Taken from The Parkland Post (August 5, 2004)
Power to the Peaceful
an Interview with Michael Franti
by Mike Hudema, Shannon Phillips and Daryl Richel
In June, Hip-Hop artist Michael Franti embarked on a mission to Iraq and Israel, joining a delegation of peace workers, musicians, artists and filmmakers seeking to witness first-hand the effects of the war on those involved.
Mike Hudema, Shannon Phillips and Daryl Richel spoke with Franti this past August, during his stopover for a much-anticipated performance at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.
MH: Recently you and several members of Spearhead went to Iraq. What was the purpose of your visit and what did you do there?
Franti: Well, I got tired, like all of us have been, of watching the news every night and seeing generals and politicians tell me 'bout what the war was about. I remember when the war first started, I was in a yoga class. I was laying on my back after class on the eve of the war and I started thinking - what would families be doing on this night? How do you go to sleep and tell your kids "Tonight there is going to be bombing?" What do you tell your kid? Ever since that time, I wondered what the war was like for the people on the street, and so I just decided I wanted to go there.
I was shocked at how easy it was to go there. I was thinking we would have to go through some security - that the CIA would have to do some check on me. I found that all you have to do is buy a plane ticket, land and get off the plane and say, "I am here to see Baghdad". The officials in Iraq asked "Are you with some NGO? Are you with the Red Cross? You must be with the UN, you have dreadlocks." I was like, "No, I'm a tourist." They kind of looked around and said, "I don't know if we have a stamp for a tourist visa". They asked a couple of people and they came back and they stamped my passport and said, "Go in man, you're the first tourist we had here since the war started."
After I got there I would just go out on the street and play for people on the street corner. What would happen is groups of people would come gather around and I would play until I either sensed myself that it wasn't safe playing anymore, or until someone asked or advised us to move on. There are four and a half million people in Baghdad. Very few have water that they can drink. The electricity comes on and off and is rarely working. No one has a job, as there is currently a 90% unemployment rate.
DR: What is the enduring image that you remember the most?
Franti: There are several. Some of the most horrific are seeing people who have been blown apart, or playing for kids who are 9 years old who have no legs. The sense of fear that you have when you are in Baghdad - that at any moment you can be killed - is something people live with every day. At nights you hear gunfire, or mortar fire and it's just a few blocks away. Every time you hear gunfire you think someone just died.
I was struck by the resilience of the Iraqi people, who really believed George Bush when he said that his goal was simply to take Saddam out and that their country would soon be theirs again. They were happy that Saddam was gone but now they say, "we want to select our own leaders. We want to have our own country and if it means we are going to go to civil war if the occupation pulls out then so be it, because at least it is our civil war." They have this incredible sense of hope for their country.
MH: When you were in Iraq you also met and sang for several US soldiers. How did you get this opportunity and what type of response did you receive?
Franti: Well, there are troops stationed in different parts of the city and every few blocks there might be a little check point, or a tank or something - so I just walked up to some troops and I had my guitar with me the whole time and I started singing songs for them. I played them a few songs and after they said "why don't you come up and play when we are off duty so that we can really listen and have some fun?"
They invited me up to the Sheraton Hotel, which is where you see the view onto the square where they pulled down the statue of Saddam. They have a bar and inside the bar they are holding M-16's and drinking beers. I was wondering what they do on their time off and what they do is they play video games. I was thinking they must be playing like NFL, or some hockey but no, they play Gulf War I on full wide-screen video.
DR: What did they say when you talked to them?
Franti: They said a lot of different things. I talked to about 40 of them and there were about two or three that supported the war and thought they were doing the right thing and had a real patriotic sense. About half of them said they wished the US would have waited to get support from the United Nations before going in. They said that when they left America they believed in it but after a few months of being there they were totally disillusioned. The rest of them were like, "F*** this war. We should have never come here in the F***ing first place." Every one of them said, "I want to go home."
There wasn't one, even of those that supported the war that said, "I'm glad to be here". They all feel like they are fighting a war that can't be won now, because originally the war was about militarism and militarily fighting an army. Well, now the war is about trying to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people and they just feel like you can't do that with an M-16. They feel like we need to be here, or someone needs to be here building homes, building schools, re-building the whole society and creating an abundance there, rather then just being security cops that run around breaking down doors looking for guys that might be "insurgents".
