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Taken from SF Bay Guardian (April 09, 2003)

The Man and Michael Franti

Are federal agents surveilling the singer-rapper-activist?

by A.C. Thompson

Michael Franti THE PENTAGON IS still years - if not decades - away from getting its ominous and much decried Total Information Awareness computer surveillance system up and running.


It seems, though, that hasn't stopped military spooks from keeping tabs on singer-rapper-activist Michael Franti, the 36-year-old leader of politically charged San Francisco band Spearhead. Franti told Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! March 27 that he and his bandmates had been surveilled by military intelligence operatives.


The six-feet-six-inch tall, dreadlocked musician's tale is vague and sketchy on key details, but it's definitely worthy of a listen. According to Franti (who showed up for our interview wearing a T-shirt that read, "Hemp is an herb, Bush is a dope"), on March 16 two Army intelligence operatives spent several hours interrogating the mother of one member of the band.


The spooks presented the mother, Franti said, with a thick file of information on Spearhead, including photos of the band playing at antiwar rallies and other political demonstrations over the span of several years. Also in the file: detailed personal information on the band member.


"They had records of his flights. They wondered why he'd been to Japan twice in the last two months and all these other places he'd flown - to Australia and different places out of the country," Franti said. "They had his checking account records and a list of everyone he'd written checks to."


Franti believes the military is interested in this particular band member because the musician has a sister currently serving in the Army in the Persian Gulf. "I think they're worried that she could pass on [sensitive] information to him," Franti said.


The operatives, he told us, referred to Spearhead as "part of the resistance" and described the band member as "unpatriotic and un-American."


Franti won't reveal the mother's name or even identify his bandmate. Obviously, that makes the story hard to verify. "The family is really scared," Franti said, adding that the mother lives in the Boston area and had given several interviews to local media before the military visited her.


We related Franti's anecdotes to Robert David Steele, an intelligence expert who spent 25 years working for the Marine Corps and the Central Intelligence Agency. "I have not heard similar stories," he said via e-mail. "If you can nail this down it would be a huge story."


Franti has been generating hyperpolitical grooves since the mid 1980s, starting with the Beatnigs, an angry semi-experimental outfit heavy on percussion, before forming the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, a topical rap group, in 1992, and later Spearhead, a soul-and-hip-hop combo. Spearhead's self-produced current single is an antiwar anthem titled "Bomb the World," which includes the chorus "We can bomb the world to pieces, but we can't bomb it into peace." The group's handlers, Guerrilla Management, operate out of a Mission District office littered with lefty iconography and slogans - there's a five-by-five-foot, gray-and-black painting of Mumia Abu-Jamal on one wall, a portrait of Che Guevara on another.


For Jon Wiener, a writer and history professor at UC Irvine, the story has a familiar ring. During the early 1970s, as the United States carpet bombed and napalmed Southeast Asia and massive antiwar protests erupted stateside, the Federal Bureau of Investigation took a keen interest in the pacifist politics of John Lennon. Using confidential informants and other tactics, the FBI compiled a 300-page dossier on the ex-Beatle, apparently with the aim of deporting him on a dope charge.


"This is all too reminiscent of the '60s and '70s," said Wiener, the author of Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files. "It's unconstitutional. [The federal government] is not supposed to punish or even monitor expression."


For his part, Franti admits to being a little freaked out by the experience. "It's a little frightening to think you're being surveilled," he told us. "I don't have anything to hide. I make music, and I sing songs about working for human rights. I'm not doing anything illegal."


E-mail A.C. Thompson

 
 

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