Taken from Tavis Smiley (July 26, 2006)
The Tavis Smiley Show
Tavis: Take care. Up next on this program, (laughs) musician Michael Franti. A new CD out called “Yell Fire,” and a new documentary about his travels to some of the world’s most dangerous war zones. A conversation with Michael Franti in just a moment. Stay with us.
Michael Franti is a talented musician who’s marking his twentieth year in the
music business in 2006. His latest CD, “Yell Fire,” that’s right, you heard me
right, “Yell Fire,” is receiving some terrific reviews. In stores this week, it
is. He’s also the producer of a new documentary about his travels to war zones
like Iraq and the Palestinian territories. The film is called “I Know I'm Not
Alone.” Also out this week. Here now, a scene from “I Know I'm Not Alone.”
Tavis: Michael, as always, nice to see you, man.
Michael Franti: It’s good to see you.
Tavis: You been all right, man?
Franti: Yeah, I've been great, yeah.
Tavis: Wonderful. I'd better start with the obvious here, because for those who’ve seen Michael on our show before, or know his work, for your fans of his you know that Michael Franti is always shoeless. Not because he can’t afford shoes, but because he chooses not to wear shoes. So you should explain that before somebody gets, (laughs) if somebody’s watching for the next 15 minutes like, when he gonna ask him why he ain’t got no shoes on? So let me start with that.
Franti: Well, it was six years ago I went, I was down in New Zealand, and I was in the jungle, and I was staying with some traditional Maoris, who don’t wear shoes in the jungle. I took off my shoes, and I couldn’t even walk three steps without my feet hurting. So I said, I'm gonna try this. I'm gonna try and just do like a fast of not wearing shoes for three days in San Francisco, where I live.
And it just went on for three days to now six years. And you learn a lot of things. You learn where to step, where not to step, you learn to walk gently on the Earth. I don’t do it out of any form of protest, so if somebody asks me to wear flip-flops to go into a restaurant or onto an airplane, I do that. But it kind of has just been a learning experience of staying in touch with the planet.
Tavis: What kind of conversation starter is it? It started this conversation, and I assume, though, more expressly, that it starts conversations all around the world in your travels.
Franti: It does, and it’s funny, the different cultural perceptions about feet. In our society, feet are often looked at as ugly things. Other cultures, like if you go to places in Asia, you go into a federal building, you have to take off your shoes. Or you go into a restaurant, you have to take off your shoes. So, it does start interesting conversations, and like I said, I don’t do it out of any form of trying to convince other people, or protest anything. I just do it for me.
Tavis: Well, now we got the feet thing covered. Both of these projects, I think, warrant and deserve explanations where the titles are concerned.
Franti: Mm hmm, yeah.
Tavis: Let me start with the CD, your new CD, Michael Franti and Spearhead, “Yell Fire.” Now, you know that’s the one thing, obviously, we are told never to do. You do not yell fire in a crowded theater.
Franti: That’s right, that’s right.
Tavis: But you called the CD “Yell Fire” anyway.
Franti: Yeah. Right now is a time when there’s so much happening in the world, so many things that appear crazy to us, right now the war, and raging in southern Lebanon, the war in Iraq, environmental chaos, Hurricane Katrina, the government’s ineffectiveness in dealing with a lot of things. And I really feel like it’s a time now when rather than sitting back passively and bemoaning things, we need to stand up and say, yes, there is this fire that’s raging. And I'm gonna speak up and try to alert others, and try to do whatever I can within my own means to try to help.
Tavis: Musically and lyrically, how does that factor into what you decided to put on the CD?
Franti: Well it’s interesting, because this CD comes out of my experience of going to Baghdad and throughout the Israel and occupied Palestinian territories. And while I was there, I played music on the street for people. And what was interesting is I thought that people would say, "Yeah, let’s hear the song speaking out against war." But people would come up to me and say, sing us songs that make us feel up.
Sing us songs that make us feel inspired and make us dance, make us laugh, or make us cry. But we don’t wanna hear about the war. And so when I came back, I started editing these couple hundred hours of footage, and a lot of emotions would come up for me. And so I'd pick up my guitar and I'd write about it. And so the result is these 14 songs on this album.
But they're not protest songs. There’s a few that speak out against the war or whatever, but mainly they're songs about connection to people. Connection to people on the street, to people who are enduring difficult times. And that’s also kind of what the title of the film is, which is “I Know I'm Not Alone.” I know I'm not the only person on this planet who believes that just perhaps, maybe the human interest, the natural interest, and the spiritual interests of this planet should have some say within the corporate, the military, and the materialistic interests of this planet.
