Questions by Michael Burkley, VOICE vendor
Transcribed by Danielle Krolewicz
Photos by Giles Clasen
Two members of the Denver-based hip-hop group open up about their new album, the Black Lives Matter movement, homelessness, and water balloon fights.
Earlier this spring, Denver VOICE vendor (and budding musician) Michael Burkely sat down with two members of the Flobots to talk about the band’s brand new album, NOENEMIES. NOENEMIES is a socially aware album that weaves together hip-hop lyrics—many of which were influenced by stories from the late Dr. Vincent Harding, longtime friend and mentor of the Flobots—with sounds that are classic Flobots. Songs were also inspired by the band’s recent work in the community hosting workshops and classes focused on using collective song to build social movements. NOENEMIES, the result of that work, is a body of politically-aware protest songs that are relevant to the current moment. The following transcription comes from that first meeting as well as a couple follow-up conversations with Jamie Laurie and Stephen Brackett.
DV: Where did the name NOENEMIES come from?
Jamie: We’ve thought a lot about how our music can help connect to social movements. We find ourselves wrestling with the question: How do you make a movement go from small to big? It wasn’t just like “no enemies,” meaning you can’t ever have a conflict with anyone or have a political opponent. It was more thinking, how do you do your work in away that leaves open the possibility that someone could be transformed? There’s a lot of ways people are going to react to that and think it’s naive or doesn’t acknowledge power dynamics in the world or I’m a hypocrite. All of that is fine. It’s a new way of thinking. It goes beyond us and them—the “them” are not on your side, and there are a lot more of “them.” Basically you’ve got to decide. You’re going to stay small with us/them thinking, and you’re actually sabotaging your own movement.
I think with homelessness, it’s very easy for people to see anyone experiencing homelessness as a “them,” that’s not my situation and it won’t ever be my situation. But it could become your situation, but it wouldn’t be an identity. Removing the us/them leaves you with the space to dig a little deeper to see what solutions there might be.
The album was written during a lot of the height of Black Lives Matter activities, so I think that might be especially present in some of the wording. [The album is] about the emotional journey for any person that decides to step off the sidelines to get involved. It takes you from the moment where you witness the march in the street all the way to the movement when you join the march, to the moment you might feel disillusioned with the movement if change doesn’t happen, to the moment when you realize you have to forgive yourself and people around you.
How does it affect your credibility as a hip-hop band involved with BLM with a front man who is white?
Stephen: In hip-hop, the first thing that people listen for is whether or not they believe you. When they’re looking at us and we are talking about race, it’s very obvious that, when we’re talking about race as a band, we’ve obviously talked about race as people. We are who we are. Jamie is white, I am black, Kenny is Chicano, so, when we’re speaking about this stuff, you can look at the members of the band and see that we’re actually having conversations about it. The very makeup of the band is dealing with those issues and talking about those issues. One of the most important things about any type of transformation is that you have to be able to advocate for somebody else’s issue. It’s exceedingly important that a white MC who is participating in a largely black art form can demonstrate, unabashedly, how he supports black people. That is essential. The name of the organization is Black Lives Matter—white voices need to be saying that. In many ways we are modeling what we are hoping for. And in the same way, we, within the group, will advocate for other issues that aren’t ones that we personally feel affected by. It’s of the utmost importance that if we are truly to be a representational democracy, that we’re able to advocate for struggles other than our own. Otherwise the burden is only shouldered by those who are most targeted.
You started this project before the election. How do you think the election results will affect the reception of the album, if at all?
Stephen: It will affect it thoroughly, to its very core. That’s one of the fun things about making public art, is that it’s always going to be overlaid on the context of what’s happening in that moment. So this situation that we find ourselves in is definitely going to color people’s perception of the album and I am excited about it. It’s a wonderful thing. It feels wonderful because I do not want to spend any time making art for the president—I want to make art for the people.
