Taken from Ode (Feb, 2005)
This article appeared in Ode issue: 21
by Marco Visscher
He once sang raw, aggressive lyrics about injustice. Until he realized there was a better way of expressing his message. Now Michael Franti makes inspired music with his band Spearhead. Marco Visscher meets the musician who wants nothing more than to bring people together.
Can the FBI breathe down your neck for singing happy songs? Yes, according to Michael Franti. And he should know. Franti's music is a warm mix of rap, reggae, soul, Latin and funk. Songs you could easily play when your in-laws are visiting. Songs that give you fresh energy and get you moving when you pump up the volume. And if you listen carefully, you'll understand where the magic is coming from. You're hearing someone here who truly has a plan for the world.
In fact, Michael Franti always had a plan. And because he knew you can spread ideas with music, he started composing songs. In the 1980s he formed the band Beatnigs. Thanks to the discovery of the chain saw as a musical instrument, the group was dedicated to making experimental noise accompanied by aggressive lyrics about a sick world full of violence and racism. Then came the hip-hop group The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, which continued the raw battle against social injustice and gained enough prominence to tour with the rock band U2. But with Spearhead, his current San Francisco-based band, he has found a new audience-wider, but still predominately young.
It was probably his influence over a growing legion of fans that recently prompted the US intelligence agency to question him about Spearhead's political intentions. But the FBI has nothing to fear, Franti promises. His only plan is to make the world a better place. Surely that can't make him a serious threat to the government?
Just listen to the lyrics. No seditious talk of overthrowing the government, no call to throw bricks through store windows, no angry dirges about evil leaders. Franti has changed his strategy. He wants to focus on reconstruction, not destruction. He feels he accomplished too little using anger, so now his weapon is optimism.
"Cynicism is a choice. You can choose to be negative, and say: everything sucks. Bashing is fun, but there's not really a point in doing it once there's an understanding of the problem, because then you're going to have to fix the problem. But I think that if you're going to talk about social issues then you have to make the music something we can socialize to."
It's no coincidence that Franti uses the word "socialize". It's exactly what he does with his music. Franti is seen by audiences-especially in Europe- as someone who is one of them rather than a star. Just before a concert you'll see this lanky man, ever barefoot, kicking around a soccer ball on a makeshift field. Then, after singing the final encore, Franti steps into the crowd and gets to know his audience.
When meeting Michael Franti, I look into the calm face of a charismatic, friendly giant. "Hey brother," he smiles. Franti is a guest artist at the Crossing Border music and literature festival in The Hague, Netherlands. In between songs he talks to the Dutch audience-just starting to recover from the murder of controversial author/director Theo van Gogh a few days prior-about free speech and the importance of talking to one another.
Franti is never bashful about expressing his views, and doesn't shy away from sensitive issues. Franti's album Stay Human is a rocking drama about the death penalty. The record sounds like a pirate radio station broadcast, with songs being played during a news show about a governor who wants to execute a woman on death row to boost his re-election campaign. Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson plays the governor.
Franti has strong opinions on issues ranging from women's rights to the drug war to racism in the music industry. And, of course, Iraq. An interview with Franti cannot ever not be about Iraq. He was there last year.
"The news you read in the papers and see on TV in America is pretty one-sided. I wanted to see with my own eyes how things were," he explains. "I grabbed my guitar and went to Baghdad." The trip made a big impression. Houses are in ruins or could collapse during the next bombing. There's no electricity and hardly any water. Everywhere you go you hear mortar fire, even at night. And in the middle of all this chaos, Franti says with amazement, "life on the streets simply goes on: people go shopping, chat with one another, children go to school."
"The most important question we have to ask ourselves is what is terrorism?" Franti says of his experiences there. "Is terrorism the outcome of an ideology-which people believe in and fight for-or is it based on actions? I think it's the latter. So if someone plants a bomb, to me that's terrorism by definition. Does it really matter if a bomb goes off in a car or is thrown out of an F-15? It makes no difference to the families of the people who die. Both bombs try to scare people, kill people. It's all terrorism, including what America does."
Such statements won't encourage corporate U.S. radio stations to play Franti's records. When the Dixie Chicks were taken off the air following their criticism of President Bush's policies, it set off tremors of panic among socially conscious musicians across the country. To be able to continue making the music he wants, Franti has set up his own label: Boo Boo Wax. Of course, he was never played much on the radio even when recording with a major label. Franti takes this situation in his stride. "When I was in Iraq, I spoke with musicians, writers and poets who had to write about how great Saddam Hussein was. If they didn't do that, their fingers would have been broken. I even heard some have been tortured and electrocuted in jail, because of things they wrote. Just poetry that questioned the status quo a little bit. If I compare myself with that, it's a minor thing that I'm having a hard time getting my music on the national radio."
He also doesn't like to think of himself as a noble exception in the music industry. He cites Ani DiFranco, Manu Chao, Steve Earle and a large group of lesser known socially-engaged artists that must struggle to have their music heard. Franti never loses sight of the fact that 99.8 percent of musicians in the world don't play to get rich, but to make a contribution to their community-which is what music is really about. Franti lets some of them, particularly young hip-hop artists, use his studio in San Francisco.
What does make Franti an exception is his willingness to speak his mind every time he's in front of a microphone, while so many artists are careful to separate their work from their political views. This gains him a great deal of admiration, as well as criticism. "Some say musicians shouldn't express their views, because they aren't qualified," Franti says, "but in the government you've only got business people: what do they know about politics?"
Franti is back in the studio with Spearhead working on a new album due for release this spring. "We are trying to come up with the funkiest combination of hard rocking rhythms and sweet melodies," he says in the preview on his website. "With so much turbulence in the world it's hard not to wake up every morning and be moved emotionally by what I read in the news. The trick as always is to make my emotions come across simply and clearly in the songs while giving voice to all the sadness, joy and rage about issues of today."
As Michael Franti stands up to tune his guitar, getting ready for his performance at the music and literature festival in the Netherlands, he tells me that he considers himself lucky. "I've become very clear in what I want to do. I want to be the most effective musical communicator of social justice I can be. I want to become a better songwriter and become more able to touch more people." And then he goes on stage, barefoot and ready to speak to the hearts of an entire concert hall.
The best five CDs by Michael Franti
Everyone Deserves Music (2003): pleasant and surprising mix of musical styles
Songs From the Front Porch (2003): acoustic tunes to chill by
Stay Human (2001): a rocking indictment of the death penalty
Live at the Baobab (2000): a recording of acoustic music and spoken word, akin to standup comedy
Chocolate Supa Highway (1997): mix of good hip-hop, soul and r&b
For more information: http://www.spearheadvibrations.com/.