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Taken from Ottawa Citizen (August 24, 2004)

A hair-raising journey

Hip-hop musician Michael Franti, who plays the Ottawa Folk Festival this week, has seen some terrible things in terrible places in this world. But while his travels were heartbreaking, they were also uplifting because of the indomitable spirit of the people he met, writes Nick Lewis.

by Nick Lewis (The Calgary Herald)


Michael FrantiF. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts in one's head while still retaining the ability to function.


Not only is Michael Franti taking both sides of an argument over a cellphone from a Barcelona nightclub, he's doing it as his hip-hop band Spearhead is doing a soundcheck, noisily banging on drums, plucking on guitars, tapping away on synthesizers and mumbling "check, check, check" into a lead microphone that may or may not be functioning.


With one finger in his ear, the other hand holding a phone, the six-foot-six dreadlocked San Francisco musician/activist talks softly and poignantly about the Middle East. He was there for the June 30 transfer of power from the U.S. back to Iraq. Franti spent time in Iraq, Israel and Palestinian areas, a trip that he says "broke my heart, but was an uplifting journey because of the spirit of the people."


Armed only with an acoustic guitar, the 36-year-old Franti and a few friends hopped on a plane and went as civilians, performing impromptu concerts for anyone who would listen.


"I played for kids in hospitals who had had their limbs blown off," he says softly, matter-of-factly. "I played for the Iraqi police, played for Israeli soldiers, played for people in Gaza. They didn't know the lyrics and they weren't familiar with the scales. But they knew that I was there to be with them, and they all appreciated the fact that I was just there to sing songs with them."


Franti, who performs Friday night at the Ottawa Folk Festival, saw Iraqi mothers who spent 24 hours a day by the bedside of their wounded children. He couldn't speak Arabic, and they couldn't speak English, but there was a human bond. So he would sing to them and they would weep, and he would weep along.


He roamed war-torn neighbourhoods where people didn't have water or money, but everyone had a gun. Yet that wasn't as scary as being in the company of his fellow countrymen.


"The most I was scared was when I played for the U.S. troops," Franti says. "I played for them on the streets, and then they invited me into their bar to play. And so there are 40 guys in this bar holding a beer in one hand and an M-16 in the other. I come walking in with a wooden folk guitar ..."


Franti laughs to himself and continues. "And all my songs are political," he says. "And I figure, I'm just going to let it rip here, I've come this far. And afterwards I found that there were a lot of troops appreciating me saying what I said. They feel frustrated. A few of them said, 'Well I'm here, I'm just going to do my duty and follow my commander-in-chief.' Half of them said, 'Well, I believed in it when I came here, but now that I see what's going on, I really wish we had gone to the United Nations.' And the rest of them were 'f--k this war, I can't wait to get the f--k out of here, we shouldn't have ever come here'."


It's hard to talk to Franti without bringing up politics, since, by his own admission, all of his songs are political. His 2003 song Bomb The World carried the chorus, "You can bomb the world to pieces/ but you can't bomb it into peace," and the phrase was soon championed by antiwar protesters.


This comes naturally to him. Born in 1968 to a white mother and black father, he was given up at birth since his mother's conservative family couldn't accept his skin colour. "Compassion is one of the most difficult things to have," he is frequently quoted as saying.


Franti's foster parents were white, his father an introverted alcoholic.


Growing up in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic, dealing with racism, seeking his real parents, all shaped his outlook.


His activism arose around 1986, when friends of his, abandoned by their parents because of their sexual orientation, were stricken with AIDS. He saw them suffer through illness as their lovers cared for them, cleaning their bed sores, leading them on the street as they went blind, and made a realization: who you choose to love wasn't as important as choosing to love. It became one of his first songs, called Do You Love? Then came the Beatnigs, a late '80s industrial act with funk and hip-hop leanings that raged against the policies of Reaganism. They were heavy, loud and mostly inaccessible, meaning most of Franti's political humour was lost before it could be found. As compelling as his messages were, Franti knew it didn't matter if the medium couldn't carry it.


"The challenge for those of us being political through art is to make the revolution irresistible," he says.


Around 1992, he formed the more mellow Disposable Heroes of Hip-hoprisy, a leftist hip-hop troupe that opened for U2, Public Enemy and Nirvana, recorded with William Burroughs, and established Franti as a modern protest-music icon.


When Disposable Heroes disbanded, Franti formed the more roots-oriented Spearhead, an act through which he announced on 1995's People in tha Middle: "The left and the right / They all try to use me / But I'll be in their faces before they can abuse me."


Despite his politics, Franti is wary of becoming a rock star poster boy for the left, which is why he hasn't joined left-leaning "rock star" organizations like Punkvoter.com. But he talks about the irony of punk music flourishing under Republican governments while the equally rebellious hip-hop seems to get worse.


"I think that one of the things that's missing from American politics is a spirit of independence," he says. "It's kind of like there's these two giant, monolithic parties that you have to conform to. The punk spirit is to think independently and to speak out. And unfortunately hip-hop has gone the other direction. If you look at the ethos of hip-hop, it's 'Get a lot of money, and don't worry about who you gotta screw over to get it.' Which is kind of the Republican spirit in a way."


Still, he sees and understands both sides of the politics of these two parties and knows why they act the way they do. He says the meaning of life is created individually by one's own thoughts and actions. He understands the role of an activist will never disappear. He says he understands he'll never be able to give up these battles he's taken on: being a spokesman against AIDS, capital punishment, war, racism and a host of others.


"I look at the world like it's never going to be a perfect place," he says. "I'm content knowing I'm going to struggle for positivity through my whole life, for as long as I live. And doing it with a smile on my face. And that struggle will continue.


"There's always that battle that takes place between the two roommates, one who wants war, the other peace. And I know I will always be on the side of peace."

 
 

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