With new music on the way, Flobots’ activism remains a priority

Adam Trask | Boulder Weekly

The Front Range has been plentiful in its supply of musical success stories over the past several years. The Fray effectively candy-coated radio airwaves in a transcontinental scope and, in turn, provided a steady supply of green to starving music industry wallets. DeVotchKa married diverse sounds and textures with infectious results that have met with massive exposure.

The list continues with no end in sight, much like the line at the annual Great American Beer Festival, but by far the most interesting tale is that of Flobots.

Combining hip-hop, rock, funk and even classical influences (courtesy of the viola), the ensemble has created an amalgam of sound that has turned heads globally since its major label debut, Fight with Tools, landed last year.

The real story, however, is what band members Jonny 5, Brer Rabbit, Andy Rok, Mackenzie Roberts, Jesse Walker and Kenny O do in the not-for-profit sector. There’s a sense of activism that runs through their collective bloodstream.

“I think, first and foremost, it’s who we were even before we were in the band,” says MC/vocalist Jonny 5. “Everyone was either teaching music or involved in schools or nonprofit activities or community activism. So when we started doing music it was natural to combine those things.

“Honestly, we wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for the support of those communities of activists who spread the word and said, ‘Hey, there’s this band that talks about these issues that never get talked about. They mention global warming and they talk about these things that we care about.’ There are people who spread the word about our music for that reason. I think that’s been the key to our success: being tied into social movements.”

Per the group’s website, the guys and girl have a registered nonprofit, Flobots.org, run a community space and are involved in a host of causes — all with a demanding touring and recording schedule. The energy expounded shows no signs of waning, and there’s a staunch refusal to allow anything to stand in the way of community involvement.

“We’re now in our third year of a program [at Denver Children’s Home],” says Jonny 5. “It started when a friend of ours who had seen us do some hip-hop worship services at my church, Capital Heights Presbyterian Church, [approached us]. It was kind of a Black History Month service about some veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement. Somebody at the church said, ‘Look, there’s this place at Denver Children’s Home where it’s kids who are really experiencing the worst of the worst of the system. They’ve been through neglect, abuse and trauma. They’re essentially in foster care now in this kind of residential treatment for the trauma they’ve dealt with. These are kids who I would love to get in contact with you.’ “She helped fund the studio in their basement. We set up classes that were weekly: lyrics classes, guitar, music theory and recording sessions in the new studio. The kids would produce their own music,” Jonny 5 continues. “They’d say, ‘OK, I want a drum beat. I’m gonna write a rap. Mackenzie, will you play viola on this? Andy, can you play some guitar? I’m gonna sing.’ It was empowering for them, it was empowering for us. It really encouraged us to say, ‘What more can we do in terms of utilizing the power of music for social change?’” The answer to that question is ongoing for Jonny 5 and the rest of Flobots.

This continuous desire for transformation through tunes certainly weaved its way into the overarching direction of their forthcoming disc, Survival Story. The album, slated for a March release, may add the desired amount of yeast to the flour and become an impetus for change upon repeated listens.

“We love the songs,” says Jonny 5.

“There’s a lot more depth and a lot more breadth. There are a lot more personal songs. It’s still very political. There’s a lot of that sort of content, but it’s packaged differently.

“The last album was very much about slogans. This album is very much about stories. What are the stories that we need to tell ourselves if we’re going to survive, given the conditions in the world today?

“There’s a temptation to look at the world with a doomsday lens, to see Armageddon, to see 2012 in the Hollywood sense, to see all around us self-fulfilling prophesies of destruction,” he continues. “So we thought, ‘What’s the antidote to that?’ It’s really [by] telling stories of how we survive. The theme really is, ‘What is the way that we can look at the future and still be optimistic about it, but also realistic about it? What are the things that we have to delve into in ourselves and give up and sacrifice in order to live in a world where people survive and even thrive?’”

On the Bill: Flobots plays the Fox Theatre on December 17 and 18. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. All ages. Tickets are $20-$23. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.