Music History

Flobots' Jamie Laurie on Today's Best Protest Music

This was the year of call-out culture, viral backlash and Facebook activists — but 2015 also saw frequent in-person, organized demonstrations for a variety of causes around the world. Denver’s Flobots make conscious music of and for the current social and political moment, but their new projects are a continuation of what the group has done all along: use music as a tool to connect people. In addition to participating in and leading social-movement training workshops around the country, the band recently pulled off a successful Kickstarter campaign to create NOENEMIES, a double album to be self-released in spring 2016. We spoke to Jamie Laurie, aka Jonny 5, about today’s protest music.

Tell me about the NOENEMIES project.
Jamie Laurie: If you think about what music has always been, every type of music was folk music — singing while working. At some point, recorded music taught us that only professional people are the ones who should be singing. Then, since it can be monetized, the “real” version of a song is that one recorded version. Then when you try singing a few songs with someone, most of the time they’ll say, “You don’t want to hear me sing.”

We want to send the message that music is a tool for social movements that should be taken seriously as its own genre. What makes for a good studio track doesn’t necessarily make a good protest song. It needs to be accessible, simple enough that everyone can sing it. Fundamental. We want to do both.

The second NOENEMIES disc, which will come with a songbook, will include recordings of protest music with people we’ve been working with — community choirs, marching bands, people training in movements. It’ll be a kind of raw reference for people to use — fun to listen to, but clear [that] you’re supposed to sing it. We want to hit that sweet spot.

How do you differentiate between protest music and other music?
There’s a big difference between what a song is to the music industry and what it is to movement culture. One’s an audio recording that you can try to sell. But in movement culture, [the question is more], ‘What is a song that we can all sing together that we know?’

One person who tried to bridge that gap this year was Janelle Monáe, with that song “Hell You Talmbout.” She went around and taught it to groups protesting, leading people with the words, using the song as a tool. The structure of the verse is simple to use — saying the names of people who have been killed.

How do you narrow or expand the political vision for a creative project?

I’m often surprised to find how multi-purpose these songs are. Let’s say we have this action coming up and it relates to transportation justice or something that feels new, and we’ll want to come up with songs for that, but then I’ll see how a song will work across movements. We want to find songs that capture the soul of these movements and what they have in common...whether these are songs that we write, or [songs] from older movements that still resonate, or [songs] that other artists have written.

As a white male, how do you negotiate movement spaces, such as Black Lives Matter?
That’s a good question to always be asking. A core tenet by which NOENEMIES has moved is by invitation. It’s important to show up to meetings and participate like anyone else. As a white male, my job was to monitor how much my voice much I was fueling a need to jump in on every question. I tried to get better at it. I would be anxious to share a great idea, but often if I would wait a minute, then someone else would say it and say it better.

At the same time, it’s important that we never disempower ourselves, no matter our identity. Because that can become an excuse to do nothing. You have to find ways to speak that aren’t fucked up.

What characterizes activism today?

There’s a genuine wrestling with what movement culture is right now. What’s exciting is that people are stepping up, which hasn’t happened in a while to this extent. There’s an assumption that it’s the right thing to do to get involved and get active. [However], if we’re all used to activism by sitting at a computer, then we become overly concerned with call-out culture. Let’s deal with real people and real time, and move in spaces of community where we can build on the strengths of being together. Words are important but shouldn’t be the only thing we have. You need physical spaces or transformation doesn’t happen.

And NOENEMIES seeks to do both.
The name NOENEMIES is strategic; it’s about making movements bigger. You need it to be big. Not like a band trying to stay “cool.” With a movement, you want everyone to jump on the bandwagon. If you’re finding reasons to identify people as enemies, then you’re keeping yourself small. No person is our enemy; a system or policy is our enemy. They may be opponents, but not enemies. Keep the invitation open.    

Bonus! We asked Laurie to make some recommendations for the best protest music of the last year or so—new popular music that hits the "sweet spot" between entertainment and movement cultures. Below are a few of his picks.

1. Janelle Monae & Wondaland - "Hell You Talmbout" 

In the first video, Monae and crew perform the song at a Wondaland show. In the video below, the song is used during a demonstration in Chicago.

2. Kendrick Lamar - "Alright"

3. Tribe Called Red feat. Buffy Sainte-Marie - "Working For the Government 2015 Mix"

4. Unknown, crowd at a rally in Vancouver - "Refugees Are Welcome Here"

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Katie Moulton is a former Westword music editor. She's written about culture for alt-weeklies since 2009 and has also worked as a venue manager, radio DJ/producer and festival organizer. Her go-to karaoke jams are "Flagpole Sitta," by Harvey Danger, or "Ride Wit Me," by Nelly, which tells you a lot.
Contact: Katie Moulton