No Enemies Explores the Power of Protest Music

Stephan Brackett of the Flobots at the MLK Marade in January.EXPAND
Stephan Brackett of the Flobots at the MLK Marade in January.
Courtesy of No Enemies

In early April, a group of protesters gathered outside of the Regional Transportation District headquarters in downtown Denver to decry a proposed fare hike, which they believed would have a particularly damaging effect on low-income residents who rely on public transportation. Although RTD’s board of directors ultimately approved the rate hike, the protesters experienced a collective sense of promise that they might succeed in their mission. The feeling came, in part, from their singing. In unison, they refashioned a nursery rhyme:

“The people on the bus want justice now, justice now, justice now. The people on the bus want justice now. Jus-tice now!”

Later, they transitioned to another chant:

¡Todos adelante!
¡Sí, se puede!
Vamos a gritar que
¡Sí, se puede!
¿Cómo se les hace?
¡Sí, se puede; sí, se puede; sí, se puede!

Both tunes had been workshopped at No Enemies: Call and Response, a series of gatherings initiated by Jamie Laurie and Stephan Brackett of the Flobots. At No Enemies, the public gathers to compose, rehearse and exchange songs that will later be deployed on the streets. A social experiment in political art-making, the monthly meetings blend community organizing with choir practice in a celebratory atmosphere sometimes reminiscent of a Baptist church service. Someone might introduce a simple tune that the crowd practices and refines; alternately, small groups will break off to focus on building a song collaboratively, often to address specific issues ranging from transportation inequality and police brutality to gentrification and the oppression of Denver’s undocumented population.

As social activists and musicians, Laurie and Brackett found inspiration in the Southern Freedom Movement and one of its leaders, Dr. Vincent Harding, who mentored the pair before his passing last year. Those who knew Harding use words like “guide,” “sage” and “encourager” to describe him. An activist and scholar in his lifetime, he worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and drafted several of his speeches, including “A Time to Break Silence,” in which King officially declared his opposition to the Vietnam War. Harding also contributed to the sit-ins that helped dissolve official segregation. He eschewed the more popular term “civil-rights movement,” because for him the struggle encompassed but also transcended individual civil rights: At stake was the unequivocal and complete freedom of minorities in the South and everywhere — hence the Southern Freedom Movement.

Breaking silence and empowering people to speak out against injustice was Harding’s talent and calling. Laurie and Harding started meeting regularly in 2000, after Laurie sat in on a class that Harding was teaching at the Iliff School of Theology. Laurie describes how, “with a few questions, [Harding] could make you feel very important. Taking an interest in us, he compelled us to be fully the leaders we could be.” For his part, Harding had always stressed the role that music played in the Southern Freedom Movement — he called it a “primary tool” — and he was compelled by the Flobots’ mix of activism and art. Nonetheless, he called on the band’s members to “do more, think more seriously about what music could contribute,” Laurie recalls. At Harding’s memorial last spring at the Iliff School, Laurie, inspired by the memory of his ally and guide, conceived of No Enemies. The idea — to create a series of workshops where groups could cultivate music embedded in social movements themselves — “basically became fully formed” that day, he says.

As the Flobots’ lead MC, Laurie has long been interested in the union of music and social justice. The group’s most popular song, “Handlebars,” peaked at number three on the Billboard Modern Rock charts in 2008. Along with its attendant video, the song addresses the connections between corporate greed and military violence. Other tunes, such as “Rise Up,” “White Flag Warrior” and “The Circle in the Square,” employ a mix of rock and hip-hop to encourage listeners to take action, to understand that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Still, No Enemies signals a shift in Laurie’s interest in political art-making. “Up until recently, we thought that movement music meant making music about movements,” he says. Now, “we need to make music for social movements, which means music you can use as a group of people, as calling for something that you can sing together, without being led by a professional.”

With this democratic goal in mind, Laurie gravitated toward spirituals. In the history of American social movements, few musical genres have better expressed a collective desire for social justice. In pursuing spirituals, Laurie found an ally in Dr. Arthur Jones, whom he bumped into at Dr. Harding’s memorial. Jones is founder of the Spirituals Project, an educational initiative out of the University of Denver aimed at promoting the living legacy of spirituals. He is also a clinical professor of culture and psychology and an associate dean at the university’s Colorado Women’s College. When Laurie encountered him, Jones, who was close to Harding, was sitting at a piano, jotting down lyrics to a favorite song of his late friend’s called “We Are Building Up a New World,” which starts, “We are building up a new world…. Builders must be strong.”

It seems that even in his passing, Harding was uniting and empowering individuals: Laurie and Jones started talking about Harding and his legacy, about music and social change. The two shared his passion to remake the world for the better, and they shared an interest in music. They kept in touch after the service, and staff from the Spirituals Project later became key contributors to No Enemies.

According to Jones, enslaved Africans and their descendants used spirituals to convey secret messages to each other, but the songs had psychologically recuperative effects, as well. “When people are really abused, tired, frustrated and angry, they are not thinking really clearly,” says Jones, but “music sharpens your thinking and ability to plan and organize.” At the end of brutal days, music would help slaves reenergize so they could better focus on plans for escape.

