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July 27, 2014

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Flobots classroom project takes off in Denver

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Brennan Linsley / AP

In this Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, photo, members of The Flobots and Youth on Record founders James Laurie, center, and Stephen Brackett, right, work with music students at Youth on Record headquarters in Denver.

DENVER — The Flobots, a Denver hip-hop band that gained fame with the hit single "Handlebars," are known for social activism and supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement. Drew Elder, a senior vice president of the investment firm Janus, is more familiar with the cello than with Chuck D.

And while it might seem like Elder and the Flobots would be natural opponents, they've come together to form an unlikely partnership.

Elder sits on the board of Youth on Record, a nonprofit formed by the alternative-rap group that brings professional performers from a range of genres, with an emphasis on hip-hop, to provide arts education in Denver Public Schools, Colorado's largest school district.

Educators say the program can help keep students engaged long enough to earn a high school diploma. "Any time you can tap into young people's interests, you have a great chance of keeping them in school," said Antwan Wilson, an assistant schools superintendent.

The Flobots founders say what they started has gained focus and potential because of the collaboration of other artists, as well as development workers and partners from the worlds of government and big business.

Since it was formed in 2008 — and then known as Flobots.org — the program has grown. It attracted donations of a little more than $120,000 in 2008 and earned no revenue from programs its first year, according to financial records filed with the state.

Last year, donations had doubled, and it earned more than $40,000 from its programs. It now reaches 700 students in four high schools and two residential substance abuse treatment centers. It trains artists to teach and puts instruments and recording equipment in the hands of youth.

James Laurie, who performs with the Flobots as Jonny 5, recalled hearing kids rapping while he worked with the AmeriCorps Vista program, a national community service project focused on poverty, in Rhode Island.

"If that's where the young people are, let's go there," he said.

Laurie returned to Denver and in 2005 started the band, with the goal of using music to inspire young people to change the world for the better, with longtime friend Stephen Brackett, Brer Rabbit on stage.

The Flobots are known as progressive rappers — their latest album, "Circle in the Square," was inspired by the energy of the Arab Spring. Their biggest hit was in 2008 with the single "Handlebars," which peaked at 37 and spent 20 weeks on Billboard charts.

When they're not performing, education was a natural focus: Laurie once taught at a Denver public high school and Brackett at a Denver private elementary school. An early project was an after-school music program.

The group then took on the Youth on Record name, built off of a program run by Nathan Schmit that offered classes in music production and lyric writing in treatment centers. As program director for Youth on Record, Schmit's duties include designing continuing education programs for the organization's staff and other teachers.

Other collaborators include people like Elder, whose grandfather led a high school band and orchestra in Wichita, Kan.

Elder, who is based in Denver, said he had been looking for volunteer work that involved bringing music to young people, and friends suggested he check out the Laurie-Brackett project. He joined the board in 2012 and said he feels privileged to have helped the nonprofit move to sustainability.

Music, Elder said, is "a reminder that you're part of a bigger world."

Under executive director Jami Duffy, a former Peace Corps volunteer, Youth on Record this year opened new offices with classrooms and a recording studio where students can produce records on the ground floor of a Denver Housing Authority high-rise. The authority contributed $850,000 and waived rent for at least seven years.

Wilson, the assistant superintendent, lauds Youth on Record for setting high goals.

That means that students in slam poet Suzi Q. Smith's spoken-word class must read the work of professionals and critique it, as well as write their own pieces. Out of it comes public speaking experience and confidence.

"In this class, if you give the same answer as everyone else, I'm going to tell you to get to work," she said.

While some rap stars may have given the music a reputation for extolling drugs, violence and misogyny, hip-hop's roots are idealistic.

Himanee Gupta-Carlson, an assistant professor at State University of New York Empire State College who researches hip-hop, pointed to pioneers such as Afrika Bambaataa and his Universal Zulu Nation, which worked to fight gang violence in New York in the 1970s.

Gupta-Carlson said more recent hip-hop-inspired efforts promote education and the arts from New York to Seattle. "Hip-hop has something in it that works," Gupta-Carlson said. "If we want to save our youth, we have to get it into the schools."

In Denver, Adrian Molina, who performs as Molina Speaks, teaches a class in which students record their own CDs — but first, they have to learn to play chess because writing music, like the board game, requires perfecting a technique to achieve success.

In class, students get out the pieces and crouch over boards while a hip-hop mix Molina prepared thumps in the background.

"Who's this?" asks 15-year-old Julius Miller, who raises his eyebrows in appreciation when he learns the music is Molina's own.

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