Taken from The Age (February 25, 2002)
by Michael Dwyer
"Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted," wrote Martin Luther King nearly 40 years ago. It is unlikely he foresaw the potency of the fledgling soul movement of the early '60s, much less its evolution into '90s hip-hop. But his words resonate with prescience in the work of Michael Franti.
Michael Franti: "How do you fight the World Trade Organisation?"
Stay Human is the third album by Spearhead, the San Francisco rapper and political activist's chosen musical vehicle these days (he used to be half of The Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy, alongside jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter). Its informed and compassionate study of a blighted America recalls Marvin Gaye's 1971 milestone What's Going On. To say the least, it's not a work that could have sprung from the pearly white and well-adjusted ranks of modern music's mainstream.
"My upbringing has affected my work a great deal because, as a kid, I was adopted," Franti explains. "The reason my parents gave me up for adoption, I found out later in life, was my mother's white, my father's black, and she felt I would never have a chance in her family.
"I was adopted by white parents and they did the best they could but it wasn't always the best of times. There was alcoholism in my family, I never really felt I fitted in. Because of that, I've always had an affinity with the underdog. I've always jumped on the side of those people since I was a little kid, so I guess that voice still comes out in my music."
The songs on Stay Human are structured around a narrative concerning the death penalty. It's a topic Franti sees not in terms of justice, but as a race and class issue. No stranger to demonstration lines and soapboxes, he peppers his conversation with alarming statistics about America's incarceration and execution expenditure, drawing parallels to a drastic decline in education funding. Franti knows too well who draws the short end of that stick.
"Since I was a kid, I've always felt that the death penalty was wrong. What if they have the wrong person - and what if that wrong person is me?" he asks. "As a black person living in America, that's part of our experience: being the wrong person."
As he's grown older, Franti says, his logic has broadened but his position has not changed. He argues against capital punishment in terms unlikely to score political points in the Land of the Free.
"I don't look at it from an American perspective, I look at it from a human perspective," he says. "We've had people, in the name of our country, go and drop bombs on Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo, killing hundreds and thousands of people. Then they come back and they're able to run for president. So it's really the politics of who you've killed, rather than the fact that you've killed, that makes it wrong in the eyes of justice."
For all his sober rhetoric and heavyweight lyrical concerns, Franti's music is always remarkable for its uplifting quality. It's almost as if his tireless extracurricular grassroots activism pays the price that allows him to celebrate in music.
"For me they've always gone hand in hand, but the more I get involved in activism, the more I see the importance of music, because I see that it's something people lean on when times are tough," he says.
"Today people are finding it difficult to fight. How do you fight a corporation? How do you fight the World Trade Organisation? How do you fight governments, keep them from placing corporate interests above those of the human world and the natural world? It's difficult to figure out where to point your voice.
"In doing that, people become frustrated and they get tired. Music is something that's always been there for us, whether it's in the bottom of a slave ship or at a protest rally. We sing songs to keep our spirits up and keep us moving on in the fight."
The philosophy finds little foundation on the world's pop charts, where voices of agitation are all but drowned out by vacuous ear candy. Does Franti feel he has a greater responsibility now that the music multinationals focus so much on the bottom line?
"I feel like artists have a responsibility to make great art" he says. "And part of great art is to find some truth. It doesn't have to be a political truth or a social truth, it can be an emotional truth, a spiritual truth, it can be a musical truth or any other kind.
"What I'm sad about today is the corporate hijacking of music. So much of it is about finding a producer to write songs, to put together an image, to create a video look. And almost as an afterthought, you find somebody to hang this on. A lot of times they're not even singing the song.
"So the artistry is no longer in the hands of the artist, it's in the hands of people who are serving the labels to make money. I think that's an unfortunate by-product of all the buying up of labels by these larger corporations.
"It's really rare today that you find somebody who's a singer-songwriter. I think when an artist has a connection to the actual writing of the song, inevitably they're writing something that means something to them."
An inspiring speaker on record, on the barricades and in person, Michael Franti would make a powerful speech writer. Is running for political office on his long-term agenda?
"No!" he says with a dismissive laugh. "I've been running from political office for a long time. People have asked me a lot. There's a place for the monarchy and there's a place for the court jester, to make people laugh and to let people know where the king f ...s up. I serve a different king than the political world but I'm more cut out to be the court jester than the one carrying the sword."