Taken from THE iZINE (July, 1997)
By JAYNE MARGETTS
THE sloganeering advocator of compassion and arguably one of this generation's most prolific, staunchest and outspoken poets of lyrical conscience, Michael Franti has one eye trained on the progress of the NBA's Chicago Bulls and their war against the Utah Jazz in his hotel room in the (sarcastically fabled) "mecca of the universe" Ohio. At this particular moment in time, his hometown of San Francisco seems a universe away, but that doesn't stop the spokesman for the African American race from missing the familiarity and the sights and smells of a place that has provided him with a steady flux of stimuli.
As his close friend Michael Jordan hurtles with the grace of an antelope through the stadium there's a twinkle in Franti's eye at the endless possibility of human achievement that the basketballer displays. But just as Jordan cuts a swathe through the stadium so too does Franti. Throughout a decade he's become synonymous with those gravelly vocals and carefully contained rage who has consigned himself to the ongoing fight against racism and suppression whilst flickering between confrontational guises such as The Beatnigs, Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy and his latter incarnate the honeyed soul of Spearhead.
Although the symphonic Spearhead strains may lead fans to believe that Franti has mellowed, nothing could be further from the truth. The message in the music is as fundamental and imperative today as it was the day he first strutted onto a wooden stage: "To me the message is the whole thing," he declares.
"You can't really separate the message and the music y'know, it's like when you listen to a John Coltrane record you turn it on and sit there and you feel these powerful emotions coarsing through your blood. You don't ever think, 'what are the words saying?' It's like this feeling that you get. So the music and the voice firstly evoke the emotions and then finally the lyrics are the irony to the music, and correspond with everything else. It has to be one complete thing.
"In the past when I was making music with The Disposable Heroes Of
Hiphoprisy I would just think of slogans, and I'd just throw up any old beat, and I wouldn't really think about them in terms of emotions. Some people really dig that, but for me in my life and the way music effects me, it's really about how things effect me and how I think about them."
According to Franti writing in the first person sense was as natural as becoming the voice for the underdog. As he sauntered through the streets of the Bay Area, scribed his lyricism, contributed to compilations such as Stolen Moments: Red Hot & Cool (whose proceeds went towards AIDS research) and toured the byways of the globe his discontent and concern over social issues grew.
>From the spread of the malignant HIV and AIDS virus through the ghettos, greedy politicians and powermongers making decisions that effect the population, announcing television as the drug of the nation, condemnation at financial leprosy, outrage at the language of violence, empathy for the homeless person on the street and fear of socio genetic experiments through to Spearhead's follow up to Home tome Chocolate Supa Highway which deals with a melting pot of skin colour, creed and revolutionaries, Franti continues to stir the conscience and point the finger.
He nods hisdreadlocked head "Chocolate Supa Highway is about inspiration, not information. Most of the stories on the record come from my experiences of travelling around the world on tour," he explains, "and seeing the global warmth hip hop has spread. It's time to recount the events of the last century and begin to hold accountable, the fraternity of good ol' boys, coke smugglin' politricksters, and well-dressed slime balls, for the misdeeds they have perpetrated upon Us, the dependable, good natured, herb using, hip hop generation.
"The album also takes a broad perspective on music and the world without losing the essence of the streets, where music lives. The songs were given birth in our camp's new compound. Blak Militia studio, which serves not only as a sweaty work space, but a meeting place for like minded artists. Rastas, Roots rebels, and hip hop revolutionaries from all around the Bay Area. The combination of all the people who chill and vibe at the studio creates a sauce which is the flavour of this album. Hot Chocolate Sauce that is."
It comes as quite a revelation to hear that Franti was not always as mentally liberated as his musical odyssey has always suggested. In fact, the mere thought of this passionate and visceral vessel arriving in San Francisco circa 1984 as "super-homophobic" athlete and basketball player. Being surrounded by gay denizens who populated the haven - and who were infected with the AIDS virus - and hearing the stories of people who had been ostracised by their families and communities because of their sexual preferences hit home for the soon to be advocator.
When another close friend, basketballer Magic Johnston announced that he had contracted the virus Franti saw no other option but to become the fierce spokesperson against the disease. It also forced him even closer to his own creative god; a being who he mediates and gives thanks to daily. He explains that his creator has given him a sense of sanity and become the calming vortex at the eye of the storm.
"It's a daily thing," he shrugs. "But it's not something where I can say, 'okay,I've got everything figured out and all I've gotta do is say three Hail Mary's or whatever '... It's not like that. It's like each day that goes by I seek enlightenment and as I deal with things more and more they become clearer and clearer, and I start to realise that there's some big, big things, big, big stands that I've had to take in my life, and then as I approach other things I realise, god, these things used to stress me out a lot.
"With all of the ups and downs that you go through within the music industry if you just allow yourself to flow, rise and fall with the tide then you can go through wild mood swings of outrageous glee and doomy depression. I don't wanna do that, so I've figured out the way to prevent that from happening is to meditate and pray to the foundation of my creator, and so in doing so, I try as much as possible to remain in servitude to my creator and in the morals and values of everything that comes to me."
Although Franti today has made peace with his infinite host and with the bigger picture he has had to straddle many obstacles and clamber over many brick walls to arrive at this destination. Adopted by a middle-class family Franti back in 1987 formed The Beatnigs with Rono and three other members and released their self-titled album via Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label. But it wasn't until their fission of meta-politics-met-punk-industrial credentials and new moniker of The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy that they excelled.
Their EP What Will We Do To Become Famous And Dandy Justice Amos And Andy was
released in 1990 to critical acclaim and by March of the following year the onslaught of Television; The Drug Of The Nation/Winter Of The Long Hot Summer and their strident and revolutionary album Hipocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury revealed the sheer potency and force of a duo that would become torchbearers for their generation.
Pictures of a defiant Franti in the forefront of a military tank; fire blasting from its gun and Tse hack sawing his way through its metallic trunk decorated the cover of the album whilst the lyrics spewed fire and brimstone as Franti opined: "The power of one man seems like a small squirt, when he aims at the flames of the whole earth. But the fire starts at home ..."
Franti; voice of the people; raw, courageous and a role model. Whether he wears a banner around his neck carrying the slogan the Disposables or Spearhead he is the chosen voice of the people elect and meanwhile there is the ambition for ten long years that continues to stoke the fire in the belly. "Compassion!
"To me compassion is the most difficult thing to have," he confides. "To be able to empathise with somebody else's situation that you are not familiar with, that you may have prejudices about is the most difficult thing. But, when you do do it the next step is to put yourself on the line, to seek justice, and that's what I try to do with my songs.
"Most of the songs that I write are written in the first person context. They are songs about my life, not just about other people. I try to write songs in the 'first person' so that when people listen to it they can feel it within themselves. Y'know, they realise that someone else has gone through something similar to them and that's really what I try to get out ..."
The voice of the revolution has been broadcast ... and while television may be the drug of the nation to Michael Franti, his voice has become our aphrodisiac. Dizzying, visceral and the sound of the jackboot hitting the street ...