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Taken from Guardian Unlimited | Arts features | Soul voice of protest (July 30, 2002)
Also written at Chumbawamba - Music
by Duncan Campbell - Guardian- Tuesday July 30, 2002
Michael Franti
Congress is silent, but Michael Franti, live at the Hollywood Bowl, sings loudly against President Bush's 'war on terror', writes Duncan Campbell

Since September 11, few entertainers have made explicit, high-profile attacks on President Bush and his policies in the "war on terrorism". So it was interesting this week to see the singer and songwriter Michael Franti of the band Spearhead pull no punches when he appeared at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the 2002 world music festival ...

Franti, who was once a member of the Beatnigs and of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, opened his session with a mocking imitation of George Bush telling people: "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists." As a choice, said Franti, that was like telling people they had to eat either at McDonald's or Wendy's. Franti was neither with Bush nor with the terrorists, he informed the vast crowd in the 20,000 capacity arena. And for good measure he attacked both terrorism and militarism, any action where civilians were killed by bombs. "Power to the peaceful!" he pronounced.

The political nature of his intro made you realise how rarely the subject of the "war on terrorism" is addressed on public stages, let alone at such mainstream venues as the Hollywood Bowl, famous for its Symphonies Under the Stars programmes; the evening was sponsored by one of our esteemed local radio stations, KCRW, but also by such establishment concerns as United airlines and Lexus cars.

Four people near us got up and walked out. This may, of course, have been because they had suddenly remembered that they had left the gas on, but, since the main act, the Nigerian star Femi Kuti, was still to come, it seems more likely that they were registering their disapproval. The rest of the audience - or quite a chunk of the rest of the audience - seemed sympathetic to what Franti was saying and, perhaps, relieved that someone was, at last, saying it.

Over the last week, the American newspapers have been carrying frequent prognostications that an invasion of Iraq or the bombing of Baghdad is imminent. It is now discussed almost daily by "experts" on the cable news channels with the same sort of dispassionate breeziness as though it were the US Tennis Open being previewed.

There are some voices raised against the war plans but they are hard to hear and within Congress they are almost silent. Franti, who is based in San Francisco and whose music incorporates hiphop, soul and funk, is often likened to Gil Scott-Heron, who also wrote scathingly laconic and political lyrics. He comes from a great tradition of American protest singers and has said that his aim is to write "true soul music - not that 'baby, I wanna get with ya' stuff'". His Stay Human album is built around an imaginary broadcast from a radio station covering the planned execution of a black activist accused of murder.

Other performers have feared voicing their views in public lest they be accused of being unpatriotic. Franti seemed to welcome the chance to reach such a large audience with an unapologetically political message.

My invaluable guide to LA, Los Angeles A-Z by Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt, informs me that the first ever show at the Hollywood Bowl was in 1916 and was a performance of Julius Caesar with Douglas Fairbanks Snr and Tyrone Power Snr in starring roles. There was a bit of a war going on far away back then, too, but I somehow doubt that either Doug or Ty took the opportunity to challenge militarism from the stage quite like Michael Franti did.




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