By Collin Lessing, JVA Consulting
At a recent community meeting for Colorado Youth At Risk’s mentoring program at Aurora Central High School, we were privileged to have Jamie Laurie (a.k.a. Jonny 5) of the Flobots as a guest facilitator. In case you’re not familiar with the Flobots, they are a Denver-based band that fuses musical styles like alternative rock and hip-hop. In 2008, their single “Handlebars” went to number three on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, and through their 501(c)(3), Flobots.org, they work with youth to make powerful changes in themselves and their communities.
Jonny 5 opened our community meeting by telling mentors and mentees that the Flobots are about “social change through music.” I found myself wondering how that’s accomplished in today’s music industry, and soon learned from Jonny 5’s presentation that the Flobots take a direct, interactive approach to empowering the youth of their community.
After performing a few of his own songs at the meeting, Jonny 5 led the students and mentors through a discussion about the labels people place on each other, followed by writing activities that focused on defining one’s self. There wasn’t single mentor in the room who wasn’t moved when students who are often shy and guarded volunteered to stand in front of a room of their peers and adults to read the poem they had written to define themselves. A few of the students even asked if they could get a beat behind them as they read, to which Jonny 5 happily obliged. It was fantastic.
After the community meeting, I wanted to learn more about the Flobots and how they use music to create social change. Here’s what Jonny 5 had to say:
Tell me about yourself and the Flobots?
Jonny 5: I started rapping in high school. It was almost a joke. I had some friends who would rap and I would play the drums. But it really began with a big lie. One of my friends told everybody at his high school (Wheat Ridge High School), that he was in a hip-hop band and had a CD. The school said, ”Okay, we’ll play the CD at the next basketball game.”
My friend came home and said, “Guys, we have to make a CD by Monday!”
So we put together some songs, and they did play them at the basketball game. I found that the more I messed around with language, rhymes and meter, that this art form was something that really resonated with me. Something about being able to take whatever is happening in your day whether it’s painful, beautiful or funny, and putting it into something that sounds good and has a structure to it—it justifies your experience.
We messed around with some early stuff called Flobots in 1996 and 1998. It wasn’t until 2004 that I came back to Denver, and working with friends, put together the modern incarnation of the Flobots. We always wanted social change to be a part of the what and the why of our music, and it just went on from there.
How did you and the Flobots get started in social change?
Jonny 5: In 2004, during the election year, we were working on a project to mobilize [the] 20-something generation through music. We used peer-to-peer relationships, peer-to-peer outreach, concerts, music and youth culture as a way to get people in engaged in the election.
I was working at East High School, and other members of the band were working in different educational capacities. Several years later, teachers began inviting us in their classrooms, and [we] had a really good experience performing [at] the 2006 PeaceJam 10th Anniversary Celebration. We started realizing there’s still something there that we should be doing in addition to work of the band. We needed a structure—a way for people to follow up. If they like the message of the music and the experience of community at the shows, we needed to give them a next step. And it was at the same time we realized that the classroom is the right place to engage young people through their vocabulary, which is music and youth culture.
In 2007, we had our first chance to develop programming. We met with the Denver Children’s Home and developed programming. It went really well, and then our single hit, so suddenly we weren’t able to be the main people doing the programming. We had to develop infrastructure so the programming could continue while we went on tour.
What kind of results have you experienced?
Jonny 5: At the Denver Children’s Home, we experienced very consistent results. Young people who [have] experienced abuse, neglect and trauma thrive in an environment where they don’t have to speak as much about what they’re dealing with, but they can actually do experiential therapy where they’re empowered through creating. Part of what they need is positive experiences with other people and their own sense of empowerment around their experience. They can take their negative experiences and integrate that into their music. That’s had really consistent results, so we’ve expanded that program to work with a number of different schools around the city. It’s called the Art to Action program.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to create social change or build community through music?
Jonny 5: Think about what you’re passionate about, and what it is about your creative self that another person can relate [to]. As musicians, we put our souls out there for other people to connect with and that’s our most valuable asset. Everybody knows what it’s like to feel alone or hated. Those basic emotions are really powerful. Think of where that can be useful and who in the community could benefit from that, and share it.
The second thing is, think of all the other ways that your assets can be of value to the community. If your live shows bring in lots of people, there are nonprofits that need access to those people and may want to talk to them. Try to connect people to what you already have. Or you can play a benefit show, or help an organization build its mailing list, or post something about them on Facebook. As a musician, your words matter to people who might not care what a politician thinks.
What’s your favorite quote?
Jonny 5: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Ben Parker, Spiderman’s Uncle.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead.
What’s next for the Flobots?
Jonny 5: The band is heading to Europe this week, and our nonprofit is working on building a youth media studio. If there are people interested in the studio, they should contact us at email@example.com.