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Nine Black women dressed in varying silver outfits and sunglasses pose in front of a wood-paneled wall.

Be’La Dona

Photo by John Agurs

  • It’s Time for Women in Go-Go to Grab the Mic and Get Their Flowers

    In go-go culture—like in most music and public life—men have dominated the mic and the instruments. It’s a theme I encountered again and again during my doctoral research on go-go, a percussive fusion of funk, blues, soul, and salsa that emerged in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. In 2020, it was designated the official music of D.C. But as I was making final revisions on my dissertation, my advisor posed a question: what about women in go-go?

    Although the answer is complex, I did that thing that we do. I wrote that women in go-go were a “critical” area to explore, and scholars should do so… in future studies.

    Little did I know that as I was typing that lame answer in 2007, a D.C.-born drummer named Shannon Browne was gathering the courage to ask one of her idols, “Sweet Cherie” Mitchell-Agurs, a similar question: what if they could start an all-female band and just rock? 

    The answer was yes. Seventeen years later, Be’La Dona, Italian for “beautiful woman” or a lethal flower, is a singular creative force in music—in go-go and beyond. They are upholding the standards of musical artistry most of them learned in area schools, Black churches and go-go shows across the District. Be’La Dona is sustaining and evolving the go-go tradition and making it sexy, too.

    Producers: Sojin Kim, Nichole Procopenko
    Director: Charlie Weber
    Editor: Abigail Hendrix
    Cameras: Ashley Avila, Gabriela Perez, Gabrielle Puglisi, Colin Stucki, Charlie Weber

    A woman in a floral blouse stands in front of a display of CDs.
    Natalie Hopkinson collaborated in organizing the Don’t Mute DC oral history interviews recorded by the Smithsonian at the Metro PCS/Central Communications store at Seventh St. and Florida Avenue NW, whose situation sparked the Don't Mute DC protests in spring 2019.
    Photo by Xueying Chang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    A woman is interviewed on camera, sitting behind a store counter. Three men stand behind the camera, and two other stand to the side.
    Howard University student Julien Broomfield was interviewed by Nico Hobson (left, of Go-Go Radio Live), Hopkinson, and a Smithsonian team.
    Photo by Xueying Chang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    In a series of oral history interviews for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the Go-Go Museum, Be’La Dona members described seizing the opportunity to build a different type of band and creative family.

    Their schedule is just as rigorous as the typical go-go band: three to four gigs per week and sometimes three gigs in one day. But it is understood that as women musicians, they each have responsibilities society does not automatically expect of those who identify as male. They take turns helping each other with styling and makeup. Each member also takes on unpaid emotional and domestic labor: childcare, cooking, nurturing extended family. Artistically, they share duties and take turns deciding musical arrangements. It is a true sisterhood.

    Three people pose wearing fancy blouses and jackets.
    The “momagers” of Rare Essence: (left to right) Ms. Mattie Lee Mack, Ms. Valjean Thomas, and Mrs. Margarine Neal
    Photo courtesy of Mike “Funky Ned” Neal

    Outside go-go stages, women have always held outsized roles in the culture. Start with the fact that it is not go-go if no one is lighting up the dance floor—and those dancers are often women. Behind the scenes in the late 1970s, Ms. Mack and her fellow “momagers” Ms. Sis and Ms. Margarine Neal grew Rare Essence from a group of elementary school kids to the leading force in go-go. Ms. Pratt was the momager for Northeast Groovers, Ms. Shannon for New Impressionz. Becky Marcus is one half of the forces of the leading go-go distributor and producer Liaison Records. Carol Kirkendall was half of the team that produced the seminal 1988 film Go-Go Live at the Capital Centre.  

    Gladys Stephenson made the costumes for Experience Unlimited in the 1970s. Melva “Lady” Adams was E.U.’s lead vocalist whose image inspired the artwork for the cover of the 1977 album Free Yourself. In 2022, she reprised her lead vocal and arranger role for a remake of a classic track from this album, “Peace Gon Away.

    Other women have documented the culture, from the playwright Nina Angela Mercer’s experimental theater piece Gypsy and the Bully Door, Alona Wartofsky’s work in The Washington Post and City Paper, and Jill Greenleigh’s book Go-Go Speaks: The Heartbeat of a Culture. Ethnomusicologist Allie Martin, a scholar at Darthmouth, is revising her dissertation on go-go into a book.

