Three Albums Later, the Flobots Have Perfected Protest Songwriting
Denver hip-hop troupe the Flobots have never been about doing things the easy way. When 2007’s Fight With Tools album achieved some mainstream success, reaching number fifteen on the Billboard chart, and the accompanying “Handlebars” single climbed to number thirty, they seemed to be on the fast track to universal acceptance and a comfortable career.
With a live rhythm section (Jesse Walker and Kenny Ortiz) plus a classically trained violinist (Mackenzie Gault) in the ranks, the Flobots found a sound that appealed to discerning fans of bands like the Roots, as well as the crowd that enjoys commercial rap rock like, dare we say, Linkin Park. The tunes are accessible — that should be celebrated. But the Flobots have something to say, too.
In 2010, the second album, Survival Story, was met with mixed reviews. One of the major criticisms aimed at that sophomore effort is that the political message was more “preachy” than that of the debut. That, of course, is subjective. Many fans enjoyed the passion with which MCs Jamie “Jonny 5” Laurie and Stephen “Brer Rabbit” Brackett conveyed, and continue to convey, their messages. Still, the two men concede that they’ve been on a learning journey since forming in 2000. The month of May will see the release of their fourth album, No Enemies, and Laurie says that this one feels like the most deliberate realization of their intentions, as musicians and activists.
“There’s an emotional story we wanted to tell, and we put a lot of thought and energy into making sure we were telling this fully,” Laurie says. “Starting out, it was easier to think a song was done because everyone had a part to play. In this case, a song was done when it was really embodying what it was meant to embody.”
“Activism” has become a buzzword in recent years, a means of achieving kudos. But the members of the Flobots take it seriously, marching, campaigning and rallying for issues such as climate change and immigration reform. No Enemies is a direct response to a call-out from longtime friend and mentor late social activist and professor Dr. Vincent Harding, who asked the musicians where the songs are for today’s movements. How can they get people to come together for a cause through song?
“That influenced the whole methodology of the song-building, period,” says Brackett. “That’s the philosophy of pretty much the last three years of the band. That’s the reason why we looked in a very real way at how we bring music back to protest culture. How do we establish and build a culture that communicates emotions, that uses our emotional state as a basis for power? How do we have nonviolent representations of our strength? One of those ways is by having 500 voices be on the same breath. That was the anchor for both our album and our activist work over the last few years. We started from the streets and used the songs in a community environment; then we took them to the studio.”
Again, it’s all part of the journey that Flobots embarked on seventeen years ago. Young musicians tend to want to jump in all guns blazing. Perhaps you listen to Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy, and quite understandably want to emulate those chops, as well as the messages being eloquently conveyed. That impact is attractive, but there’s a necessary learning process.
“In the process of being an MC in this band, one of the first things you wanna do is dazzle people,” Brackett says. “You wanna show people how amazing you are, how fast you can rap, all of those things. As we’ve gotten older, especially with this album, we were more obsessed with communication. Deprioritizing the ‘Look at me”’ virtuosity with more like a ‘Where am I in this?’ Because in the process of being activists, we realized that music at its most basic just communicates emotion. It wasn’t so much about rhyming. No, let me just speak about what’s going on, and try to do that with the utmost clarity.”
As a result of all of these things, No Enemies sounds as focused, sharp and on-point as the Flobots ever have. It also helped that they felt a little pressure from the fans, thanks to the fact that the album was financed through a Kickstarter campaign. Laurie and Brackett agree that the approach offers refreshing transparency between the band and its audience.
“Knowing that we did it through Kickstarter, every breath that you’re doing, you’re trying to live up to the expectations of these people that support you,” says Brackett. “Some of them you don’t know, and some of them you know very intimately. For me, and I think a lot of the band, it just felt more real. People really believe in this, and they’re supporting this. So when you go to the booth, you feel that support. You feel that good pressure. For us, it felt transformative. It helped us raise the bar in a way that label expectations didn’t.”
In mid- to late April, fans can hear those songs in performing-arts centers in Denver and Parker, but, once again, the Flobots won’t be taking the easy route with a regular gig. Rather, the group is joining forces with the Wonderbound dance company for what is being billed as “an immersive exploration of the power of collective movement.”
“We never would have dreamed a few years ago that the way we’d release this album would be by putting the story into a ballet, but that’s exactly what we’re doing,” says Laurie. “This album and the story it tells will now be told on stage by an incredibly talented group of people at Wonderbound. We’re right in the midst of the process right now, and it’s invigorating. To see the music and the lyrics of the song come to life in the form of these complicated interactions between human beings on the stage is just captivating. I have goose-bump moments every few lines of every song, just witnessing what they brought to the collaboration. That’s a big deal for us. We’ve never done anything like this, and it’s really exciting.”
It promises to be a special, unusual show. Social justice and hip-hop are hardly strangers, but add ballet to that mix, and you have the most gloriously oddball yet attractive ménage à trois.
“We’re finding ways to utilize No Enemies, the project, alongside the performances that we do,” says Laurie in conclusion. “You don’t just show up at a show and listen while someone performs. You listen because you’re ready to engage, ready to mobilize, and ready to raise your own voice with the people on stage.”
Flobots plays with the Wonderbound dance company on April 14, 15 and 16 at the Performing Arts Complex at Pinnacle Charter School; 1001 West 84th Avenue; on April 22 and 23 at the PACE Center; 20000 Pikes Peak Avenue in Parker; and on April 29 and 30 at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts, 2344 East Iliff Avenue.
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