From Flobots to Nathaniel Rateliff and #WomenCrush, finding social justice through music — The Know

Governor John Hickenlooper gives Isaac Slade of The Fray a hug as they thank the crowd during Take Note the Concert at 1stBank Center on May 4, 2017, in Broomfield, Colorado. Proceeds from Take Note The Concert will support Governor John Hickenlooper’s initiative, Take Note Colorado, for expansion of music education programs and access to musical instruments in Colorado’s schools. (Seth McConnell, The Denver Post)

Long before their platinum sales, international tours, or recent scoring work for contemporary ballet company Wonderbound, the members of Denver hip-hop act Flobots saw the potential in baking activism and education directly into their music.

“It was always meant to be symbiotic,” said founder Jamie Laurie, a.k.a. Jonny 5, who was inspired by the social-justice activism in New York’s hip-hop community in the 1980s and ’90s. “That became part of the vision for Flobots, and in fact, our very first show with a live band was for a Rock the Vote concert in 2004.”

Another anniversary is coming up, too.

On Oct. 13, Laurie will reunite Flobots’ original, full-band lineup to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Youth on Record, the music nonprofit they founded (formerly known as that gives at-risk Denver youth music-based creative outlets, as well as crucial academic and job skills.

Their celebration and fundraiser at McNichols Civic Center building will also highlight Youth on Record’s organizational successes, such as its 4,000-square-foot Youth Media Studio. The project was developed in partnership with the Denver Housing Authority and anchors a mixed-­income residential and commercial complex in La Alma/Lincoln Park.

“It was so funny,” said Jami Duffy, Youth on Record’s executive director since 2010, as she remembered the lead-up to the project. “I’d walk into meetings with people and say, ‘We need to build a $2 million, LEED-certified, state-of-the-art recording studio,’ and people would ask me to leave their office. ‘It’s a bad economy. You guys are too small!’ But partnering with Denver Housing Authority gave us a million dollars to leverage the additional million to build it, and after that people started taking us seriously.”

Far from a marketing gimmick or vanity project, Youth on Record has endured to become an example for other socially conscious musicians and activists, especially as race, gender and gun-violence issues have dominated headlines in recent months.

“When we talk about economic and social justice, we’re talking about leveling the field so that everyone has equal access to opportunity,” said Denver singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff, in a press statement for his newly formed nonprofit, The Marigold Foundation.

Along with his foundation, Rateliff will hold an event on Oct. 13 under the banner “Not One More.” It includes workshops, training and panels on gun violence prevention at the Industry building in the River North neighborhood (9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.), as well as a rally and free concert headlined by Rateliff and his soul-revival band the Night Sweats at Levitt Pavilion (starting at 2 p.m.), with guests Los Mocochetes, Kam Franklin from the Suffers and the Denver Children’s Choir.

“It’s powerful to admit you don’t know something. That’s one of the things I love about traveling and meeting new people all the time,” Rateliff said. “We all seem to have pieces of a larger puzzle and we can connect those pieces to lift each other up.”

The spirit of collaboration runs deep in the current breed of justice-minded music nonprofits.

In the case of Youth on Record, it’s about collaborating with nearly a dozen Denver Public Schools locations to address race and income inequality, given that 90 percent of the 1,000 students Youth on Record teaches at any given time are 80 percent Hispanic and 10 percent black — almost all of whom qualify for federal support from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

“And we give them the real deal,” said former Youth on Record board member Andy “Rok” Guerrero, who is rejoining Flobots for this weekend’s 10th anniversary celebration. “We’ve had Imagine Dragons, Twenty One Pilots, Ozomatli, Arrested Development, Sleater-Kinney and all kinds of bands in there, but we’re also employing musicians and giving kids this creative, productive outlet.”

Guerrero, who teaches music business and performance at the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Arts & Media, sees a circular and upward trend in the growth of nonprofits such as Youth on Record. Of the 20 contractors currently teaching for them, half are former students.

In the case of #WomenCrush Music, which opened its first Denver chapter last month, it’s about supporting women singer-songwriters in an industry that’s stacked against them in significant ways, from attitudes to their rate of pay and the way they’re marketed and promoted.

