Taken from Time Off (Sep 13, 2006)
The peaceful warrior
by Steve Bell
Over the course of his two decades in the music industry, Michael Franti has blossomed from an angry, polemic young dissenter into a peaceful campaigner for a multitude of causes, primarily those relating to social justice, human rights and the environment.
In the years since he formed The Beatnigs in 1986, Franti has championed numerous movements and been unrelenting in his capacity to seek change in all facets of our existence, not just through his music, but through his actions.
From an environmental perspective, Franti has undertaken many initiatives, such as accepting a place on the Board of Advisors for Rock The Earth, an organization campaigning to ‘ensure the existence of a sustainable and healthy environment for all’. A staunch family man, he is keen to ensure that the planet is left in as pristine a state as possible for future generations.
“I’ve always tried to grow as a storyteller,” he explains. “We live within a culture that is constantly trying to put the interest of the corporations over those of people and the planet.
“Everyone on the planet is living with lots of fear. But a good question to ask ourselves - and I speak specifically about the American people, but in a broad sense about the West in general - is what kind of world are we creating? Do we want to be viewed as benevolent and promote peace, or do we want to be feared and seen as a military threat that ignores the rest of the world in terms of the environment?
“I was raised in a family that I didn’t fit in to, really, so that gave me a different perspective. I’ve always identified with the underdog and people whose voices weren’t being heard. Not feeling comfortable with my family also gave me a different perspective on family. So, for me, family is not just the people we’re related to by blood - they’re the people who’ve come into your life and stayed in your life. By living with them and learning from them, we feel a connection to them.
“Then it extends beyond that to community, and beyond that to this planet. So as a person, that’s what I’ve wanted to do - define my family as the planet as a whole and try to connect with it, as much as I can.”
Despite his obvious affinity with our environment, in recent times Franti’s focus has been on more humanitarian concerns. He recently undertook an ambitious thematic trilogy compromising his new album Yell Fire! (with his current outfit Spearhead) and a film and book both entitled I Know I’m Not Alone - all stemming from his recent travels to Iraq, Palestine and Israel to examine first-hand the human cost of war.
“Using different formats to spread the message of peace will hopefully help fuel the message,” Franti says of his recent escapades. “Especially with the album and the film - there’s not a lot of people who do both things, so that kind of helped get some attention for it. But it’s risky as well. I felt at a certain point ‘Man, if this movie fails or this album’s not very good - I’m going to be in a heap of trouble. People are really going to talk shit about me’.
“Really what happened is that they inspired each other. So when I was editing footage for the movie my editing suite was upstairs and the recording studio is downstairs, so I’d watch some footage and I’d have some emotion come up and I’d say ‘Oh man, I’ve gotta write a tune for this!’, and I’d go downstairs and record the song and bring it upstairs and put it right into the movie. So they really happened together. At the end of it I was like ‘Well, we’ll put the songs on this bit of plastic and we’ll put the movie on this bit of plastic’, but they’re really both part of the same thing.”
From a musical perspective, songs with a message will have little impact if the accompanying music or the song itself is not up-to-scratch. Yell Fire! is imbued with many such positive and affirming messages, and fortunately these are delivered amid an optimistic and upbeat array of musical styles that certainly don’t reflect the seriousness of the issues that they convey.
“My first day in Baghdad, I started singing songs for people on the street,” Franti continues, “and I was singing these anti-war songs like ‘Bomb The World’ which says ‘We can bomb the world to pieces, but we can’t bomb it into
“And I remember afterwards these people saying to me ‘We really appreciate the sentiments of your song, but can you play us something that’s going to make us laugh? Play something that’s going to make us dance or smile or cry or do anything but remind us of this war that we’re in’.
“So I spent most of the time writing the record trying to make upbeat songs - songs that would help people pull through situations that are difficult. And right now - whether we’re living in war or living in some place like Australia and watching the problems of the world on TV - it’s still a stressful time for both of us.”
Franti is at the forefront of a growing group of musicians - especially in the United States - who are using their music as a vehicle to spread messages of peace and protest against the war in the Middle East.
“I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from groups like Midnight Oil and U2 and Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye,” he admits. “At the end of the day people want to rock out, and people want to feel stuff emotionally that they don’t feel anywhere else in their life. And that’s when music is at its best. I don’t think for a second that music is the best way to deliver such an important message, but I do feel like music is one of the best ways to inspire people going on with whatever message they find in their life.
“When the Vietnam War started in the early 60s, there were no such songs being written. It wasn’t until the late 60s and early 70s - ten years later - that people really started to speak out musically against the war. And I see parallels with that happening today in America, when you have groups like the Dixie Chicks and Pink - these, sort of, mainstream artists - who are all beginning to really speak out and change the culture. Change is imperative - and at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter how that’s brought about, as long as it actually happens and we all do our bit.”
Michael Franti plays The Tivoli Sunday Sep 24.Yell Fire!out through Liberation.