for the rise of another “People’s Mayor.” What that looks like in today’s D.C., only time will tell.