Ashley Kervabon organized the first #WomenCrush Music showcase in Portland, Ore., in January 2017 to foster a community of women songwriters. Less than two years later, #WomenCrush counts chapters in 15 cities in the U.S. and Canada, and is looking to expand to Latin America.

“We’ve grown so much in such a short amount of time,” Kervabon said via email, citing impassioned support from #WomenCrush’s musicians and dozens of volunteers. “We measure success based on how many artists are engaged in our online communities, coming out to our events and inspired to become more involved with the organization. Success for 2019 will mean receiving corporate sponsorships, grants and reaching generous donors.”

The first #WomenCrush Music event in Denver will take place Oct. 14 at the Mercury Cafe, featuring chapter leader Britt Margit and free performances by Sassfactory, Sister Neapolitan, and Mirrors & Lights.

Kervabon said she received so many inquiries about starting a Denver chapter that it was just a matter of time until someone stepped up to lead it. Looking ahead, Margit plans to book more showcases as well as offer workshops and networking events where women musicians can feel safe and supported.

And it likely won’t stop with #WomenCrush, Kervabon said.

“Not only have I seen similar smaller local organizations sprouting up, but I’ve also seen bigger celebrities like Alicia Keys and Lily Allen showing their support and wanting initiatives like this one to grow,” she said. “This is certainly a movement and I cannot say that we started it, but my hope is that we are helping move it forward.”

Likewise, Youth on Record’s Duffy doesn’t claim to have invented anything her organization does.

“The idea that music education matters is not new,” she said. “There’s lots of research showing there will be all kinds of beautiful outcomes for young people if they’re engaged in music. What we did that’s different is finding a way for the local music community to address very pressing needs in Denver, whether it’s high school graduation rates or using music as the gateway for trauma-informed education and care.”

Thanks to its growth from an annual budget of around $125,000 to this year’s $900,000, Youth on Record is also looking to expand with a facility in the Sun Valley neighborhood — one of the poorest urban areas in the Rocky Mountain West — by 2021.

“Our focus is on academics, economic opportunity and healing from trauma,” said Duffy, a fluent Spanish speaker who has served on panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Labor. “Our instructors themselves come from the same backgrounds as our students, and that’s critical when you’re doing trauma work and especially when working with low-income students of color. They need to see themselves in the classroom, and in the leadership positions.”

Similarly, the nonprofit Take Note Colorado — an initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper, The Fray lead singer Isaac Slade, AEG Presents Rocky Mountain president Chuck Morris and others — is fundraising and planning its ambitious, statewide, artist-driven music-education programs. And the city, through Denver Arts & Venues, the Denver Music Advisory Panel and the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs, is doing what federal organizations haven’t in recent years and supporting individual artists and groups through its Music Advancement Fund.

Last week, the fund announced that grants for its pilot year would be $20,000 more than expected (or about $100,000 total) thanks to a public/private partnership with Arts & Venues, Illegal Pete’s and LivWell. Grantees such as Girls Rock Denver, 7th Circle Collective and Músicos de Westwood will get up to $7,500 each to grow new audiences and creative/business opportunities for young music fans.

Last weekend, longtime Denver radio personality Mario Rodriguez, better known as DJ Chonz, also held a launch party for his own nonprofit, The DJ Chonz Foundation, which plans to support other local nonprofits “dedicated to promoting musical, cultural and educational experiences,” according to a press statement. Youth on Record and the adventure sports-based nonprofit SOS Outreach have already signed on as partners.

While Flobots’ founder Laurie is proud to see the rapid growth of music-education and activism nonprofits in Denver, he’s reluctant to single out Youth on Record as the starting point — even as bandmates like Stephen Brackett (a.k.a. Flobots’ MC Brer Rabbit) have worked tirelessly to grow it.

“We just wanted to get the ball rolling,” Laurie said, referring to the heady days a decade ago when the Flobots’ single “Handlebars” enjoyed millions of downloads and streams, and a spot on the Billboard charts. “We had a platform from which to speak, and a drive to integrate music and activism. The fact that other people got excited, signed on and drove the vision of it — Youth on Record owes everything to that.”

If you go

“Youth on Record: 10 Years Strong” fundraiser. With Flobots’ original lineup performing the album “Fight With Tools.” 5:30-10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at McNichols Civic Center building, 144 W. Colfax Ave. Tickets: $15-$30; sponsorship tables available for up to $5,000.

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