Taken from SFGate.com (Sep 7, 2006)
Michael Franti got his guitar, then headed to Iraq.
Any requests for anti-war music?
by Aidin Vaziri,
Chronicle Pop Music Critic
No one can accuse Michael Franti of armchair activism.
When U.S. and British troops invaded Iraq three years ago, lots of musicians spoke out with songs, letters and freshly peeled bumper stickers. But the lead singer of the Bay Area soul-funk group Spearhead handled the situation in his own typical way. He turned off CNN, grabbed a guitar and started pricing tickets to Baghdad.
"I knew I wasn't getting the whole truth on TV," he says. "I wanted to see with my own eyes what was going on there."
Although the members of his own band didn't expect anything less, they were too afraid to join him on the trip. Other musicians he called not only turned him down but tried to talk him out of going as well.
It didn't work. In May 2004, Franti rounded up three video cameras and a ragtag eight-person crew, and made the journey to Iraq via Jordan. After some mild confusion at the customs desk, he was welcomed into the country as a tourist.
"I didn't feel like a tourist at all," laughs Franti, 39, who spent most of his time in Baghdad busking in the streets and chatting with locals. But that didn't mean he wasn't curious. His main mission was to see how people made it through their daily lives -- without electricity or drinking water, and car bombs constantly going off around the corner. "It's so incredibly dangerous, I was interested in seeing how kids get to school, how adults get to their jobs," he says.
Since he was in the neighborhood anyway, the songwriter also decided to stop by other Middle East hotspots in Israel and the Palestinian territories to see what was going on there. The entire trip is documented in the new film and book, "I Know I'm Not Alone," while Franti's experiences find their way into the music on Spearhead's latest album, "Yell Fire!"
He had to edit hours and hours of footage down to just 90 minutes. "I know it's a narrow perspective but the more perspectives people see, the more rounded the picture becomes," he says of the results.
Franti's trip to Baghdad was not part of some USO-sanctioned tour, wherein he held hands with Jessica Simpson and was cocooned from the realities of the war. He didn't even tell the U.S. government he was going to be there and frequently wandered out of the safety of the green zone to stroll on the unruly city streets armed only with his beat-up old acoustic guitar.
"I was the first American most people in Iraq had met that wasn't carrying an M16," Franti says.
What surprised him most was the lukewarm reaction from the locals he got to the first song he played, "Bomb the World," an anti-war tune that includes the lyrics, "We can bomb the world to pieces / But we can't bomb it into peace."
"People told me afterward that they didn't want to hear songs protesting the war," Franti says. "They wanted to hear songs to make them laugh, dance and get on with their lives." It's no coincidence that Lionel Richie is the most popular pop star in Baghdad.
Franti also saw the fruits of American-imposed democracy firsthand, dropping by the country's first tattoo parlor and its first independent radio station, Rock Iraq. Alternately, he tried out "Bomb the World" on U.S. troops, serenading them with song in the Baghdad Sheraton hotel bar.
"They didn't know what to think," Franti says. "They thought I had balls. They really opened up to me. When you talk to these soldiers, you realize these are kids that could have come to my shows. Things aren't as black and white as they seem."
What's odd is that despite everything he saw, the reggae-inflected music on "Yell Fire!" -- mostly recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, with Sly & Robbie, sounds strangely soothing, with lyrics offering only mild one-liners like, "Those who start wars never fight them/ And those who fight wars never like them."
Did he water down his message on purpose?
"I guess I took my cues from people on the street in Baghdad," he says. "I didn't want to make depressing music."
It's not as if Franti is a stranger to shaking things up. Having moved to San Francisco in 1984, the towering Hunters Point resident first made his mark as a member of the Beatnigs and then later in the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, the potent early '90s rap duo that updated Gil Scott-Heron's biting political indictments during the first Gulf War and toured the world with U2.
Since then, the immensely likable Franti has grown into a granola crunching, yoga loving, barefoot-walking gentle giant. Each year, the father of two organizes the Power to the Peaceful festival in Golden Gate Park, which takes place again on Saturday.
The event, which mixes live speakers with music, was started on Sept. 11, 1999, as a way to show support for death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, but its focus shifted dramatically after the terrorist attacks in 2001. Now, Franti says, it's an all-encompassing appeal for humanity -- a day to call an end to all bombing around the world, be it civilian, military or environmental.
"I'm not an idealist," Franti says. "I know we're not going to be living in a world that's peace and love all the time. But we can live in a world where we kill each other a lot less."
Power to the Peaceful Festival: Michael Franti and Spearhead, Blackalicious, New Monsoon, Los Mocosos, Sila and the Afrofunk Experience, plus others. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. Speedway Meadow, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Free. http://www.powertothepeaceful.org/.
E-mail Aidin Vaziri at email@example.com.