It is not often that a band bursts onto both the music and political scene at the same time. With poignant yet positive lyrics such as:
We say yes to grassroots organization
No to neoliberal globalization
Bring the troops back to the USA
And shut down Guantanamo Bay!
The Flobots are unique both in message and style. Saif Rahman from Foreign Policy In Focus had the opportunity to talk to Jonny 5 from the Flobots about their background, views on foreign policy, the Democratic National Convention being held in their hometown, and their hopes for the movement and this country.
Saif: First of all, some of our audience, unfortunately, might not yet have had the opportunity to check out the Flobots – as you guys are kind of blowing up right now. So tell our audience a little bit about the Flobots. Who are you guys?
Jonny 5: Well we are 6-piece band from Denver, Colorado and it’s hard to classify exactly what genre we fit in. I’m a rapper so my lyrics are hip-hop lyrics. We have a viola player, guitar, bass, drums and another vocalist. We also have someone who plays the trumpet and sometimes the cello as well. We really have blended different styles. The band has been around for three years and we’ve been trying to integrate music, message and activism in everything that we do.
Saif: This is obviously for Foreign Policy in Focus and the reason why I really wanted to do this interview was because I was struck by the unusual amount of analysis of current U.S. foreign policy there is in your music – most of it obviously being critical. What issues are most important to you and the band right now?
Jonny 5: I think what we’re most excited about is that this year represents a break from the last eight years of a foreign policy, which for our listeners and me represents much of our lifetime. If you’re 16 years old, you have grown up with the Bush administration and this is all you know. September 11th might even be a distant memory. So I think the thing we’re most excited about is just people stepping forward and taking action whether they’re 16 or 35. Taking the steps and saying “I want to be active in my community. I want to volunteer. I want to help people register to vote. I want to be an advocate for change.” I think that’s really our biggest concern.
On a personal level, I think of non-violence and peace making on both a domestic/urban-level, as well as international level, is of big interest to me. Re-directing our investments so that we’re actually looking at pioneering the field of non-violence. Things like the Non-Violent Peace Force or some of these unarmed intervention groups that are working in places like Sri Lanka and other spots around the world. That’s personally a big interest of mine.
Saif: One reason I was struck my your music was because you rarely see any MCs who cite Salvador Allende and Mohammad Mosaddeq…
Jonny 5: If you don’t mind, there’s another piece of it too. I think there is great deal of truth-telling about this country that needs to happen, that we have a tendency, even progressives, to use rhetoric like, “worst president ever” – which implies that everything was fine till the Bush administration. There is a misconception that before Bush, there was never a U.S. intervention that was guided primarily for protecting capital or that we’ve never overthrown a democratically elected leader. Yeah so I think that song – Same Thing – that you’re referring to, came from a place where I felt the need to speak these things out loud and say, you know what – let’s list the names so that we learn these and don’t forget them. So that we know that we have a history – for instance, that we overthrew Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala or any of the other democratically elected leaders that we overthrew simply to protect capital. So I think truth telling is another big part of it.
Saif: Do you see yourselves as a different type of truth-teller? That you’re using music as a way to educate the masses about these things because our education system has failed? Do you see that as a major part of your work?
Jonny 5: Well, I think so. All of us actually have been working up until these last few months in the field of education, one way or another, as our primary work. Our drummer has been working for the last 15 years with developmentally disabled adults. The other MC is just about to get his teacher’s certificate. I’ve been working at a school for the last two and a half years – in a high school coordinating some mentoring programs. So I think education really is the lens that we operate from organically.
I’ve always loved learning and I’ve always loved hip-hop, but I’ve always thought that it’s crazy hip-hop gets cast as anything other than an intellectual form of music because it’s mostly words. It’s mostly not melodies. You’re mostly just getting the text. And I’ve seen students run to the computer and look up every lyric to a song that they just heard on the radio.
So I thought that if you could utilize that and if you’re creating songs with a lot of substance, kids are going to want to read the words. So one thing we’ve been doing, and I think we have it right now on our site, is that if you go to that song, Same Thing, it’s hypertext so it has links to who Salvador Allende or Mohammad Mosaddeq were and the operations that overthrew them. There’s essentially source material there. I’ve been really fascinated with ways that hip-hop and education can intersect. But of course it’s been done for years in various ways.
Saif: Recently, there have been many comparisons to the 1960s, and specifically the year 1968 – for many reasons, including an exciting presidential election and a war that continues despite massive public opposition. In the 1960s music and political dissent went hand-in-hand. You had John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez. Today, we have a few groups out there – like Rage Against the Machine, Dead Prez, and MIA. And now there is the Flobots. What do you think of the state of protest-music today? And if it is anything less than what it has been previously, what do you think the reasons for that is?
