“Music is our tool to put something out there that can help make the world better,” says Flobots rock band and hip hop singer Jamie Laurie to Northfield High School students. “In the last few years we’ve realized that the tool is not just us getting on stage and rapping and have people sit there and cheer for us. The real tool is the ability of a community to sing together.
“In the civil rights movement there were a lot of times when people were together in very, very frightening situations where they had no weapons, the other side had a lot of weapons. What they did in those key moments to have strength and power very often was song. Collective singing.”
Laurie says today in the U.S., it is counter cultural and awkward to sing in public. People think you need to have a voice like those on American Idol. But, he points out, in much of the world people sing very readily. “What we’re doing is recovering that here.”
Laurie’s fellow Flobot Stephen “Brer Rabbit” Brackett warms up the young audience with his personal story. As a child his room was filled with photos of famous African Americans who made contributions to our society. “My parents wanted to be sure that my skin color, in my mind, was not a disadvantage. That my skin color was something that I’d be proud of and wasn’t a deficit. It was armor that I’d step into the world with.
“There are a lot of times when we can feel that we don’t have much power, right? We feel boxed in on all sides and we have no options. But the warrior women in my life taught me that there are still choices that we have in those moments to change things.” He says his mother was valedictorian of her high school class in the early years of desegregation. When she walked up to get her diploma, the principal looked at the audience and said, “‘How dare you let this [n-word] take this from me?’ And my mother took it.”
His mother went on to become a lawyer and, despite serious illness, continued to do pro bono work. She told him, “Son, as long as you are alive, you can make a difference. Our gifts are not our own.” He told the students that this experience seeing his mother carry on with her contribution to the community despite her pain and illness “taught me how I want to be.”
Laurie then asks the students to think of a moment when they had a powerful experience with a song. NHS student Corey Albert stands up and shares that he had awakened at 3am after a dream about a good friend who died because her mom was doing heroin and crashed the car. Albert wrote an entire song in one sitting called Trust: Cause and Effect of Breaking It based on a problem his friend had had with her boyfriend.
Laurie’s own experience happened while driving a group of kids he was working with in an after school program. A song came on the radio and suddenly a diverse group of kids was united in song. “I thought maybe if I’m really trying to get people involved, maybe I should try to be the voice on the radio.” He called his childhood friend Stephen (Brer Rabbit) and came back to Denver and they formed the Flobots. (Both attended East.) “Five years later we were the voice on the radio. It was all the one moment with that one song.”
Laurie and Brer Rabbit brought the students down to the gym floor and got them singing. “Something happens and you just felt it. We’re like, vibrating together. How do we take that one step further?”
Laurie tells the students about a group of people in Canada who’d been hearing about keeping refugees out, but they wanted the refugees to feel welcome. They did it by getting together and singing in public.
Led by the Flobots, the NHS students replicated that idea using When the Saints go Marching In music with the words:
Oh refugees are welcome here, Oh refugees are welcome here. Oh how I love thee as my neighbor where refugees are welcome here.
Simultaneously another group sang the tune to Swing Low Sweet Chariot using the words: Refugees are welcome here, Mother earth is everyone’s home.
With that shared experience ringing in their ears, Laurie told the students, “We hope you have wheels spinning in your head with ideas for collective singing. It’s really powerful.”
From the looks of it, the students had become believers in the power of music.