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Taken from The Progressive (February, 2002)
Michael Franti
? profile of Michael Franti by Elizabeth A. DiNovella
"You can bomb the world to pieces but you can't bomb it into peace,"sings hip-hop artist Michael Franti. He and his group, Spearhead, are the rare musicians speaking out for peace in this time of war.

"I face a lot of criticism right now for my viewpoints, even in places like our own web site," says Franti. "People have questioned comments I've made about peace, comments I've made about patriotism and nationalism. So it's not easy right now. During times of peace, it's really easy to stand up and sing songs about peace. During times of war, you need courage to be there when called upon. That's what we're trying to do."

Ironically, the date of September 11 held meaning for Franti prior to the attacks. For the last three years on September 11, Franti has organized the 911 Festival concerts in San Francisco. "It began as the Mumia 911 concert, trying to call a state of emergency to the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal," he explains. "Then it expanded to be about the prison industry in general. We chose 911 because it's the emergency phone number. This year, it became a concert for peace."

Franti acknowledges the horror of the suicide bombings. "When the massacre on September 11 occurred, there was this wave of sadness, and pain, and sorrow," he says. "I spent a good couple of weeks just trying to stick with feelings of mourning because I saw immediately the posturing of the media right in line with the Bush Administration. I knew in the months ahead that we were going to be in for a long battle."

Franti is used to long battles. The San Francisco-based rapper and poet is a longtime political activist, supporting anti-racist, anti-death-penalty, global justice, and independent media organizing through his music. Vibe magazine names Franti "today's greatest inheritor of Gil Scott-Heron's artistic legacy, [deserving] the highest props."

Describing himself as "six foot six above sea level," Franti was a basketball star before he was an artist. He received a scholarship to play ball at the University of San Francisco, but then he got involved with the antiapartheid movement of the late eighties and started writing poetry on that issue. "I became disheartened with the whole industry of college athletics," he says. "It was an oxymoron, the term `student-athlete.' So I took a little time off and started working in a cake-baking factory. I'd put these frozen cakes in these boxes and push the button, and the machine would go boom-chee-cha-chee. It had this rhythm to it. We started making rhymes to the rhythm of the machine." That was the origin of Franti's first band, the Beatnigs.

"The Beatnigs used found objects to create rhythms," Franti says. "We found instruments in junkyards and created our own instruments. On top of that, we put out very political poetry. We were inspired by groups like the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets."

Franti, along with former Beatnig Rono Tse, went on to create the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. This duo combined sampled industrial rhythms, drum machines, scathing lyrics, and the sounds of jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter. In 1992, the group released its only full-length album, Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury, which tackled issues ranging from the politics of African American identity, the 1991 recession, the Persian Gulf War, and the reign of the first George Bush. "Television: The Drug of the Nation" was its biggest hit, with the lyrics:

T.V. is the reason why less than ten percent o four Nation reads books daily Why most people think Central America Means Kansas Socialism means unamerican and Apartheid is a new headache remedy.

In 1994, Franti formed Spearhead. With the first two groups, the music was overtly political, he says. "It was like `F' the system, because they're not responding to our needs." The first Spearhead album, Home, marked a departure from Franti's previous writings. "When I started working on the first Spearhead album, I wrote a song about AIDS called `Positive,' a song that was about my own experience of going to get tested and waiting for the results to come back," he says. "I purposely left the song open-ended. I didn't say what the result was at the end because I wanted people to think about it for themselves."

How am I going to live my life if I'm positive? Is it gonna be a negative? How am I going to live my life if I'm positive?

While he saw the devastation that AIDS wrought in San Francisco, he was inspired by the compassion he witnessed, as well. "I saw men who were taking care of each other through incredible sickness, through people going blind, bed sores, not being able to keep food down for months at a time," he says. "I saw men that would take care of each other despite the fact that their families had turned their backs on them. And I started to really ask this question: `Is it who you choose to love or do you choose to love?'"

Franti and Spearhead's 2001 release, Stay Human (Boo Boo Wax/Six Degrees Records), mixes hip-hop, reggae, and old-school soul music with lyrics of anger and optimism. With his self-proclaimed "baritone like a Robeson recordin'" and an infectious R&B groove, Franti pulls off caustic lyrics like "the government says that killin's a sin/unless you kill a murderer with a lethal syringe/so I ask you again, are we peace lovers then?"

Songs like "We Don't Mind" conjure up the seventies soul music of Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. "Thank You" is a funky nod to these musical heroes and others. "I tried to call upon all the music that has influenced me in my life, from soul music to reggae to punk rock to hip-hop," Franti explains. "It's all part of what I've put into this record."

