It was the wee hours of Sunday, and Julien Broomfield was still angry about a conversation she’d had with some friends the previous day. As they cruised through northwest Washington, D.C., one of her friends had mentioned the absence of go-go music at the intersection of 7th Street N.W. and Florida Avenue.
A corner store there had been ordered to silence the go-go music — a genre native to Washington and famous for its thumping rhythm and repetitive beats — that has been blaring from its exterior loudspeakers for years, following complaints from residents who had only recently moved into the neighborhood.
Broomfield first became sad about the order, then angry. Unable to sleep, the 23-year-old senior at Howard University sent out a tweet about 2:30 a.m. Sunday, informing her friends that the go-go — the beating-heart soundtrack for many inner-city and black D.C. residents — had been silenced, and urging them to complain.
“I tweet about controversial things all the time, things that me and my friends talk about,” Bloomfield told ThinkProgress. “I felt people needed to know about this because I couldn’t believe anybody would complain about the music, because we all love it. They been playing that go-go there since before I was a human.”
This is a story about gentrification and the latest outrageous tale to roil Washington, a city fraught with the tensions that arise as newcomers inject new life and money into communities without respect toward the established customs and patterns of life that existed before they arrived.
Unlike so many of these stories however, this one is unique, because the pre-existing residents won, offering hope that a community’s united struggle against abusive gentrification isn’t always a dead-end for inner-city residents. It is possible to prevail and preserve a community’s cultural touchstones, as it did Wednesday, following an announcement that the music will return.
John Legere, head of T-Mobile U.S., said in a tweet to The Washington Post that the electronics store in the Shaw community will soon resume playing go-go music, as it has done for nearly a quarter century.
I’ve looked into this issue myself and the music should NOT stop in D.C.! @TMobile and @MetroByTMobile are proud to be part of the Shaw community – the music will go on and our dealer will work with the neighbors to compromise volume. https://t.co/qXvwzmc24E
— John Legere (@JohnLegere) April 10, 2019
The turnaround came as a direct response to the outraged reactions of community activists and residents, who organized a series of activities to persuade the communications firm to back down from its corporate headquarter’s order to silence the music.
And it began with Bloomfield’s tweet.
Use the hashtag #DontMuteDC when you tweet about this! We have to start somewhere!
— The Love Chopperetta (@heroinej__) April 7, 2019
By noon on Sunday, her tweet had gone viral with over 1,000 retweets, and a hashtag — #DontMuteDC — was trending across the nation. Community organizers took up the cause, staging an impromptu afternoon rally and go-go concert outside the store that drew hundreds on Monday, including city council officials. An online petition generated support that by late Wednesday morning had more than 60,000 signatures.
City councilwoman Brianne Nadeau, who represents the surrounding Shaw and U Street community, sent a letter to T-Mobile officials, imploring them to back down.
“Go-go is a blend of funk, hip-hop, Latin, and other genres that emerged in the ’60s and ’70s. It is a unique product of D.C. and its black residents. To this day, it is the indisputable sound of D.C. and its suburbs,” Nadeau wrote. “This corner is often where many hear go-go for the first time. The music that has played there since at least 1995 – and the CDs sold next door – have kept this cultural spirit alive.”
Nadeau sent out a tweet Wednesday morning, hinting that T-Mobile officials were reconsidering their stance.
— Brianne K. Nadeau (@BrianneKNadeau) April 10, 2019
“This is a larger struggle that just what’s happening at that store,” said Tony Lewis, a long-time community activist in Washington. “Businesses supported by black people in communities of black people are under attack. Our culture in our communities are under attack. People are rallying around this situation because the store and the music are staples of this community and shutting off the music is salt in the wound.”
All of this comes as something of a shock to Donald Campbell, who sat at the epicenter of the swirl of community activism from behind the sales counter at Central Communications, the red-brick storefront that does business as a Metro PCS retailer.
“No, I didn’t expect all of this support to happen,” Campbell said in an interview on Tuesday, as protesters circled outside his store and some ventured in to sign the petition or ask when the music would come back on.
For nearly a quarter-century, Campbell blasted go-go into the street. He started playing the music to draw attention to go-go and to advertise the fact his business sold recordings produced by local bands.
The sounds of D.C. were impossible to miss and, for the most part, the community of working-class black folk, Howard students, and the occasional suburban thrill seekers loved it. Almost no one complained: If people didn’t like go-go, they simply found other places to spend time and money in the city.
“I’ve been playing the music here since 1995,” Campbell said Tuesday afternoon as customers lined up to pay their bills or get help setting up their cell phones. “This is a community-oriented business and the people here love what we’re doing. They’re not the ones with a problem with go-go music. They love the music and what we’re trying to do.”
But signs of change came as an influx of newcomers, attracted by a nearby Metro rail stop and construction of high-rise apartments and condos in the community, began to push for even more changes in the community.
Campbell said the early warnings began about four or five years ago, as he began to receive visits from the fire and police departments, saying that some people in the community were complaining about the noise. From almost zero complaints, Campbell said, the fire and police visits ticked up to around 20 to 25 times over the past few years.
But there were no problems or citations. In fact, city officials measured the street sounds and told Campbell that he was complying with municipal regulations.What’s more, the store did bustling business, and its main supplier — Metro PCS — didn’t seem to have any problems with the music, apparently rebuffing any complaints it may have received from new Shaw-area residents.
About a month or so ago, Campbell said, the situation took a turn as officials with T-Mobile, which acquired Metro PCS last October, approached him to say the company was facing a suit over the store’s go-go music.
Specifically, he said, someone or some group living in The Shay — the fancy, new high-rise apartment building across the street — had allegedly threatened T-Mobile with a lawsuit if it didn’t stop the go-go. That’s when T-Mobile ordered him to silence the music.
“In effect, T-Mobile ordered me to stop playing the music,” Campbell said, adding he reluctantly agreed to stop blasting the music into the street while continuing to play go-go, albeit more softly, inside the tiny shop.
ThinkProgress’ efforts to contact T-Mobile were unsuccessful. Campbell said his attempts to get clarity from the company were equally frustrating; it failed to return calls or provide a full explanation of why he couldn’t continue to play go-go as he had for nearly a quarter-century. He said he is unaware about the threat of a possible lawsuit and has not has seen any court documents suggesting one is coming.
A spokesperson at The Shay said in an interview with DCist, the online publication that first reported the story, that the building management had no problem with the music. “There have been complaints about the music being extremely loud, but it’s not just The Shay,” the spokesperson said. “It’s people who live all over or are visiting the area. It’s not The Shay that has the issue.”
Regardless, Campbell said he’s done nothing to merit the newcomers’ ire.
“I don’t think I was breaking the law by playing the music outside,” he said. “Other businesses and bars around the community play music on rooftops or patios, but they’re not playing go-go. Why can’t I play my music?”
“We’ve tried to keep it low key and want to work with T-Mobile without drawing too much attention to the situation,” he added.
For all of Campbell’s efforts to keep quiet his behind-the-scenes efforts to restart the music, Bloomfield’s tweet changed everything.
“I’m so happy to see all this reaction,” she said, adding that, as a native of Newark, New Jersey, she had witnessed gentrification in her hometown.
“I’m not a D.C. native, but I love this city. I love its culture and I love the black people, the natives of D.C. who have come out to support the city. I’m really proud to have played a part in all of this.”