Molina Speaks Cultivates Creative Power and Hustles for Denver's Soul

Hip-hop artist Molina Speaks heard his first rap song in Rawlins, Wyoming.
Hip-hop artist Molina Speaks heard his first rap song in Rawlins, Wyoming. Photo: Ric Urrutia. Mural: Jay Michael Jarmillo.
Molina Speaks is not demure. His new podcast, about different perspectives on art, healing and activism, which he’s co-producing with his partner and fellow artist and poet Sheree “Lovemestiza” Brown, is called Brown Genius. Molina, who used the tag “Chicano Picasso” on works he’s created in the past year, made an album in 2013 called Greatest Rapper Never Heard.

Take the names of his projects at face value, and it would be easy to assume that Molina is an egomaniac. He isn’t. He’s just trying to write his story, avoiding clichés that might otherwise attach themselves to someone who grew up a Chicano youth in a working-class family in Rawlins, Wyoming.

“I could tell you a lot of stories about depression, isolation, pain, broken families, generational cycles of alcoholism, addiction, physical abuse, poverty, back breaking work and exploitation, personal mistakes, failures, moments of hopelessness, racism, discrimination, injustice...and on and on,” he wrote in an e-mail to Westword in response to questions about his childhood, which he admits he doesn’t like to talk about.
“There are threads of all of that in the many volumes of my music. But I have learned that there are some stories you stop telling.... People who struggle, we are conditioned to constantly speak about our pain as some type of code for legitimacy. But we as society consume that shit like vultures, and you see what happens to a lot of our most beloved artists across genres.

“People feed off that pain and then move on to [the] next host. I’m writing a different story, brother.”

Molina’s father grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico, and worked as a farm hand, miner and construction worker in Wyoming. His mother, whose family came from San Luis, Colorado and who grew up in Rawlins, was a waitress. Along with imparting a strong work ethic, Molina’s father gave his son a deep knowledge of traditional Mexican music and his mother played Prince and Michael Jackson. Around eleven, at the park, Molina heard his first hip-hop track: “La Raza,” Kid Frost’s politically conscious brown-power song from 1990. Soon after, he found Tupac and Nas.

“I fell in love with lyricism,” he says. “Looking back, I got a world-class education through hip-hop.”

When Molina was fifteen, his best friend, who was also influential in his taste in music, died in a car accident. Molina couldn’t get over the death, so he wrote a song at seventeen. “It was such a fresh feeling, and kind of a healing feeling,” he says.

At the time, Molina had no intention of becoming a rapper; at his core, he wanted to be a professional basketball player.

Dominic Martinez, the head of the University of Wyoming’s minority recruitment program and owner of a DJ company, took an interest in Molina. Martinez would occasionally teach classes at his high school, bringing social-justice issues and Tupac’s music into the curriculum. He would show up to Molina’s basketball games, and even offered the high-school student a ticket to an Eminem concert in Denver.

Adults persuaded the young poet that he would never make it in basketball, so Molina quit his school’s team. Eventually, Martinez convinced him to move to Laramie, where he lived on his mentor’s couch for two months and worked for his DJ company.

Molina started taking classes at the University of Wyoming, where he became involved in social-justice organizing, advocating for immigrants’ rights, and working to help the university retain students of color. He helped throw events, including a talk by hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang.

He also began traveling to Denver, and in 2006 he started reading poetry at the spoken-word event Cafe Cultura. “Denver had so much to offer me,” Molina says. “I wanted to give as much as I was going to take.”
But he still had more to do in Wyoming. In 2006, he was invited to open for poet and musician Saul Williams. “I went over my time and did my best to steal the show from him,” Molina says. “I’m pretty sure I pissed him off in a royal way.”

The event’s sound engineer, Will Ross, recorded Molina’s set and shared it with his bandmate Dustin Neal. Neal, who worked as a graphic designer, wrote music to accompany the spoken-word poem Molina had performed, “Young Brown Poet.”

“Will sent me a mix, and I was blown away,” Molina says. The trio collaborated on a series of recordings produced in bedrooms and basements between 2006 and 2008. That’s where Molina came to appreciate DIY culture.

“I was on an experimental and industrial music trip with them long before I ever recorded West Coast boom-bap hip-hop tracks,” he says.

click to enlarge Molina Speaks may not be from Denver, but his work has transformed the city’s cultural life. - PHOTO: RIC URRUTIA. MURAL: JAY MICHAEL JARMILLO.
Molina Speaks may not be from Denver, but his work has transformed the city’s cultural life.
Photo: Ric Urrutia. Mural: Jay Michael Jarmillo.
In 2008 he booked gigs from coast to coast, reading poetry and rapping at hip-hop nights in cafes and at community centers. He traveled to San Francisco for the Living Word Festival, where he worked as a stage hand for performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña.

Jeff Chang, the hip-hop journalist whom he had booked at the University of Wyoming, was in the Bay at the time. Molina asked him for recommendations of DJs to collaborate with, and Chang introduced him to DJ Icewater, who would become one of his most steadfast collaborators.

After that trip, Molina finally settled on Denver’s north side, throwing himself into music and working remotely with Icewater.

Hip-hop, as he tells it, is a microcosm of the larger culture. Much of it is “blunted, misogynistic empty materialism,” about drugs, money and ego, all of which he has rapped about both earnestly and ironically. “It’s boring as fuck.” At the same time, he argues that “hip-hop is better now than in its golden era in the ’90s,” having once again assumed its role as “the most creative form of artistry.”

From 2008 to 2017, Molina recorded seventeen albums. He worked with Youth on Record to open a recording studio on Denver’s west side, curated an art show at RedLine Gallery called The Future of Human Touch, taught at public schools and nonprofits, and joined Yuzo Nieto’s experimental jazz band Pink Hawks as a second vocalist.

Molina doesn’t measure his success by how many people come to his shows, the number of albums he sells or his following on social media. He has two goals: to constantly reinvent his desire to create, and to support his family by working on what he loves. “It’s a hustle,” he says.

He plans to work on multiple projects this year, including a new album with Pink Hawks; his own album, called Root; an experimental-film project; and some new musical endeavors he’s not ready to talk about publicly. He’s paying attention to the ever-changing arts scene in Denver and how rising real-estate prices have displaced many long-term residents.

“We been saying it’s fucked up, and we keep talking about how fucked up it is, and it just feels like the same convo on loop for the past three, four years,” he says. “At some point we need to take the lessons learned and start focusing more on what we are going to build and sustain for the future.”

For Molina, the solution, in part, is in helping people retain their creative energy in a society that aims to crush it.

“Creativity is a source of power,” he says. “What do you want to give your power to? What do you want to speak to?”

Find his and Lovemestiza’s Brown Genius podcast on iTunes and Stitcher; learn more about his music and upcoming projects at molinaspeaks.com.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris