Taken from Synthesis (sometime, 2000 ???)
A Unifying Force
by Max Soman
Spearhead's Michael Franti Talks About Music as a Vehicle for Activism and the Art of Independence
Music has always been a powerful force for change and revolution. From the fife and drum of the American revolution to the powerhouse musical support behind the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, nothing puts a fire under people like music, and nothing can tap emotions and ignite action like music.
Just ask Michael Franti, leader of the Bay Area-based band Spearhead. As a group of musicians who fuse jazz, rock and funk into a hip-hop sound, this crew is as active in social causes as they are in the studio, and though they haven't released an album since 1997's Chocolate Supa Highway, they have plenty of material in the works ready for immediate release. To spread the word about their music and their social conviction Spearhead is about to embark on a tour, one that includes much more than just a band.
"It's sort of a dream that we had for a new model of social activism and music being combined. So we've got a whole bus-load of other people who are traveling with us-puppeteers and theatrical performers, poets, activists who will be setting up tables as well as others who will be speaking, and fire dancers, DJs and a whole bunch of other people who will be coming along. We just put out the word, because we've been involved with a lot of things-Mumia Abu Jamal and the WTO protests-and we found that there are a lot of young people who are interested in social change right now and the way that music can be a part of making the revolution irresistible. That's what we're trying to do with this tour."
It may sound like a huge endeavor, and in many ways it is, but Franti and the Spearhead crew wouldn't be doing it if it didn't make sense. Franti initially dreamed up the tour idea, and passed his thoughts on to people who were involved in similar kinds of things. Word went out on the Spearhead Web site, and Franti says the response was incredible.
"From my experience of being an activist, I've known lot of these people for a while and so far, it's been a lot of work, but as each week goes by, more and more people have gotten involved and taken up different aspects."
Franti talks earnestly about the grassroots effort it take to put something like this together, and he says, again through the band's Web site, that they've found people willing to feed and put up performers while on the road. The Web site has also sent out a cry to people at each locality who are active in causes that mirror what Spearhead is doing, in an attempt to localize the causes at each show.
"In every city we hit, in addition to our own people we'll have local representation dealing with the issues that are important in these communities."
It's this kind of mindset and action that gets things done-a concerted effort by a strong-willed group of people whose convictions are the fuel for the revolutionary fire. But music is integral to this movement in that it opens doors that pure activism won't. For instance, to preach to a crowd, one must first draw a crowd, and nothing pulls people in like good live music.
"There's been two unifying forces in the world from the beginning of time. One is war and the other is professional wrestling," says Franti, just kidding of course. "No, seriously, the second one is music. At the moment, we're in a war against war, and music is our unifying force. I look around today and I think, 'well, where do people congregate?' They congregate either at shopping malls, or at raves or concerts. Shopping malls are the corporate world, so music is the only choice for people who are trying to go against the corporate world."
These ideas are not new ones for Franti, whose music career and activism through music reaches back to the mid-1980s when he and Broun Fellinis member Kevin Carnes formed a group called Beatnigs. Franti met jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, and with DJ and industrial noisemaker Rono Tse, then formed the Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy, a group that blended the beats of hip-hip with the industrial sound of Tse and the funk and jazz leanings of Hunter. The mix was incendiary.
Spearhead, Franti's third and current group, is musically softer than Disposable Heroes and Beatnigs, and the lyrical delivery isn't as rough, but the message is still one of revolution and change, and the music, like Franti's other projects, is fresh and interesting. Spearhead employs a live band to get things done, and through this musical evolution, Franti's developed as a musician.
"I think I've become more proficient at writing lyrics and writing songs" he says. "Now, when I sit down to write a song, I am much more able to get it out, mostly because I've worked in the studio and I engineer and produce the records, and I know how to run everything. So if I have an idea at four in the morning, I just go in the studio by myself and start putting it down."
This self-reliance in the studio not only provides Franti with recording freedom, but also made him realize that self-reliance in the industry was also an attainable goal. Franti, spurred on by artists like Ani DiFranco, whose label has been in business for nine years and has released 13 DiFranco records, is working tirelessly toward that goal and making strides.
"In doing all that-and in an effort to further divorce ourselves from corporate culture-we kind of decided to leave our record label. After nine months of trying to get out of that deal, we finally did, and we started our own label called BooBoo Wax. So now we're heading out into the wild blue yonder with our label."
The first release from BooBoo Wax is Franti's spoken word record, Live at the Baobab, a collection of a cappella and acoustically accompanied and audience-participation works recorded live the Baobab, a Senegalese joint in San Francisco's Mission District. The second release will be the next Spearhead record, Stay Human, after which, Franti hopes to follow up with a new Spearhead album every nine months or so. This kind of release schedule can only come with independence, and for Franti and crew, it opens things up for a more rigorous release schedule.
"That was always bummer for us," he says about being stuck on a major label's time schedule, "because we're pretty prolific in the studio as far as writing songs."
More freedom for Spearhead is found in the band's self-promotion over the Internet, and their sights are set on making this little corner of the Web more a community from which to base activism, music and ideas-a true movement for change fostered by honesty and wide-spread participation.
"The Web has become an incredible tool for us," explains Franti. "I think back about all the years I was out there, and my music was just going out and I was never getting any response from it until I'd go and play a show, and even then it was for just a moment and then I'd leave and it would be over. But now I have regular contact with a lot of people, and there are hundreds on our e-mail list, and now we're getting contributions from people for the site."
Franti speaks of contributions from Web surfers and Spearhead fans, dubbed Spearits who submitted poems on what it means to Stay Human, and points to that as the beginnings of making the Web site the independent community he envisions.
"I'm really excited about making it a communal thing, and I could never do that when I was on a major label. From them it was always, 'Get radio support and then a lot of people will listen to you.' And I was always like, 'Yo, lets do that the other way around.' And we're not a band whose music is going to get played on radio stations, except for community stations, so it's like I don't even want to deal with it in that way. Why spend money trying to get yourself onto commercial radio when they're never going to play you, when, meanwhile, there're all these community stations that would love to play you but that you're not going to visit?"
But Spearhead has had some degree of commercial success, though it was several years ago. The song "Hole in the Bucket," off the '94 release Home, brought the band some degree of success but, says Franti, in the end the success of Spearhead hinges on the strength of their music as a collective unit and the writing strength that the music arises from.
"You know, people would hear about the band through that single, and then they would see the depth of the music on the rest of the record and they would get into it from that, so it was never like we had this big pump of pop success," says Franti. "People heard a cool song about homelessness and panhandling, and then they heard all the other songs. We develop fans because they respect the writing."