SP: Speaking of soldiers, one of the stories that has certainly not been told by either the US or the Canadian media is the role of private military contractors in Iraq. Can you tell us how much of that you saw on your trip?
Franti: You see tons of it. As soon as you get off the plane, the people who run Baghdad airport is a company called Custer Battle, which is a private security company. There they were in these Polo t-shirts that say 'Custer Battle' with an Uzi and a side-arm and they get paid $1,000 a day to guard the airport. Out on the street you see people that are hired as independent security for journalists, or diplomats who are all very well paid and the Iraqis know this.
The Iraqi army and police force are trying to reform to patrol the streets and bring some order to the chaos and they get paid a few dollars to do the same job that these guys are getting paid a thousand to two thousand dollars a day to do. The US soldiers get paid $1800 a month plus $300 more for danger pay so they are making in a month what the private security guards make in a day. There is incredible animosity that exists between the Iraqi police and army, the US army and the hired contractors.
SP: You also toured through Palestine. Can you tell us what the situation is like there?
Franti: Palestine broke my heart even more that Iraq. On the one hand. you have Israeli people who live in fear of suicide attacks every day. They don't take place every day but they certainly live in fear of that every day. On the other hand, you have people who are in the occupied territories who DO live everyday with guns in their face, or Apache helicopters coming in and firing Tomahawk missiles into their homes. People have to carry ID cards with them everywhere they go. Children can't even travel freely. They can't even go a few blocks away in the next neighbourhood to go to school, so they have to get up two to three hours early in the morning, and stand in line to go through the checkpoints to go to school everyday.
These are people who've had a huge security fence (or "Apartheid wall") built around them, whose land has been seized and who live in complete misery. People's land has been taken away and their wells have been seized. Every morning they have to get up early to wait at the gate to be let into their fields to work, and they have to apply for a visa to do this. It takes a year to get a visa and the pass only works for 6 months and then you have to apply for another one.
I talked to soldiers there, and there was an argument between some of the people in my delegation and some of the soldiers at the fence. After this argument had finished, I had decided to go back and play some music. I walked up there feeling really scared because here were some soldiers that were really pissed off, but I didn't want to leave it that way.
I went up there and started singing some Bob Marley songs, and they love to hear Bob Marley. So I was singing, (actually singing) "Sun is shining and the weather is sweet. Come to Jius to move my dancing feet. Oh to the rescue." and when I said, "to the rescue" one of the soldiers said, "Here I am." He started singing the song and I knew I had him (laughing). The soldiers were so happy that they called on the radio for the other soldiers to come and they came in this HumVee and as they came in the distance I could hear this drumming. They were beating on top of this metal box and they were singing and they came up and we sang a bunch of songs.
I sang that song that I sang in the workshop, (singing) "Those who start wars never fight them. Those who fight wars never like them." As I sang that, one of the guys translated each line of the song into Hebrew so they could all understand it. When I sang that line about those who fight wars never like them they all nodded their heads.
They told me after singing that they wanted me to tell the Palestinians who were on the other side of the fence that they don't hate them. I replied, "Why don't you tell them yourself?" I said, "Why don't you open the fence so they can all come over here?"
Very reluctantly they opened the fence and they brought them over. So I said, "Why don't you tell them what you just told me?" This is a 20-year old kid and he acted like a 7-year old. He put his head down, turning his knee caps in, his shoulder down and I slapped him on the back and said "Go on man tell him what you told me". This soldier said, "Alright, I just want you guys to know that we don't hate you." These are the soldiers that come in every day with tear gas, seizing homes, not letting people out of the fence - and he said, "I don't hate you but if I came into your village wearing a t-shirt you would probably kill me."
The Palestinian replied that "If you came into my village wearing a t-shirt I would invite you into my house for tea and I am inviting you now to come to my house for tea." We spent along time and the Palestinians told them what their life was like and the Israeli's told them what their life was like and I just facilitated a conversation between the two of them.
A few days ago I got a call from one of my friends who is still there and she said, "I want you to know that ever since that day that all the soldiers that were there that day have been really cool to the people and they talk and say hello to each other. The only unfortunate part is that in three months that batch of soldiers is going to be gone and another batch is going to be there.
MH: Do you see yourself as having a role in the upcoming Presidential election between Bush and Kerry and if so what is it?
Franti: I'm running for office. I would like to be the court jester. I would love to sit in the oval office and just make fun of the President and sing songs and dance around. Yeah so that's my role.