    It has been harder for women to take up space on go-go stages, but they have. Be’La Dona lead talker Karis Hill opened for Rare Essence in an all-female band called Klyxx in the early 1980s. Be’La Dona keyboardist Claudia Rogers and percussionist Natarsha “Little Boogie” Proctor were members of the all-women band Pleasure. The diminutive Proctor, author of a new memoir The Queen of Percussion, later recalled standing on crates so that she could reach the conga drums at their very first performance at Evans Grill in Forestville, Maryland. in the late 1980s. Pleasure opened for the go-go band Hot, Cold, Sweat, and later went on tour with Salt-N-Pepa. Meshell Ndegeocello played bass for Rare Essence for a period in 1988. In the late 1990s, Maiesha and the Hip-Huggers helped to revive go-go when it was banned and criminalized by sneaking into venues wearing Afro wigs and bell bottoms. 

    A Black person with an Afro and a Chocolate City T-shirt speaks into a microphone outdoors.
    In June 2019, the public was invited to the corner of Seventh and Florida NW in Washington, D.C., for the recording of the official “Don’t Mute DC” video, featuring Rare Essence, Lightshow, Noochie, Tone P, TOB + Reesa Renne. The event also included “Peace Pledge” led by Lil Chris from TOB and Black Bo from TCB.
    Photo by Sabrina Lynn Motley, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Today, it is standard that most go-go bands have powerful lead female voices, from Ms. Kim on Sirius Company, Sweet Thang with Backyard Band, and Chrystian B. with TCB. Since 2019, I have co-produced a series of concerts for Don’t Mute DC (an organization I co-founded) called “First Ladies of Go-Go,” which celebrates go-go lead singers, and the “Ladies of the Pocket,” which celebrates female go-go percussionists at venues from the Eaton Hotel to the Kennedy Center.

    Popular go-go artists such as Michelle Blackwell and Kacey Williams of Black Alley take center stage in their own bands. Newcomers such as the vocal powerhouse J’Ta play with many go-go bands and bring attention to the genre by going viral on social media. 

    As in any tradition, lineage is important. Be’La Dona bandleader Sweet Cherie played with “Godfather of Go-Go” Chuck Brown for twelve years. Shannon Browne, Be’La Dona’s drummer, has apprenticed with Chuck Brown’s drummer Kenny “Kwick” Gross and Danny “Animal,” the drummer from Black Alley. Be’La Dona has been tapped as a go-to backup band for a who’s who of musical stars: Erykah Badu, Estelle, Chico DeBarge, Chrisette Michelle, Melanie Fiona, Vivian Greene, Elle Varner, Goapele, and Leela James. Members have toured with Ari Lennox, Genuine, and, yes, Beyoncé.

    Six Black women pose backstage at a concert. The photo is slightly blurry.
    (Left to right) Ms. Kim, KK Brown, Maiesha Rashad, Kacey, Chrystian B., and Michelle Blackwell (top) at Don’t Mute DC’s 2019 “First Ladies of Go-Go” event.
    Photo by Natalie Hopkinson
    At an outdoor skating rink, a Black child rollerskate by, with a flyer in the foreground: Family Late Skate. Connecting people to Anacostia Park through arts and recreation. Celebrating the past, creating the future. August 24. Be'La Dona, DJ Spirit. Logos for Smithsonian Folklife Festival and Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative.
    In August 2019, as an extension of the Social Power of Music program, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival co-presented a Family Late Skate featuring Be’La Dona in Anacostia Park.
    Photo by Sojin Kim, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    From behind, a band performs in front of a crowd of people in an outdoor skating rink.
    In August 2019, as an extension of the Social Power of Music program, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival co-presented a Family Late Skate featuring Be’La Dona in Anacostia Park.
    Photo by Sojin Kim, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Just as many Be’La Dona members were inspired by seeing musicians such as the drummer Sheila E. and rappers Salt-N-Pepa on big stages, D.C.-area girls who see them backing Black Girl Rock and at nighttime skating event in Anacostia are inspired by their example. This inspiration goes beyond gender or any other construct.

    “My belief is that music is spiritual,” Browne said in a 2019 oral history interview. “It speaks to you in ways that can lift you. It’s the same flow with church. It puts you in a place where it can guide you and balance you. Music is a guiding force.”

    Tempest Thomas, Be’La Dona’s bass player, added: “Whatever your belief is, at the end of the day, music is universal.”

    Dr. Natalie Hopkinson is the author of Go-Go Live, associate professor of media, democracy, and society at American University, and chief curator of the Go-Go Museum & Café, coming to Anacostia in spring 2024.

    This project received support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative and the Smithsonian Year of Music.

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