Taken from Vue Weekly (Aug, 2004)
"IT WAS THE MOST AFRAID I'VE EVER BEEN"
by YURI WUENSCH
Activist musician Michael Franti on his Middle East fact-finding mission
Watching the nightly news, musician Michael Franti was having a difficult time believing everything he'd been hearing about the situation in the Middle East. So much so, in fact, that he decided to head over there and find out for himself.
"I just got tired of hearing the news and sitting around with my friends, moaning, 'Oh my God, can you believe what was on the news today?'" Franti recalls. "One day, I just decided it was time for me to see firsthand so I could be more effective in communicating about it. So I got some friends together, bought some tickets and we just flew over there."
Touring places like Palestine and Baghdad, Franti and company "basically played for anyone that passed me by." Strumming in hospitals for kids who had their limbs blown off and at a demonstration against the dividing wall being erected in Jerusalem undoubtedly helped put things into perspective. In particular, he learned that the idea that the war is supposedly being waged over Middle Eastern oil reserves is lost on most Middle Eastern people, who Franti says have more pressing problems. "Before I went there," he explains, "I thought the war was about oil-and for a small percentage of very rich people, it is about oil. But for most people, the war is about something a lot simpler-like water, like a place to live, like feeling safe on the street and not being shot at. [That's] what it's really about for the people on the streets."
That solidarity of need was common across the Middle East, Franti says, but the mood of relative optimism in Baghdad was replaced by an exhausted and beaten-down feeling once he mingled with the people of Palestine. "It broke my heart into a million pieces," Franti says. "Just to see the devastation that people all over the Middle East are living in-the bombing, the daily degradation, no water, no electricity, homes destroyed, the constant daily threat and fear of being under attack and being killed, not by a plane flying into a building but by the guy who is standing in front of you every day with an automatic rifle as you're trying to get through a checkpoint."
If Middle Eastern citizens have anxiety about making it through checkpoints, U.S. military personnel definitely have their own doubts and fears about manning them. Franti says playing for a group of about 40 American troops in a Baghdad bar was a profound learning experience, albeit an incredibly scary one. "It was the most afraid I've ever been," he says. "They're all holding a beer in one hand and an M-16 in the other and I'm holding a wooden folk guitar." After the show, Franti managed to speak to everyone present. Some said they believed in the war. Others cried bullshit, saying the U.S. shouldn't have gone in unilaterally without UN approval. Others were more succinct: "Fuck George Bush and I can't wait to get the fuck out of here," said one soldier. Everyone, at least, could agree on the last half of that statement.
"All of them said they couldn't wait to get home," Franti says, "because they felt like they were fighting a war that can't be won. When they first got there, the idea was to overthrow Saddam Hussein and kill the Republican Guard. Now it's about fighting for peace, trust and trying to win over the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people."
Now home and newly inspired, Franti says the tour of truths hasn't left him with a shortage of things to write about. "My goal as a musician is to be the best musical communicator of social justice I can be. But to be a good musical communicator about social justice, you also have to write as many songs as you can about love, about fun, about food and about dancing as you do about all the other stuff."
Without that balance, Franti says it's easy to feel overwhelmed. "We can either become super-reactionary or just give up. On one side, we get so callous that we don't even feel anymore. On the other side, we get so emotional that we can't function as conveyors of the truth. The great thing about songwriting is that it is about our emotions. So it's a great time for me to have that outlet as a songwriter because it's the one place where I can put my words and thoughts to present it to other people. Someplace in the middle is much better when we can act from our heart and still keep a balance and a sense of humour about what's happening in the world. I try to spend a good part of my day being the court jester."
Franti also remains upbeat out of a responsibility to his family. However, he doesn't inspire them so much as they do him. "My kids keep me positive, aware and thinking," he says. "And music has always been a big part of our whole family. My youngest son [five-year-old Adé] just woke up this morning and started singing a song about the earth that he just made up. As kids, we have a sense of social justice already in us. The sense that we should be taken care of and treated equally-it's something we learn in the sandbox. Then it gets sapped out of us. As we get older, we start to see that the world we live in is based on how much our ability is to earn and to spend and not so much on the content of our character."
And Edmonton, in its own small way, has helped shape the man Franti is today. "I used to live in Edmonton for a year," Franti says. "My mom was a teacher and we lived in Edmonton as part of a teacher exchange. I went to Highlands Junior High School for Grade 9. I also played in Edmonton once with my first band, the Beatnigs, in about '88 or '89. I'm really excited about coming back."
Michael Franti and Spearhead Edmonton Folk Music Festival . Gallagher Park (main stage) . Sat, Aug 7