We’re trying to put tools out there. It feels very clean to be sitting down, working on the album for about two years, being in communities, being in the streets, organizing and being organized, and that’s what the album came out of. I feel the fact that people are very much going to see current events in it means that we did our jobs about being current and having our ears open. I think one of the biggest things musicians have to do is listen. I feel like if this is speaking to the voices of the times then that means we did our job well. I hope that it can be something in the midst of what feels very chaotic. But if we look back into the memories of our recent ancestors, we’ll see that we’ve all weathered storms with far more turbulent winds than this, and that means that we have an opportunity to take advantage and build something better in the shake up.
What was your craziest experience with someone in the audience while doing a show?
Jamie: For me, it was at The Big Gig here in Denver when we performed the song “Stand Up.” Right before we played the song, I made a comment about opposing the war in Iraq. When I did, someone threw a plastic drink onto the stage and it landed at my feet. I looked out and saw a guy who was screaming and cussing and I saw that his friends were trying to calm him down and get him out of there before security came. I’ve never seen that kind of reaction before. I thought to myself, I bet he served in Iraq, lost friends there, and got back recently. Later that day, I got an email filled with profanity from the guy, who said, “I’ve been here two days, you don’t know what I’ve been through, how dare you insult my brothers who I lost.” I wrote him back and I said I thought that might be your situation, let me explain where I’m coming from. And that began an exchange that was 10-15 emails from each of us. As we talked, I began to really relate to some things from his experience, one of them being that it’s a culture shock, fighting for your own survival in a place like Iraq, where he might relate more to people in the Peace Corps, or to people who live in Iraq—people who have nothing. And then he came home where people don’t have to worry, don’t have to fight for their safety. But we both had to move past that initial feeling of anger to get to understanding.
Stephen: I think for me it wasn’t one particular audience member, it was an entire audience. It was at PeaceJam Ten—ten not because it was the tenth year but because there were ten Nobel Peace Prize laureates there. This was before we had been signed, so we weren’t a national band at that point in time, we were a local band. We’ve always been very involved in education efforts and community efforts, and we had been working with PeaceJam for years. When they had their big PeaceJam Ten celebration they invited us to play because we’d been working with them so often. At that point in time, that was the biggest show we’d ever played. The size was one thing—to be playing for the full Magness [Arena]. The other thing was to have it be filled with young children who had all sat down and spent time working on plans on how to better their neighborhoods, how to better their schools, how to better their communities. And as if that wasn’t enough, it was amazing to be announced by Desmond Tutu. It was mind-blowing. We talk about energy at shows all the time and the energy at that show has yet to be rivaled by anything we’ve done since. Thousands of young peacemakers from all over the state there, to have ten Nobel Prize winning laureates there, to be a local band, to be able to play for that kind of audience, to be announced by Desmond Tutu, was massive for us.
Is that where Youth On Record came from?
Stephen: We are a band, and when you have a band you have a plurality of personalities and backgrounds and adherence to different ideas. Everybody had a pro-involvement type of view, but after PeaceJam, that really solidified the entire band in that orientation. What that felt like, in comparison to playing in a dive bar it’s like—oh, okay, this is what purpose does, this is what purpose, met with population, equals—power. As opposed to me and Jamie talking about it, the whole band got to experience that as one. That really helped shape not just what eventually became Youth On Record but also the philosophy of the band and where the subsequent albums came out of.
What’s your favorite song on the album and why?
Jamie: It varies day to day, but “Sleeping Giant” feels exciting. It’s a personal commitment to something that is mysterious, energetic, and kind of wondrous and unknown. It’s about that feeling of being part of something larger than yourself and being swept up into a transformation. It’s also an image that became particularly prevalent during the election. On the Trump side of things, that image was put out there. There was this unheard group of people that were going to make their voices heard. The song is really about how to create positive ways that people can do that.
Do you have a ritual before a show?
Stephen: No matter what city we’re in, we always gather as a band into a huddle.
Is that what we hear on the last song on the album [“Sleeping Giant”]?