Jonny 5: That’s a really good question. I first saw (Dead) Prez in 1998 in Washington, DC, it was at a protest, “Jericho, Tear Down the Walls” about political prisoners. They performed there and that was my introduction to them as a group. And then over the years I have been really inspired by groups like the Coup. I didn’t see them but I heard about how would drive around California on flatbed trucks speaking out against Proposition 21.
I think I’ve definitely grown up against the backdrop of these artists who are movement building with their music. I think it has been very healthy for me and I think maybe right now, because I’m so engulfed and immersed in what we’re doing, I’m not up on what everyone else is doing. And I’m hoping that this is a year, that we all start communicating more and we’re hoping we can do some of that in Denver and in some ways be even some sort of “pop culture ambassadors” to the city.
I’m really hoping it’s a year that we start connecting all the movements that are being built up through different musicians. I think it’s vibrant and strong and only has the potential to get stronger. I also think that will.i.am’s pro-Obama video – was very well done and set a good precedent for what artists can do.
Saif: You’ve touched a little bit about this but I think it would be interesting to hear sort of more of not just your musical influences, but also your political influences – not just who you listen to but also who you’ve read that inspired you to take an active, political stance.
Jonny 5: Actually doing music and education simultaneously meant that I was always either at school or at rehearsal and so I was never taking the time to be as well read as I’d like to. But people like Cornell West and Noam Chomsky really influenced my political thought. I go to Common Dreams and now I’ll be going to Foreign Policy in Focus a lot to stay informed. But I also think it should be a combination of staying up on what is being put out there by thinkers as well as being involved in certain movements who are also having those conversations.
Saul Williams is obviously very politically informed but he’s also really tied into what is happening emotionally and spiritually – what’s happening to the soul of the country. So I think that he’s a tremendous influence and role model.
Saif: I don’t know what genre you consider yourselves to be in. You’re an MC, so there’s a big hip-hop influence, but there seems to be a lot of other diverse influences on your musical style. Not only do you all play as a live band, which is rare for hip-hop group, but you also have a violist and a trumpeter. How do you see the eclectic nature of the music reinforce or influence the political message? It seems that they’re unique on both levels.
Jonny 5: What is interesting is that we are very different as musicians actually – our tastes in music are different. We are also very different as people as well.
One thing we decided pretty early on is that this band was going to be collective. From the publishing and all of that, to no one making any more or less money than anyone else, we function as a collective.
What we all do have in common are our interests and goals, which are to make good music and to put our message out there. We’ve worked really hard on being able to work together and it’s taken a lot of time. We’ve had band retreats where we go and do team building, process through conflicts or set our goals for the year. So I can’t overemphasize that it’s been a lot of work and I think it’s really paid off in how we write our songs. Every song has gone through a different process. Every song started with a different person. And I think it’s paid off.
Part of our commitment politically is to really value every voice. Wherever we can operate on a consensus model, we do. I think also politically, through the conversations we’ve had – we’ve learned a lot from each other.
I think we all have arrived at a very similar place, where the relationships we’ve built with each other are a reflection of the type of world we want to see.
Saif: OK, last question – I have to ask you this because it is your hometown. At the end of August the Democratic National Convention is going to be held in Denver, Colorado. I think with both the RNC in Minnesota and the DNC in Colorado, we’re probably going to see two of the largest protests at conventions that we’ve ever seen. What is your take on the DNC coming to your hometown? I know everyone is probably going to be asking you to play. I’m sure they already have.
Jonny 5: Yeah that’s already happening. I would say we’re really excited because, Denver has a really great music scene, has a great hip-hop scene, and it has a great activist community. I think we see this as more of an opportunity rather than a time to necessarily protest. Well I guess I could say personally, that I’ve supported Obama. I ordered my Obama t-shirt the day they announced he was running, but I don’t support him uncritically.
You know Jim Wallis says that real change happens when there’s social movements beating down on open doors. So we need to be building up the social movement and hope for, and personally I hope that he’s elected so that we have an open door and a more receptive ear. But it’s not going to keep him form taking a “hard-line” on certain issues that he thinks he need to take, like Israel-Palestine. I don’t know if I see him as a progressive on that. So all this is to say what I want that week to be and what we’re going to do with our public platform is to say that there’s a larger movement happening in this country that does involve telling the truth about who we’ve been and at the same time be hopeful about who we could become as a country.
The movement is way bigger than any candidate or any party.