2008 was a big year for Flobots. Not long after the group started its nonprofit Flobots.org (which would later be renamed Youth on Record) at Denver Children’s Home, Universal Records signed the act. The Flobots went on to perform on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Late Night With Conan O’Brien.
“It was like, 'Let’s do a nonprofit and be a band,'" original guitarist Andy “Rok” Guerrero says. “Then all of a sudden we get a record deal, and we’re trying to be a band and also run this nonprofit at the same time. It was kind of crazy.”
About five years after the band formed, Guerrero left the group because of creative differences to focus on his own group, Bop Skizzum.
“It’s tough being a band,” he says. “And things happen. I think when you’re younger and in the midst of it, things are more intense than they probably need to be. It took me a while to get over it. I felt like now I’m kind of in a place where…I have a son now. Half the band has kids. It just kind of changes your perspective on things.”
The band’s lineup has changed over the past decade, but frontmen Jamie “Jonny 5” Laurie and Stephen “Brer Rabbit” Bracket and drummer Kenny Ortiz have been constant members. The original lineup also included trumpeter Joe Ferrone, viola player Mackenzie Gault and bassist Jesse Walker. The old group will reunite to perform music from the band’s debut, Fight With Tools, at 10 Years Strong: A Decade of Amplifying the Voices of Our Youth on Saturday, October 13, at the McNichols Building. The event will help raise funds and awareness for the nonprofit they started a decade ago to help empower Colorado’s underserved youth through music.
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Jami Duffy, who’s been director of the organization for the past nine years, says a lot has changed since the group was founded ten years ago. The nonprofit has a new name, Youth on Record, and a new building, a $2 million facility with a recording studio built in partnership with the Denver Housing Authority.
“But the guiding principles are still the same — which is, we believe in the power of music to create positive change in the community,” Duffy says. “We’ve grown 700 percent since we started as Flobots.org. We are now at a place where we serve 1,000 teenagers a year, and those kids can take high school-credit classes with us so they get credit for taking class. They can also come to all of our out-of-school-time programs.”
In addition to its extracurricular programming and Open Lab time, which kids can drop in for on Fridays and Saturdays, Youth on Record launched FEMpowered, a music club for young women, in 2016.
“A student has never been charged for anything at Youth on Record,” Duffy says. “And in fact, the more you’re with us, the more paid opportunities you get to perform and work with us.”
Youth on Record has programs for students ages 14 to 25. Duffy says that many young people come to the nonprofit through their schools. Right now, Youth on Record serves kids from Denver Public Schools, but Duffy says they’d love to reach kids in other districts and in western Colorado.
“In the next ten years, we really are going to start looking seriously at expansion,” Duffy says.
While the organization has grown considerably over the past decade, it endured some challenges over the years even though high-profile musicians like the Fray, Big Gigantic (who donated a computer lab) and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder have supported it.
“I think one of the biggest challenges is the celebrity-culture challenge,” Duffy says. “So the moment you start aligning yourselves with people of celebrity status, there’s two misconceptions about that. One is that you don’t need any funding support. So it’s like, 'They’re hanging around all these musicians. I’m sure they’ve got all the funding they need.' That’s actually not true. That’s from the donor community. But from the inside, in the nonprofit community, it took a while for people to take us seriously. I think in the beginning people maybe thought we were a vanity nonprofit. This idea that because of the celebrity aspect of it, they can’t be doing anything that’s deep.”
Duffy says that was a big impetus for the organization’s name change from Flobots.org to Youth on Record.
“We needed people to understand that we are not a foundation of the Flobots," she says. "They don’t fully fund us. All of our musician friends are not sitting there giving us a million dollars a year. Sure, Ryan Tedder is in some of our pictures, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to write grants and fundraise.”
Duffy, who was 28 years old when she started with the organization, had never been an executive director before, and the only way she knew how to be taken seriously was to do her best.
“Nobody’s going to take a bunch of musicians and hip-hop artists and bands seriously in the education conversation,” she says. “So I think that’s what’s really pushed me to say...I wanted people to know that we weren’t just well intentioned, but we really care about outcomes and changing things, because that’s what our kids deserve.”
But once they started working with kids in the schools and people saw that they were actually building a studio, the organization was taken more seriously.
“I think around 2012 we had a shift,” Duffy recalls. “That’s when we said, we are serious about educating our young people. We are serious about economic opportunity. And we’re not going away. We are in this. I think there was a little bit of a feeling that, ‘Oh, they’re the shiny new penny. Ooh, isn’t this a sexy nonprofit.’ And that’s fine, but you can only ride that for so long, and we didn’t want to ride that at all. People started to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re partnered with the Housing Authority. Oh, they’re in the Denver Public Schools. I also think they saw us showing up, being really innovative and really deeply caring.”
Duffy says Youth on Record is at a place right now where they need the most creative solutions to solve Denver’s pressing issues.
“We have a very high high-school dropout rate,” she says. “Our kids are experiencing trauma that then is affecting them in the classroom, and especially our young people of color are having to endure this. And so our position has always been, ‘How can we call ourselves a world-class city if we’re not taking care of our most vulnerable teenagers?’ And so really, it’s about the power of music. What can music do to solve the city’s challenges? And we kind of took it upon ourselves to say, I think that this could really make a difference for kids.
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“So it’s not about just teaching the kids to play drums or guitar," she adds. "That’s exciting. That’s all good stuff. But what we’re trying to do is to use music as an in with the kids and to help the kids see a future for themselves in the creative industries, to have some healing around what’s happened in their lives. To build a support network and a community, to get jobs, to finish school. And music is a way to do that.”
When Flobots do perform at 10 Years Strong: A Decade of Amplifying Voices of Our Youth, Guerrero wants the reunion to be positive.
“Do it for a good cause and move forward and see if we can still rock, show the young kiddos what we used to do or whatever,” he says. “It has been over seven years since we played together, like this group of musicians. I think time heals all wounds.”