Taken from The Guardian (July 26, 2006)
'The troops thought: this guy's got balls'
It's all very well to sing anti-war songs in California - but in Baghdad? To American soldiers? Michael Franti tells Dorian Lynskey why he took the risk
by Dorian Lynskey
'I'm comfortable pretty
much everywhere I go' ...
Photograph: Garry Weaser
When Michael Franti told his family that he wanted to visit Iraq, they were understandably less than thrilled. When he approached the other members of his band Spearhead, they said thanks but no thanks. When he called up a dozen different musicians, they not only declined but actively discouraged him. Eventually, in May 2004, he assembled a motley eight-strong crew, including his manager, a hairdresser and a sexagenarian peace activist. Then, a few weeks before they were due to fly out, American businessman Nicholas Berg was beheaded in Baghdad.
Remembering it now, Franti laughs, his dreadlocks quivering. "I was thinking, 'Great, the last image my family's going to see of me is on the internet, with my head rolling along the floor.'"He went anyway. Franti, 39, has been a political songwriter for 20 years - in the early 1990s he formed the critically lauded Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy - and decided that if he was going to sing about Iraq he really should see it for himself. He knew even less about Israel and Palestine so he went there too. His travels have now spawned a new Spearhead album, Yell Fire!, and his first documentary, I Know I'm Not Alone. Among the glowing endorsements adorning the DVD box, the one from Anthony Minghella stands out: "Watch this film then insist that Michael Franti becomes president of the United States."
Franti says the idea came to him on the eve of the US bombardment of Baghdad. He was angry and depressed. "I thought, 'OK, well, how am I going to get over the depression of watching the news?' So I got rid of my cable and said, 'I'm going to go to Iraq.'"
The surprising thing, he says, was how easy it was to enter the country. No visas, no permission from the US government. All you have to do is fly to Jordan and buy a $200 plane ticket to Baghdad. At immigration, they asked if he had any guns - they didn't want to confiscate them, they just wanted to know. When the officials asked the purpose of his visit, he told them he wanted to play his guitar in the streets. They pored over their book of immigration codes for a while before deciding to classify him as a tourist.
The hard part came once his group had left the airport. "I felt every second that I was there like something would happen," he says in his gentle baritone. "The only time I didn't feel afraid was when I was playing music because suddenly everyone was happy. So I would play music as much as I could."
As he says this, the boiling chaos of Baghdad seems impossibly far away. We're sitting in Cafe Gratitude, in San Francisco's Mission district. As the name suggest, the cafe harks back to an era when visitors to the city were advised to wear flowers in their hair. It serves only raw vegan dishes, called things like I Am Tranquil and I Am Lusciously Awake, and the beaming waitress who takes our orders asks: "Are you having a wonderful experience today?"
You couldn't imagine a place more likely to make a hard-nosed republican roll his eyes at those liberal kooks on the west coast. The Bay area is famed for its progressive politics - Berkeley is practically a byword for American liberalism - and Franti has lived in San Francisco since 1984, when he came to play basketball at college (at 6ft 6in, he's practically the tallest man in pop). On the surface, he fits the cliche. He drives a hybrid car, does yoga every day, walks barefoot ("I'm comfortable pretty much everywhere I go but every day I step on something that hurts") and every year hosts the Power to the Peaceful festival in the city's Golden Gate Park. Such relentless virtue might become cloying, were Franti not so damn likable. He's funny, humble and honest: in celebrity activist terms, more George Clooney than Tim Robbins.
Franti lives with his partner and seven-year-old son, Ade, in Hunters Point, a run-down area that accounts for one of every five murders in San Francisco. "I remember saying at times, 'God, where I live is a war zone!'" he says. "And then you go to a war zone and think: 'Where I live is nothing.'"
When he first arrived in Iraq, he couldn't imagine any outcome except bloody civil war and eventual partition. However, talking to the residents, he acquired a powerful belief in a peaceful solution. "But each day the occupation goes on, people move further and further away from the idea of democracy. It's not like the war happened and it's over. Soldiers are shooting people every day, they're breaking into people's homes every day, and that's where the anger comes from."
At one point, Franti played to US troops in the Baghdad Sheraton hotel bar. Did they know his politics? "Well, I come in with a wooden folk guitar and I'm not wearing cowboy boots and I'm not with the USO, so they had me sized up." With some trepidation, he played them his anti-war song Bomb the World. "I thought, 'I can't sing songs about the war to people who agree with me and then not sing them to the people making the war.'" And how did they react? "Like, 'This guy's got balls coming in here and singing this song.'"
When he performed the same song to an Iraqi family, the reaction was somewhat different. "I went into the living room and sang Bomb the World and started to cry a little bit. And this family's looking at me like, 'Why the fuck are you crying? We've been crying here for years. You've come all this way, man. Now play something to pick up our spirits!'"
That moment helped inform the lyrics of Yell Fire!, which splits the difference between rock, rap, soul and reggae. Although a couple of songs take explicit pot-shots at the Bush administration, most are more oblique and optimistic: We Shall Overcome rather than Fight the Power. The most powerful scenes in the documentary are those that bring together opposing sides: US troops and Iraqi DJs at a Baghdad radio station, Palestinian farmers debating with Israeli soldiers. The message - that compromise and dialogue are preferable to polarisation and conflict - is hardly novel but it merits repeating.
Franti thinks he was politicised by circumstance. Given up for adoption by his white mother ("her dad was kind of racist"), he was raised by second- generation Finns in Davis, California, a place where "white kids didn't hesitate to call me a nigger". That's how he came to appreciate the power of words. "My parents said sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you. But I always felt a sense of exhilaration after a fight; it was the names that really hurt me. So I found that expression to be bullshit."
He called his first band the Beatnigs, "to strip that name of its hateful power". They were angry, avant-garde, at war with everything they had grown up with. In 1991, came the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, whose first and only album was the most densely political record hip-hop had yet produced. On a song like Television, the Drug of the Nation, Franti sounded like a post-MTV Gil Scott-Heron. "We had CNN on in the studio and I was writing shit straight off the TV. I was so angry that [the first Gulf war] was happening, and so that record became a reaction to television and media."
Aptly, they joined U2's Zoo TV tour in 1992. "I almost felt like being on that tour was selling out. I hardly knew U2's music at all. I'm talking to the guitar player a whole bunch of times, and then finally someone from their crew comes up and says, 'Hey, Michael. You know the guitar player? His name is the Edge. Not Ed.'"
He soon got tired of playing the part of an irate firebrand every night. Worse, he felt that he was neglecting his son from a previous relationship, Cappy, now 19. The last song he wrote for the album, Music and Politics, became a kind of epitaph for the group, with the lines: "If ever I would stop thinking about music and politics/ I would tell you that the personal revolution is far more difficult."
As Franti's songwriting has become more accessible (also, perhaps inevitably, more simplistic), America has become more willing to listen. His lyrics were recently printed in USA Today and Spearhead's new single, I Am Not Alone, has garnered more airplay than the rest of their output combined. He thinks the government's mishandling of hurricane Katrina tipped the scales: "That really changed the attitude of the country overnight." Also, he points out, war had been raging in Vietnam for years before the 1960s protest song boom occurred; these things take time. Now he can even play sold-out shows in America's conservative heartland, something that was unthinkable a few years ago.
Lately, he's been reading a biography of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. "There's this great quote which says you can either play music for the people or to the people." He reckons he's finally learned how to do the former. "I don't know if music can change the world overnight but I know that music can help someone make it through a difficult night".
· Yell Fire! is out now on Anti. The DVD I Know I'm Not Alone is out now on Epitaph.