Updated: Monday, 18 March 2013 15:55 | By Agence France-Presse

From go-go to punk: Washington's underground edge

Forget what you think you know about America's stiff and stodgy capital city.


From go-go to punk: Washington's underground edge

From go-go to punk: Washington's underground edge

Beyond the staid suits and ties of Washington's politicians, lobbyists and lawyers lies the "other DC" -- an underground cultural scene of graffiti, go-go and hardcore punk music that took off in the 1980s and still pulsates today.

The style of graffiti unique to Washington is scrawled on sidewalks and the walls of buildings just blocks from hallowed national symbols like the White House, the Capitol and the Supreme Court.

Go-go, a spin-off of funk music, is as popular as ever in the city's large African American community, and the punk sounds that resonated with white youths in the capital three decades ago inspired musicians worldwide.

"Hundreds of marginalized kids found shelter in these movements," says Roger Gastman, the curator of "Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s", a new exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The show is the first to explore Washington's thriving underground arts scene and the intersection of the three ground-breaking genres, which emerged after the 1968 assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

That seminal event triggered a series of race riots that rocked Washington.

Buildings were burned, entire neighborhoods were destroyed, and white families fled the city in droves, often relocating to the leafy, upscale suburbs that surround Washington.

At that time in the city's history, "whites and blacks mingled very little, but all were creative," said Gastman, who began tagging buildings with graffiti himself as a teenager in the Washington suburbs.

"These cultures shared a do-it-yourself ethos," he explained.

"To see a show, you had to put it on. To make a record, you had to create a label."

Ian MacKaye, a key figure in the city's punk rock scene who was a member of Minor Threat and Fugazi, says he remembers growing up in a fractured city.

"It was extremely rundown growing up in DC. People were scared," MacKaye told AFP. "There were the war protests, there was civil rights, there was a lot of agitation and hostility."

On the streets, black culture ruled, he said.

"White kids were only offered the federal culture: Hollywood, television, mainstream music," MacKaye said.

African Americans meanwhile were grooving to the beat of hip-hop precursor go-go, popularized by Washington icon and music legend Chuck Brown, who died in May last year.

As go-go was becoming popular, it inspired a form of graffiti, sometimes consisting of little more than simple tags and rudimentary, barely legible letters.

Punk music was for many white youths what go-go was to blacks -- an edgy and alternative antidote to mainstream culture.

"Our music was aggressive because we were persecuted. We were being bullied because our hair was too short or beat up for being punk-rock kids," MacKaye said.

His group Minor Threat even gave rise to the "straight edge" movement -- tired of seeing his friends succumb to drugs and alcohol, MacKaye wrote punk songs about clean living. The movement caught fire in Washington and elsewhere.

On rare occasions, punk and go-go could be found in the same venue, as the disenfranchised white youths wanted to hear more black music.

"Sharing the stage with go-go bands was the only opportunity we had to see go-go, because whites simply couldn't go to the neighborhoods where these shows were taking place," said MacKaye.

In addition to the museum exhibit, which runs through early April, various other events are being held around Washington to celebrate its underground cultural scene, including lectures, movies and concerts.

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