Tavis: (unintelligible) Americans watching right now, and respectfully, a lot of folk with good sense (laughs) who know better than to rush to a region of the world where there’s a bunch of drama jumping off. But you were drawn to that drama, or to that locale, for a particular set of reasons, I presume.
Franti: Mm hmm. Yeah, I had just grown frustrated. I didn't want to sit at home and watch the TV anymore and feel like I'm gonna throw, (laughs) I don’t have a shoe to throw at it, but I'll throw something at it.
Tavis: (Laughs) Throw my flip-flop at this, yeah.
Franti: Throw my flip-flop at the TV.
Franti: So, I realized that in order to get over this, I needed to do something actively. And so, I read this book by a man named William Pepper that was about – he was a photojournalist during the Vietnam War. And he wrote this book called “An Act of State,” which is about the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Tavis: Dr. King, sure.
Franti: And he said that when he showed his images of the war to Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King said, I can no longer remain silent. And Martin’s advisors were, like, we’ve done so much for the Civil Rights movement, don’t bring this war thing in, we’re gonna lose all our support. He said no, I have to speak out against the war. And one year from the date that he first spoke out against the war was the day that he was assassinated.
And that told me something. It said to me that these images are so important that they will move people’s hearts to do great things, to take great risk, to speak out. But in that speaking out, there’s also so much - those things that he was saying are so important that he maybe lost his life for them. And so I said, I wanna go there, and I wanna see for myself. Not what generals are saying, or politicians are saying. But I wanna see what it’s like for a taxi driver.
I wanna know what it’s like for a kid who’s a soldier working at a checkpoint. I wanna know what it’s like for a heavy metal band in Baghdad, or a kid who’s lost his legs in a hospital. I wanna know about the human cost of war. And I think ultimately, that is what turns public support against war. When they can see people who they identify with, who are enduring great suffering.
Tavis: Did you expect that when you started your musical journey, I mentioned earlier that you're celebrating now 20 years in the game, as we say. Twenty years ago, two decades ago, when you started this musical journey, did you expect that it would take you here, into this kind of weaving your work and your mission, that is to say your music and this kind of experience?
Franti: Well, I'd always written political songs, from the beginning. But my first songs were really angry. They were, like, cursing the system, because of the ineffectiveness of it. But what I soon discovered was that rather than write a song about how much I hate the government 'cause they're building more prisons and not schools, I could go into the prisons and I could play music for prisoners.
I could go in there and I could talk to the guards about their experience. I could go in and sit down with the warden and say, “Hey, here’s some of the things that the prisoners told me. Maybe you could…” And in some way, I could have a little bit of effect. And then that changed me, as a person. Instead of having to write an angry song, I could write a song that was about endurance and faith, and go into the prison and sing that song about endurance and faith. And so that’s how this journey has taken me to all the different places that I've been to.
Tavis: Is it your hope, finally, then, that when you put out a CD like this, or a documentary like this, what’s the goal here? To share what you need to share, for whatever reasons you need to share it, or to try to change folk as a result of what you are sharing?
Franti: I think both. I think any songwriter, any artist, picks up a guitar or a pen because they got something on their chest that they gotta let out. So in some ways, this is a catharsis. But in other ways, I really want people to think. I really want people to think about when we condone our government going to war, what is war doing to the people? We hear about how much war costs, we hear about the political effects of war.
But we don’t often see what war does to a family who, like in southern Lebanon today, 700,000 people have had to leave their homes. And we sit back and say, oh, we’re not gonna call for a ceasefire. In northern Israel, people are having rockets fired at them and are wondering every night, is a rocket gonna fall on my house? But we still haven’t called for a ceasefire.
This is diabolically wrong and immoral. And so, I want people to be able to think about these things. I want people to see it with their own eyes. And I want people to come up with their own conclusions.
Tavis: Michael Franti is one of those rare artists these days who unapologetically leads with his heart, and I think that we are all the better for it. The new CD from Michael Franti is “Yell Fire.” Michael Franti and his band, Spearhead. And the new documentary from Michael Franti, a musician’s journey through war in the Middle East, is called “I Know I'm Not Alone.” And Michael, nice to see you, as always.
Franti: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Glad to have you here, man.
Franti: You too.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Catch me on the weekends on PRI, Public Radio International. Check your local listings, and I'll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from Los Angeles, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.