Taken from The Tavis Smiley Show (Aug 25, 2004)
The Tavis Smiley Show
Transcript of Michael Franti Interview
by Tavis Smiley
Tavis: Michael Franti is the talented lead singer for the group Spearhead, out now with a new solo collection of acoustic songs. Earlier this summer he traveled to Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. A documentary of that trip is in the works. His latest CD is called "Songs From the Front Porch, an Acoustic Collection," and he will be performing the first song from the disk in just a moment. Just a few moments, I should say. Michael, nice to see you.
Michael Franti: Good to see you, too.
Tavis: I said just a few minutes. I want to talk to you first. The trip, start with that. I'm always fascinated to talk to artists who get a chance to travel to, you guys travel all the time on the road anyway, but when you get a chance to travel to the Middle East and go to Iraq, what--I'm afraid to ask such a big question, but what were your impressions?
Franti: Well, first of all, when I decided to go there, I had, you know, as an artist traveling, I'm always sitting in the hotel room watching the news and just getting depressed night after night seeing generals and politicians explain away the political and economic costs of the war without ever mentioning the human costs of the war. So that was the motivation of the trip, was to go there and to speak to people about their life and the war. Speak to teachers, musicians, poets, taxi drivers, and of course to the soldiers who were actually there fighting.
Tavis: And having watched it on the news and now being able to juxtapose that against having been there, your conclusions are?
Franti: Well, I got the director's cut.
Franti: You see the Hollywood version on the news. You know, you just can't understand what it's like to see the devastation in the street. To be in the city--if you imagine we're here in Los Angeles, imagine every third or fourth building being blown up. Imagine every storefront with bullet holes in it. Imagine people just trying to walk about and take care of their daily life there. We never see on TV the images of just people walking into a store, going to school, you know, walking down the street doing basic things. Then to see the intensity that has been built up emotionally as a result of the fact that they don't have clean drinking water in their homes, the electricity rarely works, there's 90% unemployment in Baghdad, everyone has a gun, so things like basic safety are what's most important to the Iraqi people.
What I was most surprised to find is they really believed George Bush when he said Operation Iraqi Freedom. They believed that the U.S. was going to come in, overthrow Saddam, and then hand the country back over to the Iraqis to hold free elections and do their own thing. And that is why there's this insurgency that is still taking place today. That's what Iraqis wanted me to come back and tell Americans was, imagine if Iraq had come over here, overthrown our government, and then occupied our nation. The people that fought against it, we would consider them freedom fighters. So they just want us to understand that.
Tavis: So it's not, as you see it, or as they explained it to you, the persons you talked to, it wasn't so much the invasion that bothered them, as much as it is now the ongoing occupation.
Franti: Yes. The ongoing occupation and the future of Iraq and the amount of money being dumped into U.S. corporations to rebuild the country when after the first Gulf war, there was the sanctions and nobody was offering any aid, yet the Iraqis were able to rebuild their nation by themselves. So they say, how about if we get some of this money that's being spent and we rebuild it ourselves.
Tavis: You performed while you were there, I take it.
Tavis: Were there soldiers in the audience when you performed? American soldiers?
Franti: We played all over, or I played all over. I just pick up my acoustic guitar and play on the street corner or go into a hospital, play for kids who'd had their limbs blown off. But the most afraid I've ever been at any concert was walking into a bar full of U.S. soldiers.
Tavis: Were you afraid at this concert?
Franti: Yeah, yeah, that invited me in there. They said, come up and play for us. So I go in there and I walk into a room full of guys holding an M-16 in one hand and a beer in the other hand.
Tavis: And let me guess, before you finish the story. I'm just guessing, knowing Michael as I do, that you probably played a protest song?
Franti: Yeah. I said hey, guys, I'm here with my wooden folk guitar to sing for you. So I sang this song called, "Bomb the World."
Tavis: "Bomb the World." Like I thought. Exactly.
Franti: The lyrics say we can bomb the world to pieces but we can't bomb it into peace. So every eye was like...and some were, you know...
Tavis: And you got American soldiers with M-16s looking at you.
