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Taken from The Observer (July 16, 2006)

Guitar solo in Baghdad

Rap star goes fact-finding on the streets of Iraq

by Alice O'Keeffe

Michael FrantiOn the night before the US-British attack on Iraq in March 2003, Michael Franti, social activist and lead singer of the group Spearhead, was on his tour bus. 'I started imagining what Iraqi fathers were saying to their children,' he remembers, 'and what I would tell my sons if we were about to be bombed.'

This thought soon escalated into an extraordinary journey to the heart of the Middle East. In the summer of 2004 Franti took his guitar, three cameras and a small crew, and travelled to Iraq, Israel and the West Bank. 'I can't believe how easy it was. All I had to do was book a plane ticket,' he says.

While many journalists are confined to Baghdad's protected green zone, Franti strolled the city's chaotic streets armed only with his guitar, chatting and playing to whoever would listen. 'I wasn't interested in talking to politicians, or getting a news story,' he says. 'I wanted to connect with everyday people. Sure, some places were very dangerous, but in most areas, if you walk down the street in plain clothes, smile and show people affection, you'll get a positive response.'

The result is a remarkable film, I Know I'm Not Alone, which exposes how marginalised the voices of ordinary Iraqis have become. The characters he meets are eloquent on the grim realities of war: the Christian family forced to hide in their basement for 11 days; the writer whose fingers have been blown off; the teenage rock band venting their frustrations by playing death metal at ear-splitting volume.

Franti also visits Baghdad's first tattoo parlour and the country's first independent radio station, Rock Iraq. But these are tiny steps towards freedom, and no one he meets has any faith in the occupying forces. 'Expect to be attacked at any time,' Franti's driver warns him. 'This is the new freedom the outside world has brought us.'

He was surprised to find himself sympathising with the soldiers he met. 'I went out there thinking of them as oppressors, but they're just teenagers scared to be there,' he says. He has been touring the US with the film, doing Q&A sessions after each screening. 'It was amazing to see its effect on Americans who had never heard an Iraqi civilian,' he says.

He based his latest album, Yell Fire!, on his experiences. 'We have a tendency to belittle our impact on the world,' he says. 'This trip showed me I can have an effect. It reaffirmed my faith in music.'

I Know I'm Not Alone and Yell Fire! are released on 24 July. Alice O'Keeffe is arts editor of the New Statesman


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