Music has never just been about words and sounds. It’s a purveyor of stories, a device that facilitates connection, and a weapon that gives the voiceless power. So, when Stephen Brackett, co-founder of Flobots and Colorado’s newly named Music Ambassador calls music a technology, it’s not difficult to understand why.
“When someone feels a certain way and wants to feel a different way, they go find a song that will do that for them. Isn’t that a powerful thing?” Brackett said. “Music is an incredible piece of technology, and the most powerful aspects of it are invisible, even though we use it on a daily basis.”
Brackett’s two-year appointment was announced by Gov. Jared Polis on Oct. 15, making him the second music ambassador for the state, following in footsteps of Shawn King, drummer of DeVotchKa.
In addition to his musical work with Flobots, Brackett is also a co-founder of the nonprofit Youth on Record. According to provided information, Youth on Record empowers Colorado’s underserved youth to achieve their academic, artistic, and personal best by employing local, professional artists as their educators.
We spoke with Brackett about staying involved in the community, being the ambassador in Colorado and staying hopeful about the future:
Interview edited for brevity and clarity
For people who aren’t familiar, tell me about your Colorado roots and how you got into music?
I was born at Swedish Hospital, and I’ve been here almost my entire life, except for two years when we moved to Connecticut.
Music was always a hobby and I had a whole friend group where all of us rapped. Hip-hop is one of the super accessible art forms because it doesn’t require instruments, and the more you try, the better you get.
We started putting out cassette tapes in 1994, but it wasn’t until after college that Jamie (Laurie) and I realized that music had always been there for us and we’d already put so much work into it. That’s when we decided to put things back together and we wanted to pair social justice with hip-hop, which has always been at the core of the music. A few years later, things blew up in ways we didn’t expect.
How has the pandemic affected you and the work you do?
With the pandemic, as with any kind of crisis, the true demand of humanity is to insist upon the humanity of the folks you disagree with. As a group, we had already been somewhat dormant because we felt that we needed to take a deep dive into our movement work. Before our mentor, Dr. Vincent Harding died, one of his critiques of us had been where are the songs when doing movement work? We weren’t using the technology that allowed us to end things like Jim Crow.
We’ve been working on a whole lot of organizing, protests and showcases, because so many communities could use support, and that’s one of the reasons art exists.
We know seeing music live can change the emotional state of a group of people, and the practice of bringing people together with different experiences is very important. We want to look at that fact and leverage it, especially during this time. Something happens after you have genuinely shared and been vulnerable with a group of folks - that’s something Facebook comments don’t do. We need to recover all these technologies our ancestors used.
Tell me about being Colorado’s second Music Ambassador?
I think it’s great that I’m Colorado’s first black Music Ambassador, and I’m only the second person who has held the role. I’m very close with Shawn [King, the first ambassador] and we’ve been working to define what it means to be the state’s music ambassador on our own terms. We want the ambassador to be someone who helps lead policy and culture, and frames and highlights musicians as a resource and ensures people have access to that resource. Beyond music generating revenue and entertainment, it can help tie together the identity and culture of what it means to be in Colorado. There’s so much creativity and culture woven into our music to highlight.
What gives you hope for the future?
I know if I go back in my family line, there are people who woke up each day in inhuman conditions and somehow were able to find joy in the in-between moments. They we able to pass daylight in moments of darkness, and my own parents faced Jim Crow and dehumanization and they were able to pass some amount of daylight on to me. I come from a line of people who did that, and I take refuge in the fact that that’s my ancestry. Because of that, it’s upon me to do something that feels difficult, because they’ve proven it can be done.
In our present, we still have the choice to prepare for the worst or prepare for the best in us. All Americans have the choice in deciding who we want to be tomorrow and the tomorrow after that. For myself, I want us to be folks who are ready and prepared to help. Readiness and service allows me to sleep at night and reduces my stress. Because we know justice can be very quiet, but it reverberates through time.
Clarke Reader’s column on culture apears on a weekly basis. He can be reached at Clarke.Reader@hotmail.com.
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