Stephen: You do hear a kind of huddle. The amazing artists of the 303 Choir had just put in several hours in the studio and I wanted to touch base with them as artists. I think it’s really important—particularly when you’re working with young folks—that folks they see as artists acknowledge them as artists, so it doesn’t just become some kind of summer camp thing. We did this in the song right before “Sleeping Giant.” You hear us bringing them all together outside, and I’m talking with them, telling them that there’s a difference between performing and feeling it. And as artists, we’ll be asked to do different things at different times, so it’s really important that we know the difference between the two. So I lead them into this, and I say, “Come in, I want you to gather. Now breathe in and as you breathe out think about all the emotions you’ve gone through today, alright? Then breathe in, think about: there’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of fear. There’s also a lot of power. Think about that. While you’re thinking about that I want everybody to gather in.” These artists are wonderful and they were feeling. They were being very solemn and digging into their intentionality. And then—when they are feeling most serious and getting ready for the next phase—that’s when I drop the bucket that I’m holding, and it’s filled with water guns and water balloons. I start spraying the kids like crazy. And I’ve got a few plants in the audience who are also throwing water balloons. So it explodes into bedlam. Because I wanted to do two things. One, I wanted to touch base with the kids in a very serious state that they’d been doing so well, and two, I wanted to give them something fun as a reward for the day—a nice exclamation point. I did that to talk artist-to-artist.
I forget the exact quote, but it’s something about “it’s very difficult, without context, to tell the difference between joy and terror.” So if you look at a still shot of people at a football game, and if not for all people wearing all the same colors, it could look like bedlam, even though people are excited. And the same with sound—the sounds that people make in those situations. So I was guessing we could probably get sounds that sounded terrible when the context was taken out. It would just sound like screaming children. There’s even one part, if you listen real close, where one of the kids yells, “He’s got a gun!” because I did—I had a water gun. So we were able to use that clip, that sounds like awful things are happening, and we put that into the background of Failure Games. But then, when you get to the end of “Sleeping Giant,” you get to hear the actual context and you realize that it’s actually a bunch of kids having a great time.
If Dr. Harding were still here, how would he have felt about the new CD, and what would his message be if he spoke to Flobots fans?
Stephen: As a mentor, Dr. Harding was just incredible. He was able to ask you the right kind of challenging questions when they were needed. He was able to support you through your mistakes as well. I think that Dr. Harding would be warmly receptive of the album, but even more so of the intentionality behind it. He would probably have a question, “Yes, and how are you going to use this, my brothers? How are you going to make sure that this does what you want it to do? What is your plan to guide people through the process to their power?” His questions are very real—they’re always in my mind. And I think that he would also be very excited that we are hoping to tour in such a way that we will be able to have time to do exactly that. We’d have to go to the people. In the process of that we hope to tour, and while touring be able to do workshop, trainings, have opportunities to hear from the community and see what they’re about and up to and how we can be of use.
What role do you think religion played in the formation of this album?
Jamie: Religion is a healthy challenge for both people on the right and people on the left—which I admit is a crude way to define people—but for those of us on the conservative end of things, I think especially now with the current president there is a set of values—empathy, caring for the poor, peace as a priority, turning the other cheek—that are completely in opposition of the spirit with the current president and the way he moves through the world. I would hope that people on that side of things see that and challenge his ideas…ideas like welcoming the stranger, where you see some of the more conservative churches saying they don’t want to see the demonizing of refugees and homeless as well, and say refugees and homeless need empathy, attention, and care.
On the other side of things, I think it’s easy for people on the left to think that there’s no need for faith communities or organized religion and we’ve decided that secular society can replace some of the work for what religious organizations do. That includes religious networks who provide services to the homeless. But there is still something missing. You need a space where people can discuss values together, especially now where so much of the activist scene has to do with showing up to a rally on Facebook and marching alongside someone you don’t know and won’t ever see again. It’s a superficial way to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with someone—not bad—but how much more powerful would it be if you could connect with people and talk about values. Churches have historically created the spaces where we do that. So now I think the challenge for the left is to find that space where you talk about why we care about things besides what’s immediately relative, and to create bonds, which, for a social movement, become crucial to the success of the movement. ■