No Enemies: The Flobots are taking their music off the stage and back to the streets

By Matthew Van Deventer | Photos by Mike Bohner and Giles Clasen

Denver-based hip-hop group the Flobots want to change the outcome of the sometimes-unorganized nature of protests. Their experiential art piece, No Enemies, takes their music off the stage and back to the streets. 

Once a month the Flobots hold a call and response, inviting people to share movement songs and get involved. 

At Capitol Heights Presbyterian Church at 1100 Fillmore, over 60 people met last month to do just that. During the call and response, the No Enemies congregation sang chants, practicing their voices as one. In some, Jaime Laurie, one of the founding members of the Flobots, would rap lyrics in between a chorus or direct a certain rally song. 

From the basement, the group marched and chanted to the chapel, where they worked on chants for three specific actions: rising bus fares, increasing the minimum wage, and raising awareness about an upcoming hearing on deporting a Mexican man living nearby in a church. 

Each action had a specific chant, and the chant leader would teach and direct the congregation on what and how to sing. 

“All these actions are about building up a new world together,” said Laurie on stage before the chanting session began.

“I was sick of just selling beer with my music,” says Flobots founder Stephen Brackett, who is frustrated with the music industry and pledges to quit if he gets another radio hit.

As a result, the music group started looking at how they could get their music back to the streets. They started thinking about revolution, which led to No Enemies. 

Brackett explains that in their research they found a noticeable difference between writing songs for and about the revolution. Songs written about the revolution tend to focus on the author, while songs written for it are about the message, the song, the words. 

“We’ve been looking at music as an actual tactic and how it can add to civil disobedience and acts of protest. We’ve also found that it’s a great way to aesthetically start teaching discipline,” says Brackett.

When Brackett says discipline, he isn’t talking about a hierarchy or an organization, but “taking the time for clarity.”

No Enemies uses discipline—a concept sometimes at odds with the act of protest—to help groups with a revolutionary message organize actions and accomplish victory. 

This is where the music comes in. No Enemies helps groups create rally songs by taking melodies from recent hits—for example, Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”—and rewriting the lyrics with words of protest. 

The songs are more like chants, and are not about “clever and dense lyrics,” clarifies Brackett. “It’s something that people can pick up the third time they hear it and so that we can all say it as one. It’s about 150 voices saying it at once, then practicing your freedom in that way, making people listen to you.”

In conjunction with the call and response meet-ups, the Flobots also hold planning sessions with organizations that need songs for their movement. During these, the Flobots take note of the group’s cause and emotions surrounding it. They then turn those emotions into lyrics and remix them with new and old chants for a rally song that gives an audience a sense of solidarity with the cause.

These are taken back to the call and response groups to practice.

Brackett clarifies that the Flobots do not want to be known as the leaders of No Enemies, but instead the art directors guiding an experience. He wants protest movements in Denver to be known as unstoppable forces that generate change.

One recent project to stem from No Enemies is an art residency at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) this month. 

The Flobots aren’t curating anything though. Instead, they will be creating a series of events and mysteries in order to get visitors to think of, engage in, and interact with art differently. 

“With No Enemies we are trying to bring people in cognizance of the power of their voice . . . At the Denver Art Museum we’re trying to continue that conversation,” says Brackett.

This month’s call and response meeting will be held inside DAM on May 2. Throughout May, visitors to the DAM will be able to pick up “curiosity packages” created by the Flobots. These packages will provide clues as to how to interact with art. Visitors will also have the opportunity to provide feedback on their interactions with art at various input devices.

During the Flobots’ creative residency, Laurie says, “Show up at the museum, and you never know what you’ll get.”

On May 29, feedback from the curiosity packages will be compiled and performed at an event with music and storytelling, among other elements. 

The Flobots piece is a mystery and reveals itself as it is participated in, explains Brackett who was wary of giving away too much information. Though he makes a point that the DAM project is an extension of No Enemies and its effort to give power to peoples’ voices.

“What we are trying to do is kind of create a way for people to go through the museum and participate in a dialogue,” explains Bracket. “It is an experience that awards the curious, and the non-curious will be unaware that anything is amiss, because we think that curiosity is one of the first steps towards justice.” ■