Spirituals were a natural choice during the Southern Freedom Movement, which gained momentum less than a hundred years after slavery was abolished. Fast-forward another half-century, and spirituals, including “Amazing Grace” and “Wade in the Water,” live on at No Enemies.

Another source of material is local artists, including hip-hop acts such as 2MX2, Bianca Mikahn and the Flobots themselves, and poets such as Suzi Q. Smith. Like many of the artists involved with No Enemies, Owen Trujillo of 2MX2, who moved here from Zacatecas, Mexico, has been interested in social-justice issues. He notes simply that there is a “social-justice aspect to being Mexican” in America, which he tries to address through his raps. But echoing Laurie’s thoughts, Owen notes that No Enemies creates new, more concrete ways to connect with social movements. No Enemies is “not only therapeutic, but empowering,” he says. “It opens up the possibilities of what we can do, creates grassroots connection with people.” The Spanish lyrics that the protesters sang outside of RTD’s offices came from 2MX2.

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Smith, a Denver poet inspired by the likes of Nikki Giovanni and Derek Walcott, has contributed a line from her spoken-word album, Black Hole Mouth, which has gained momentum not only with No Enemies, but with social movements around the country. It reads, “I am a sleeping giant; there’s a riot in my bones.” As far as the meaning of the line goes, Smith says she’d prefer to leave it open. “When you make something,” she explains, “it kind of stops belonging to you.” Yet it’s hard to deny the sense of latent energy those words convey — the sort that could fuel progressive social collaboration.

Common among No Enemies contributors is the sense that the ownership of their work transfers to the social movements that use it. As Brackett has stressed, “authorship is utterly irrelevant” when it comes to movement music; it’s about making people feel something and encouraging them to participate. Nor does he think that some genres are more appropriate than others. In fact, he is wary about “political” music getting pigeon-holed as a genre, cutting off the potential for an assortment of styles and musical forms to have a presence in social movements. “To give music an agenda is a good way to make bad music,” he says, adding, “If music makes you feel, that’s political — a form of poetry we’ve forgotten to practice.”

Janée, a song leader at No Enemies, remembers her decision to get involved: “I’d go to all these marches where people scream, ‘Fuck the police!’ [But] where’s the music? How do we mentally connect?’” It was in a No Enemies workshop that Janée and her collaborators created the playful riff on “The Wheels on the Bus.”

Merging styles is another effective way to use music in activism. At this year’s MLK Marade, some contributors from No Enemies sang “Wade in the Water” while others carried on a call-and-response, saying, “Michael Brown: why we can’t wait. Tamir Rice: why we can’t wait. Eric Gardner: why we can’t wait. Trayvon Martin: why we can’t wait….” The litany juxtaposed statements of brutal fact with an outpouring of sorrow and hope, to heartbreaking effect.

Sometimes, though, even music becomes a victim in the fight for social justice. In early May, a small group gathered in Denver to march in solidarity with residents of Baltimore, who were protesting the death of Freddie Gray. The mood was tense, thanks in no small part to the Denver Police Department’s show of force, which included seven helicopters, several armored vehicles and what looked like a bomb squad — all to manage a contingent of about a hundred non-violent marchers. About halfway through the protest, the police took action, pepper-spraying the crowd and arresting nine protesters.

Some protesters contributed to the stress by encouraging violence toward the officers. For example, one man was holding a sign that read, “The Only Good Cop Is a Dead Cop,” and others shouted epithets at the police. This sort of antagonism not only put the cops on edge, but created internal divisions, as well. Many of the protesters saw the expression of such sentiments as detrimental to the cause.

It seemed that even music could not do much to penetrate the atmosphere of fear and aggression. Nonetheless, some participants made an earnest attempt at singing. Two women who had been active at No Enemies began singing “Wade in the Water,” but it was barely a trickle in a sonic environment thick with the sound of sirens and people crying for help.

Their song did reach the ears of at least one other protester, however, who angrily asked them to stop. She was upset that the two women, who were white, were co-opting a space that should have been used to express the anguish and rage of African-Americans. Another protester agreed, saying, “The majority white people that you expect in a space like this need to know how to act. Why are you acting like you’re the one being attacked, like you’re the one living in shit conditions?” The two women were taken aback but remained gracious. How could a song that had been so effectively deployed at an event like the Marade trigger this sort of response?

“The questions of appropriation and how and when a song should be utilized and who is leading it matter a lot,” says Laurie, adding that choosing what music people use for social movements is “not just something that can be answered with a formula. It’s an art, right? And I think what we’re trying to do with No Enemies is to use it as an art and start practicing, and rehearsing and making mistakes and learning.” In addition to larger workshops where people learn and share songs, No Enemies leads more focused trainings in which those wishing to dig deeper can refine their leadership skills. Despite the occasional misstep, Laurie hopes that with continued practice and reflection, No Enemies can bring more people into social movements. In the words of Suzi Q. Smith, “Music is a powerful motivator. It keeps us moving forward, in a rhythm, connected. It also…makes movements accessible; it’s an open invitation. When there’s a demonstration, it’s very easy to join in…something the entire community owns.”

Those interested in getting involved with No Enemies can connect with the organization at facebook.com/theflobots.


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