Taken from Green Left Weekly (April 30, 1997)
Cruising the Chocolate Supa Highway
Chocolate Supa Highway - Spearhead - Capitol Records
by Sujatha Fernandes
Chocolate Supa Highway may not live up to the funkiness of Spearhead's last album Home, and it may lack the confrontational political appeal of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, but it is definitely Michael Franti's most musically diverse album.
It draws on the influences of reggae music, with a rendition of Marley's legendary "Rebel Music" done by his son Ziggy Marley, as well as country and western, with Joan Osborne mixing her grooves with Franti in "Wayfarin' Stranger", and Trinna Simmon's soulful jazz melodies over the top of a number of tracks.
Franti's deep, sensuous voice blended with a slow jazz groove has been his hallmark right through from Disposable Heroes. His ability to use his voice like a jazz instrument, in the same way that Coltrane bounces off notes and plays with beats on his saxophone, is a skill that sets him apart from other rappers of his genre.
In Chocolate Supa Highway Franti's style has been heavily influenced by Rastafarianism, with references to spiritualism, ganja, Jah, dreads and the love of Rastafari sprinkled throughout the album.
Franti has also switched his means of delivery. Gone is the hard core, in your face rapping of the Disposable Heroes, when he dealt with overtly political issues and spoke against institutions from the FBI to the government, the army and the state penitentiary. He has now gone in for the more laid-back style of narration, using stories to get across a political message.
Franti does this beautifully. In "Gas Gauge", he narrates the story of a young black man who has to get to a job interview but has to borrow his brother's car and is continually stuffed around by his brother. Finally he runs out of petrol, and when he is accosted by police and tries to show ID he is shot dead. Interspersed with the narration, the chorus, "the world's in your hands" ironically points to the bleak reality that these young people, so full of potential, have no future in a racist system.
Franti argues that he has moved away from the hard core delivery of Disposable Heroes because it is not as effective as narrative. Franti's shift in this direction is a political and musical development, but it also cannot be denied that large numbers of young people around the world were attracted to the overt politics of "Television, Drug of a Nation" and his sampling of the Dead Kennedy's song "California Uber Alles".
Delivery aside, Franti's politics are still there, and his music is still exposing the racism that black people suffer in the US. He is still drawing the links between the struggle of black people and other struggles around the world, still bringing a feminist consciousness into rap music and still using his music to educate young people about issues such as AIDS.
This article was posted on the Green Left Weekly Home Page.