Taken from Palm Beach Post (April 26, 2008)
Some SunFest artists unafraid to talk politics
ABRAMSON Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Hearing about the horrors of war from the comfort of his living room didn't sit well with musician Michael Franti.
So in 2004, at a time when many musicians were still uneasy about making a political statement, Franti grabbed his guitar and a production crew and traveled around Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"It seemed like the places that were hit the hardest, and where people were dealing with the most violence, people just wanted to hear music that made them laugh and dance," Franti said.
Franti, 42, left Iraq with a new understanding of war, a batch of new song ideas, friendships with Iraqis and U.S. soldiers who have become regulars at his concerts, and a documentary that went on to win several awards.
"There are a lot of musicians here that are really concerned with the direction this country is heading in and are really eager to express their opinion," said Franti, who is one of the artists performing at SunFest this year interested in more than just hit singles.
Ozomatli, a Grammy Award-winning Latin hip hop and rock group, got their start in 1995 during a labor rally in Los Angeles and have continued to promote social justice.
Stephen Marley, who won the 2008 Grammy Award for best reggae album, is part of the famed Bob Marley family that has been in the forefront of socially conscious music for four decades.
Even Sheryl Crow, a pop music star for more than a decade, has been outspoken against the war in Iraq and has anti-war and environmental messages on the home page of her Web site.
Franti's group, Michael Franti and Spearhead, blends rock, reggae and funk while sending a message with anti-war songs like Bomb the World and Light Up Ya Lighter with sarcastic and poignant lyrics about an Army recruiter's pitch to a susceptible teenager that goes, "Here's what you get, an M-16 and a Kevlar vest. You might come home with one less leg, but this thing will surely keep a bullet out of your chest."
It's reminiscent of a different time, when music helped drive the anti-war movement of the 1960s and Country Joe McDonald was singing, "Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box."
"When I talk to artists who were writing songs about the Vietnam War experience, it wasn't until six or seven years into the war that artists really started to write about it and that the songs started to reach the mainstream," Franti said. "When the (Iraq) war started, there were messages of Clear Channel banning songs, banning certain artists from the airways, and that put a cold streak into a lot of artists that said, 'Hey, I don't want to be losing half my audience because I'm perceived as being unpatriotic.' "
In 2003, the Dixie Chicks, a widely popular alternative country band, received huge backlash when they came out against the war and President Bush at a concert in London.
Ozomatli was criticized by the New York Post for holding a concert in New York just a couple of weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"However, our fans were really appreciative, and it gave people something else to think about for a minute, to listen to music," said Ozomatli percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi, 40. "But that was around that time, and now it's not that way. Now the tone is that people do want to change."
A wide call for change might be the biggest reason for a renewed interest in politically and socially conscious music that took a back seat during the disco fever of the 1970s, the corporate rock and hair bands of the 1980s and the boy bands that dominated the airways in the 1990s.
Jorma Kaukonen, the guitarist for Jefferson Airplane that performed some of the '60s most memorable activist songs, said it wasn't so much the music that changed those times. Change was already in the air, and the music just helped enhance it.
Kaukonen, 67, whose band Hot Tuna will perform at SunFest on Friday, said this is the most tenuous time in America since the 1960s.
While he believes it was easier to mobilize a movement 40 years ago because of the uproar over the draft, he says there is actually much more at stake today.
"The '60s were a simpler time, and it was easier just to focus on the war," Kaukonen said. "There are just so many issues in the world today that concern all of us that have kids.
"I've talked to my 10-year-old son, and he's concerned about ecology, sustained energy. When I was not that much older than him, nothing could have been farther from my mind. I remember when gas was 27 cents a gallon, and those days are done and never coming back."
The ways that musicians communicate their message has also changed. In the past, the radio was the end-all for making a statement. Today, messages are getting across on Web sites such as YouTube.
"It's a completely different time now, both in terms of the way that political music gets out, but also in the way that artists are living," Franti said. "We're not beholding to record labels the way we used to be, and we're not beholding to the radio stations the way we used to be.
"The artists that are really surviving and thriving are the ones that have individual relationships with their fans and take the music directly to them via live shows and Web sites."
Perhaps no musician's message of social justice and peace has been embraced on a worldwide scale than that of Bob Marley's.
While Marley stayed away from politics, he wrote songs about social injustices that have become world anthems 28 years after his death.
Marley's son Stephen, 36, who is performing at SunFest on Sunday, believes people are still looking to musicians to make a difference.
"People yearn for that cause," Marley said. "They want a purpose.
"Music is such a big influence, and it's only right for us to take on this responsibility. It's so imperative, the world needs this with the state that we are in right now. It's a demise."