There was a time when hip-hop had the power to bring people together. When it first appeared, if was the voice of community, a source of common identification and political action. It’s hard to say exactly what happened; perhaps it was when MTV and the music industry caught on. Once it was commercialized, it was dumbed down, homogenized, and marketed under the only pretense that the record companies have understood since the 1970s: youth rebellion. Messages of unity, liberation and social action gave way to depressing gangsta jeremiads, pointless thug posturing and mind-numbing booty-shaking. It was depressing to see a new musical genre with so much potential crash and burn so quickly.
Thursday night, I saw it resurrected.
With the large, eclectic crowd (a crowd composed of every imaginable high school sub-clique—goths, nerds, preps, metalheads, you name it) solidly packed around the stage, roaring with anticipation, the seven-piece band—which comprises emcees Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit, guitarist Andy Guerrero, bassist Jesse Walker, drummer Kenny Ortiz, and violinist Mackenzie Roberts (trumpeter Joe Ferrone was unexplainedly absent)—launched into a soaring anthem that went from poetry-slam rap to a metal-influenced guitar solo to a neoclassical violin breakdown and back—in just a few minutes. And that was, of course, just the beginning.
After a pair of other alternative hip-hop acts (Kawnar and HipHopotamus, who both put on good shows) set the tone, the Flobots were more than up to the task of knocking ‘em down—and lifting ‘em up. After working the crowd into a frenzy (Walker, Brer Rabbit, and Roberts all argued for a while over which section was the “hyper” one—say what you will, but they clearly have experience in “working” a crowd), the band hammered home its progressive political message with songs about Hurricane Katrina (“Stand Up”), human power and pride run amok (“Handlebars”) and ending poverty (“Fight with Tools”). Also on the program was “I.R.A.Q.,” a song about—well, you know—in which all the lyrics spell out the name of the country over and over, climaxing in a refrain of “It’s Really A Quagmire / It’s Really A Quagmire,” etc., etc.—okay, so it’s not very subtle, but their heart is in the right place.
Musically, the band is nothing short of proof-positive that hip-hop is, in fact, at the forefront of American musical innovation. Those who would write off the genre can be forgiven—after all, they’ve probably only heard the stale gangsta jams on top-40 radio—but the Bots played like nothing I’d ever heard before: a style that was simultaneously older than old school and newer than new school; one that owed as much to dub reggae as to bluegrass (and everything in between); one that loves composition as much as grooves and beats; one that you simply can’t not dance to. Yes, they even manage the perilous prospect of combining classical and popular influences without sounding like Muzak (yes, I’m talking about you, Josh Groban).
Unfortunately, with such a diverse crowd packed so tightly (and so worked up), there were bound to be a few problems. A few songs into the show (ironically enough, during a cover of The Turtles’ “Happy Together”), a rather violent mosh pit broke out briefly, and a bystander was injured (note to Midwestern teens everywhere: will you please learn how to actually mosh, instead of being total jerks and trying to kill each other?); without batting an eye, Jonny 5 (who was dressed in a shirt reading “build community”—with “unity” highlighted in red) stopped in the middle of the song and calmly addressed the crowd. “Let’s be safe, okay guys? I know if you can make peace around you, we can make peace tonight.”
And peace was made. (There were, in fact, no major incidents after that.) Jonny and the band had the full attention of the crowd as they did their best to inspire them. “We all want change,” he said, “but before we can make external changes, we have to make internal changes, within ourselves.” I can only hope that it was a message that will inspire the crowd to real action. (When the woman standing next to me took my notebook—where I was taking notes to write this review—and scribbled “I love you, brother” in it, I was praying it was a true feeling of camaraderie and not just the smoke in the air.)
But as the band left the stage (after an encore demanded by the roaring crowd) and the lights came up, the sound system started playing a recording of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and pretty much the entire crowd joined in. I think I even heard some harmony in there. So yeah, the song might not have been entirely appropriate, but there was no denying the emotion behind it.