Youth on Record Is in Tune With Denver High School Students' Struggles

Billy Strings records with students at Youth on Record.
Billy Strings records with students at Youth on Record. Andrea Viarrial-Murphy
Youth on Record is like a teaching hospital for music producers, says Jami Duffy about the Denver-based music-education program she runs. Young people come into the studio, receive instruction in sound engineering and, like med students practicing on real patients, learn about producing and mixing music while laying down tracks with pros.

The students study everything from how to set up mics and wrap cords to mixing, mastering and tracking. Some of the best professional musicians in Denver, including members of Wheelchair Sports Camp, the Flobots and the Fray, instruct the youth; national acts like B. Dolan and Billy Strings drop by to record with them.

Founded in 2008 by Jamie Laurie and Stephen Brackett, aka Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit of the Flobots, Youth on Record was originally named after the activist hip-hop band’s debut album, Fight With Tools. In the nonprofit’s first few years, it partnered with Denver Public Schools to offer music education to the district’s students. In 2012, it was renamed Youth on Record, and in late spring of 2015, it opened a new studio, in a mixed-use development in Lincoln Park. The organization, which will host an album-release block party on May 13 for its new compilation, YOR Sessions Vol. 2, has been working out of that space ever since.

Youth on Record works with more than 1,000 students a year. Most come to the program through public schools and receive high-school credit for their work with the group.

Many of those students, as well as their instructors, are of color and/or part of the LGBTQ and disabled communities. YOR works to empower marginalized, at-risk youth to fight for equity and to work to end racism, sexism, classism, ableism and misogyny. Music is used as a tool to provide a safe, drug-free space where young people can find community and professional training while building political consciousness.

“Our outcomes have to be beyond teaching music,” Duffy says. “We believe art has to reflect what’s going on in society. Our kids aren’t writing about prom.” Instead, they’re talking about marijuana and why they do or don’t use it, about police accountability and their struggle to rise above the social pressures they face. “Youth on Record is the reason many of these students come to school.”

Some of them even go on to teach in the program. After his mother was deported from the United States, Diego Florez-Aruya dropped out of high school to become a carpenter. Eventually, he discovered Youth on Record and found himself through music education. Now he’s a mentor in the program and building a successful career as a poet, artist and musician, playing in the up-and-coming rock act Los Mocochetes. (Riffing on the name, local artist Molina Speaks describes the band as “little mocosos running around with machetes — fun-seeking, snot-nose philosophers on a mission for social justice....”)

Florez-Aruya sees Youth on Record as creating a new generation of Denver musicians and shaping how the community will evolve. “I love watching the students light up,” he says. But like Duffy, he knows that the project goes beyond the music. Sometimes that means that he lets exhausted students take a nap in the corner because they didn’t get a good night’s sleep; other times he takes them to a diner, making sure they have food in their bellies.

Without basic needs met, music education is pointless, he notes, but when students are rested and fed, they can excel.

As for their teachers, they’re paid well, says Duffy. Part of her organization’s mission is to make sure there is a strong economy for local professional musicians — particularly in years when housing and rent prices have shot up and many artists are being priced out of the market.

“Youth on Record has created incredible opportunities for employment,” Duffy says.

Like many nonprofits, however, the group itself is constantly on the hunt for money. Although their foundation receives grants and marijuana-tax revenue, Youth on Record’s leaders would like to see money come in from the nonprofit’s musical endeavors. That’s one of the goals of the soon-to-be-released compilation album.

The first edition, YOR Sessions Vol. 1, came out last year. Vol. 2 will drop at the block party. “It’s not a student album,” explains Duffy of the new release. Instead, it showcases the students’ engineering talents on recordings by more than a dozen professional musicians.

Duffy’s hope is that the project will invigorate a new generation of music lovers to donate to Youth on Record’s efforts.

“The concept is that everybody can be a philanthropist,” she says.

Youth on Record Day and Album Release Block Party, Saturday, May 13, noon, 1301 West Tenth Avenue, free, 303-993-5226, all ages.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris