Beyond Category: Twentieth & Twenty-First Century Black Music Research & Recording in Washington, D.C

By Lornell, Kip | ARSC Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Beyond Category: Twentieth & Twenty-First Century Black Music Research & Recording in Washington, D.C


Lornell, Kip, ARSC Journal


Despite the fact that Washington, D.C. was briefly at the center of the fledgling recording industry in the late 19th century, the City is best known for internationally recognized icons and institutions such as the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center, and the Supreme Court. Hundreds of thousands of tourists from across the world annually visit the D.C. in order to tour the White House or visit the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum. Few visitors, however, venture far from the crowds that descend upon the Mall or downtown D.C. or Georgetown in order to discover the City's diverse cultural and musical attributes.

Although they largely overlook the District of Columbia's indigenous culture, most visitors know that it is a long-time majority African-American city. By 2000, the African-American population had dipped to 60%, down from 65.9% in 1990. Despite this demographic trend, Washington, D.C., has been a majority black city throughout most of the twentieth century, peaking in the late 1960s when the 1970 census identified 537,712 citizens (about 75% of its population) as African-American.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, the District was widely known locally and among African-Americans across the United States as "Chocolate City" or simply as "CC." Visionary bandleader, vocalist, political, social commentator, and auteurist, George Clinton recorded an album, Chocolate City, in 1975 (Polygram Records, ASIN: B000001FPO). With the aid of equally creative collaborative musicians such as Bootsy Collins (bass and vocals) and Bernie Worrell (key board), Parliament's homage to Washington, D.C. is crowned by its ironic title track that celebrates blackness in its many manifestations: self-expression, African-American history, and political awareness:

   What's happening C.C.?
   They still call it the White House, but that's just a temporary
   condition.
   Heh, uh, we didn't get our forty acres and a mule, but we did get
   you C.C., heh, yeah
   Gainin' on ya
   Movin' in and around ya
   God bless C.C. and its vanilla suburbs

George Clinton, by way of Chocolate City, "represented" for the District of Columbia, much like the local go go genre, which will be more fully discussed later, since the mid-1970s.

Funk and go go, along with hip hop, represent three of the most recent significant manifestations of African-American music heard in late 20th century Washington, D.C. But what about earlier eras? Jazz and gospel music, not surprisingly, have been staples throughout much of the century, with blues-infused R&B music developing in the decade following the close of World War II.

The African-American musician most closely associated with the District of Columbia depends upon one's age and musical inclinations. Jazz fans (as well as many others) would probably suggest Edward "Duke" Ellington, the single most-studied jazz musician in the world as well as the best documented musician from Washington, D.C. Those interested in popular music might well suggest another native Washingtonian, Motown star Marvin Gaye. Anyone who came of age in the 1980s might associate Puff Daddy/B Diddy/Sean Combs with the District of Columbia because of his formative years at Howard University during the early 1990s. The youngest listeners would likely suggest another hip hop artist, Wale, a native Washingtonian who hit the local hip hop scene in 2005 and in 2009 is threatening to become nationally recognized.

This article reviews the research and recording of twentieth and twenty-first century black music in the District of Columbia. It is not only a survey, but a guide to sources that include more detailed discographical, biographical, and ethnographical information. A comprehensive Duke Ellington discography, for example, is not a only a dynamic and ever-changing body of information due to the on-going reissues and the discovery of previously unknown air-checks and other non-commercial recordings, it would be far longer than a single volume of this journal.

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