The album chronicles a community radio station that is covering a controversial death penalty case, told through radio skits between songs. Woody Harrelson plays a fictitious governor who is trying to get reelected by executing a prisoner the night before the election. "While it's a story about the death penalty, it's also a metaphor for larger things in life," says Franti. "It's about questioning not just is it right or wrong to put people to death, but whether it's right or wrong that any of us kills in any circumstance for any reason. Is there any justification for killing, ever?"

Stay Human ends with "Skin on the Drum," a spoken-word piece de resistance that starts with Franti sniffling, "I'm a little under the weather today, too much pepper spray can make a brother congested, you know what I'm saying? But the harder they hit us, the louder we become, like the skin on a drum." This song is featured in the Indymedia documentary about the 1999 Seattle protests, This Is What Democracy Looks Like, which Franti also narrates.

But Franti had a difficult time finding a distributor for the album. "I went through a long battle with Capitol Records," Franti explains. "It took me nine months to get Spearhead out of our contract." According to the Philadelphia Daily News, Franti said "the new chairman was oblivious to what I was doing, and suggested I record my next single as a duet with Will Smith." Capitol Records could not be reached for comment.

In an effort to divorce themselves from corporate tyranny, Franti and Spearhead (which currently includes bassist Carl Young, guitarist Dave Shul, keyboardist Kevin Choice, drummer Mannas Itiene, and beat-boxer Radioactive) created their own label, Boo Boo Wax (available online at www.spearheadvibrations.com). According to their web site, their mission is to create a label for "socially conscious, funky, human music." They set up a distribution deal specifically for Stay Human through an independent label called Six Degrees. "We have the freedom to say whatever we want on our records," says Franti, "and do whatever we want in terms of touring and promotion."

Boo Boo Wax also allows the group to stay afloat by selling only a couple hundred thousand copies per album. Franti explains: "We keep our expenses down to adminimum. We're not going into dramatic debt in order to make our ends meet. We can turn a profit selling considerably fewer records, but we get more per record because there's no middleman. We don't sell millions of records, and we don't make money hand over fist. But we've been able to do it for a long time, and we're able to keep it going."

Franti decries the cooptation of hip-hop by the corporate world. "When hip-hop was really about Afro-centric ideals, when it was really about consciousness, you weren't selling the numbers of units that you are today," he says. "That music was being bought by people who were concerned about those issues, mostly black people. But today you have songs about gang life that are a way for kids in the suburbs who don't live that type of life to live vicariously through the music. So those types of songs will sell a lot."

Despite the commercialization, he still finds his muse in hip-hop. "Chuck D had said at one point that hip-hop was the CNN of the black community," Franti says. "Hip-hop is now the World Wide Web and the Internet, not just of the black community but of all youth, and in particular, youth of color. You hear about what's happening on the street level. You hear about the concerns of young people in their songs."

And he's jazzed by poetry slams. "I'm particularly inspired at the moment by what's been happening with spoken-word hip-hop, because it operates outside the economic confines of the record industry," he says. "There's been a lot of young people around the country who have been starting poetry slams. And by young, I mean, thirteen-, fourteen-, sixteen-year-old kids, who have said that it's not enough that we listen to these artists; we are going to create from our hearts. When you go to these hip-hop poetry slams, young people aren't up there talking about bitches and ho's. They're talking about things that are really important to them. You hear about the current Administration. You hear about the fact that the reason young people don't have toilet paper in bathrooms in schools, and the reason they have no music or sports programs is directly related to what happened during the Reagan, Bush, and even the Clinton years."

The second Bush Administration concerns Franti as much as the first. "I call him King George II," Franti chuckles. But Franti does have hope.

"As with any war that takes place, people at the beginning are reactionary--they feel pain, they feel sadness, and they feel hurt," he says. "Just like in cases of the death penalty, they say, `I want to go kill the first person I can that is responsible for this.' But we don't have to live as reactionaries. We can live as mindful people. If we are really trying to create a lasting peace in this world, we have to do something other than exact revenge."
Franti wrote a new song after 9-11 entitled "Bomb the World," which has not yet been released. He sings it in concert, as well as in interviews:

Please tell me the reason behind the colors that you fly. Please tell me the reason you want us to unify. You say you're sorry, that there is no other choice. How you can feel sorry, you kill people with no voice. You can chase down all your enemies, Bring them to their knees. You can bomb the world to pieces, But you can't bomb it into peace.

Elizabeth A. DiNovella is Administrative Coordinator of The Progressive and a reporter for WORT, the community radio station of Madison, Wisconsin.

COPYRIGHT 2002 The Progressive, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group




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