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Jamie moved home, and slowly but surely the Flobots came to be, incorporating such eclectic members as Mackenzie, a classically trained violist, and guitarist Andy. But for such a varied group of musicians, it was hard enough having the music meld into a coherent sound, let alone a progressive vision.
"I'm coming from a place where I really wasn't part of that world," says Andy, a staple in the Denver music scene who, until he began touring full-time, fronted the funk band Bop Skizzum. "I'm still not an expert. But I was one of those people who was afraid to ask questions because I didn't want to sound stupid. Jamie is someone who helps you get over that fear, who encourages you to engage politically."
"Handlebars" has been called Eminem meets Cake, but in reality, the Flobots' sound is one of those genre-defiers, a Gorillaz, a Gnarls Barkley, an OutKast or Rage Against the Machine. And as the Flobots continued to hone that sound, so, too, did they hone their vision of activism. By the time they released their LP, Fight With Tools, they already had a nonprofit aimed at recruiting fans to participate in community activism.
"I felt like there was more that could be done," Stephen explains. "If you're up there really getting these kids hyped, you should point them to what's next, where to channel that energy constructively."
But while they were busy figuring out what, exactly, to point those kids to and the best means to do it, their music blew up. Recruiting fans to register voters at shows and teaching music classes at Denver Children's Home was suddenly not an option. They had signed with a major label. They were no longer Colorado's secret.
Mehesy met the Flobots while she was working with PeaceJam, the educational peacemaking program that brought ten Nobel Laureates to Colorado in September 2006. They stayed in touch and began discussing the notion of a Flobots nonprofit in February this year. By April, Mehesy was running it.
Almost from the get-go, she's been playing catch-up.
"I think there was this pent-up demand for the message they were providing, that we are headed in the wrong direction and that change is possible and that getting involved to make that change is the way to go," she says. "The goal of the nonprofit was to translate the energy the fans feel at shows into action. But when the band went to the scale that they did, our challenge really became trying to match that."
"From day one, we have been in this position where we had the momentum and the people," comments Seth Donovan, who coordinates groups of Flobots "street teams" around the country. "I came and sat down with Carol Mehesy, and she said, 'Okay, we have 2,000 people waiting to be organized.' I couldn't believe it. Usually a job is building momentum. Here we had all this momentum already built. The goal became harnessing that energy while building a sustainable template to work with."
The website www.fightwithtools.org, which is a social-networking site for Flobots fans willing to work to effect change in their community, has become that template. Using the site, Donovan helps steer new members to street teams in their area or to create new ones. But rather than hang posters or hand out fliers, like street teams for other bands, Flobots street teams participate in WATS sessions (Wake up, Activate, Transform, Step up) and are then sent out into the community.
Voter registration has been the focus of the program thus far, and in the Denver area, 132 street team members have registered more than 1,000 voters.
When voting registration closes after October 5, Flobots street team members will participate in a partnership with Let Us Rise, a Colorado campaign designed to create independent, positive visions for communities — the goal being to turn young leaders into listeners before attempting anything too broad. At the end of the year, the national Fight With Tools conference will take place in Denver, where new, potentially geographically specific goals will be determined.
And the Flobots army will be unleashed anew.
"The concept of connecting fan bases with social-justice work is not a new idea," Donovan says. "But the way we are doing it, on such a mass scale and with a social networking site, is."
Backstage at the House of Blues in Dallas, the Flobots are sound-checked and waiting for the show to start. So is Doomtree Collective, a Minneapolis hip-hop troupe that has opened for the band on the last ten or so tour dates.
The pairing has proved mutually beneficial. In a musical landscape where the Flobots are consistently painted as "alternative," having an underground opener signed to the much-respected Rhymesayers label offers a certain amount of hip-hop street cred. For their part, the members of Doomtree get to open for a headliner with a bona fide radio smash and have the chance to perform in front of large crowds that would normally never see them. But beyond the merits of this arranged marriage, the groups seem to genuinely get along, and laughter bounces off the green-room walls as the groups catch up and shoot the shit.
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