Taken from Sydney Morning Herald (Sep 20, 2006)
Michael Franti & Spearhead - Gig Reviews - Music - Entertainment
It's all very well to sing anti-war songs - but in Baghdad? To American soldiers?
by Dorian Lynskey
Franti takes it to the streets - of Baghdad.
When Michael Franti told his family 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 crew of eight, 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. Franti 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 spawned a 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.
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 San Francisco's Cafe Gratitude; as the name suggests, the cafe harks back to an era when visitors to the city were advised to wear flowers in their hair.
Franti has lived in San Francisco since 1984, when he came to play basketball at college (at 1.95 metres, he's practically the tallest man in pop). On the surface, he fits the greenie 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 likeable.
Franti lives with his partner and seven-year-old son, Ade, in 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."'
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.
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 densely political. They joined U2's Zoo TV tour in 1992.
"I almost felt like being on that tour was selling out," Franti says. "I hardly knew U2's music at all. I'm talking to the guitar player a whole bunch of times, and finally someone from their crew comes up and says, '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.
As Franti's songwriting has become more accessible, America has become more willing to listen. Spearhead's new single, I Am Not Alone, has had more airplay than the rest of their output combined. He thinks the US Government's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina tipped the scales: "That really changed the attitude of the country overnight." Now he can even play sold-out shows in America's conservative heartland.
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 learnt 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."