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Taken from Fairfield County Weekly (January 16, 2003)
Activating Listeners
Michael Franti and Spearhead blend social justice, funk, human rights and hip-hop
by Brita Brundage

Michael Franti
The voice of the new insurrection: follow Michael Franti.
Michael Franti, leader of the revolutionary hip-hop group Spearhead, remembers a time when record labels represented artists, not marketing groups. That time is over. "Island Records would sign Bob Marley, Tom Waits, and a lot of other reggae groups that were all politically conscious," says Franti. "Then Island was bought by Polygram, Def Jam was bought by Interscope. Now all the labels are owned by the Universal Music Corporation. So they're not looking for the next Bob Marley or Bob Dylan, they're looking for the next Britney Spears or N*Sync."

Since Franti and Spearhead make some of the most socially conscious and politically challenging music of this generation, they found themselves consistently prodded by their old label, Capitol Records, to become something they could never be--mainstream. When the group wanted to play juvenile detention centers, the record label wanted them to play industry conventions. This is the same Michael Franti that in the early '90s headed the controversial band the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, a group with biting political lyrics and hard-edged beats. He couldn't be budged. Instead, two years ago, Franti broke with Capitol, founded an independent label called Boo Boo Wax, and, with Spearhead, released one of the most important and inspiring albums since Marley unleashed Uprising.

Called Stay Human, the album blends half-spoken, half-sung poetry that touches on the search for spirituality ("Oh My God"), challenging the corporate system ("Rock the Nation"), absolute joy in humanity ("Every Single Soul") and independent voices ("Listener Supported"). The tracks are layered with heavy funk, soulful exuberance, '70s groove and Franti's own thick-as-molasses voice interspersed with fictitious but all-too-true radio segments that highlight the story of Sister Fatima, a woman on death row who's been wrongly accused.

While the 6-foot-6 Oakland-based dreadlocked rebel doesn't consider himself an activist exactly, his message of challenging authority, celebrating unity and breaking down walls has become the voice of the new insurrection. "We all have opportunities in our life to activate, to be catalysts for growth and catalysts for change," says Franti.

The beats may be undeniably danceable, but it's his words that incite like a colony of red ants stinging the mind. In the title track, "Stay Human," Franti rhymes: "If television is the drug of the nation / satellite is immaculate reception/beaming in they can look and they can listen / so you see don't believe in the system / to legalize you or give you your freedom / you want rights ask 'em, they'll read 'em."

By the time that verse veers into the song's high-pitched change-up, "All the freaky people make the beauty of the world," live audiences are pressing into the stage, jumping up and down, singing along at the top of their voices. Whether outside in the dusty heat of the Berkshire Mountain Music Festival or tucked inside the dark cavity of B.B. King's Blues Club in New York City, Spearhead whips crowds into a relentless frenzy. Onstage, Franti's jumping up high, dreads flying, his whole body engaged in his own funky, freaky dancing. And the band grooves with all the seriousness of old-school hip-hop and all the deliciousness of old-school funk.

Bassist Carl Young lays down a non-stop deep-beat pulse while Radioactive, a beat-boxing wonder, produces some of the most incredible sounds any stage has heard. Four years ago, during the first 911 Power to the Peaceful Festival in San Francisco (calling attention to death-row inmate Mumia Abu Jamal, though the date has taken on new significance), Radioactive jumped onstage and started beat-boxing impromptu with Spearhead. Next thing they knew, Radio was following the band around gigs until, finally, they invited him to hop onboard the tour bus. At B.B. King's, when the vocal-master took control, the crowd was mesmerized, dancing to vocal beats that sounded like a mix of sampled songs and rhythms.

"He's one of the few people I know who I consider to be an artistic genius," says Franti. "He paints, he rhymes, he writes, he beatboxes . . . he's like a nonstop flow of creativity."

Between constant touring and producing albums (Spearhead just put out an acoustic album that would be "for the friends...soothing and uplifting" and another studio album due out soon) Franti keeps busy. But with the impending war against Iraq, American prisons filled with 791,600 black men, rampant police brutality and corporate globalization the world over, he isn't always resting easy. Franti uses daily meditation and yoga to keep centered. "I become more flexible in my body and my mind, developing compassion," he says, "so I will not be so judgmental about things that are happening outside and . . . inside me." With a website that allows for a community of fans ("Spearits") to swap ideas on everything from favorite books to upcoming protests, a strong grassroots support network and homegrown music, Spearhead is continually evolving as a musical force.

In Franti's view, artists need to be concerned human beings first, and they need to be visionaries, leaders of social change. Those are the topics he will elaborate upon when he speaks at the Peabody Museum in New Haven on Jan. 19 at 2p.m., in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (along with playing a few acoustic songs).

"In the heart of all my records," says Franti, "it's really about the poetry. I've been writing a lot, thinking about all the events that have been happening in the world the past couple years, where we're headed. I want this [next] record to be what Mumia Abu Jamal says the purpose of art is, to 'enrage, enlighten and inspire people.'"


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