Franti: Yeah, and a beer too. But afterwards, I spoke to all of them. There were about 40 of them there. Two or three said they really support the war. I support our Commander in Chief. I'm a patriot. I'm going to do what I have to do. About half of them said, I supported the war when I got here, but I really wish that we would have gotten United Nations support before going in there. And the rest were like "F" this war, "F" Bush. I just--
Tavis: I want to go home.
Franti: Yeah. But all of them said that. They all said, "I want to go home." They said, "We fought the war to overthrow Saddam, which is what we've been trained to do. Now we're trying to win the war of the hearts and minds of Iraqi people, and we can't do it with M-16s."
Tavis: Long before you were big enough to travel around the world, and bad enough for folk to want to have you perform even if they got M-16s strapped on, you were here stateside, a big, tall, lanky kid who played basketball at the University of San Francisco, home of greats like Bill Russell and...who else--
Franti: K.C. Jones.
Tavis: K.C. Jones.
Franti: Bill Cartwright, Quentin Dailey.
Tavis: Bill Cartwright, Quentin Dailey, and Michael Franti.
Franti: I'm way down on the list, but yeah.
Tavis: That's 'cause you decided to give that up to do the music thing. What was that tension like, when you got a great basketball talent, but you also have a great musical gift.
Franti: My talent in basketball was that I was willing to work hard and I was willing to be tenacious and do the things other players wouldn't do, and I feel like my career in music has been the same thing. I'm willing to play shows night after night. I'm willing to try to put myself outside of my comfort zone to experience new things to write about and share with other people. And I really see that discipline that I learned from playing sports as something that allowed me to maintain a career in music when other people have had hits and come and gone, I've been able to just slowly and steadily do what I do, which is write songs from my heart.
Tavis: You've got a happy heart and you got happy feet. And speaking of happy feet, on the cover of this CD, you got your big happy foot on the front. You got your big happy foot on the back. And you've got both your big happy feet--all right, Jonathan, zoom in on 'em. Put your foot up, Michael. Put your foot up. You've got both your happy feet hanging out here on the set tonight. Do you walk around all the time without shoes?
Franti: I haven't worn shoes in 4 1/2 years.
Tavis: 4 1/2 years you've not worn shoes.
Franti: The only time I wear shoes is to get on an airplane, I put on flip-flops on, and to go into a restaurant. I've traveled to a lot of places where people couldn't afford to wear shoes or to buy shoes, and I really feel there's a division in the world between the people who manufacture shoes and the people who can buy shoes. And so when I came back after one trip, I said, let me see what it's like to go for three days without shoes. And I kind of liked it, and I've learned a lot from the experience of not wearing shoes and I think it's really important to start to bridge that gap in the world between the nations where people are--the consumer nations and the manufacturing nations.
Tavis: Now, I love you, but I'm not taking my shoes off.
Franti: All right.
Tavis: Having said that, though, on a serious note, I wonder if there is some advice you have, having traveled the world, and being obviously such a humanist, are there things--is there a thing, just one--let's keep it real simple here--a thing that Americans in particular can do or ought to try doing to put themselves in a position to better understand what folk around the world who are not as fortunate as we are have to deal with? Is there something we can do to understand that better without traveling around the country or around the world?
Franti: Without traveling around the world, I mean, we can pay attention, we can read and watch as much as we can. But I think there's so many things happening in this country that are going unnoticed that if we just are more observant about what's happening in terms of poverty, in terms of disadvantaged people in this country, it's the same struggle going on here as is going on anywhere else. And I think that one thing that we can all try to do, wherever we're from, is to try to find ways to be of service to other people. Whether it's singing songs on the street, whether it's volunteering at our kids' schools or whether it's voting in this next election.
Tavis: Maybe just for this special performance of Michael Franti, I'm gonna take my shoes off. Just to be in solidarity with you.
Tavis: I'm going to take off my shoes just to be in solidarity with you for this one performance here.
Franti: You need to be in solidarity with some foot powder.
Tavis: OK, OK. I know you ain't talking with all that ash you got working down there. Anyway, back at ya. I got happy feet, too. Up next, a special acoustic performance from Michael Franti from the new CD "Songs From the Front Porch, an Acoustic Collection." Stay with us.
Tavis: From his new CD "Songs From the Front Porch, an Acoustic Collection," here's Michael Franti performing "Yes, I Will." Enjoy. Good night from Los Angeles and keep the faith.