Taken from The Daily Yomiuri (Sep 30, 2006)
Franti: You have to be for something
by James Hardy / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
In June 2004, Michael Franti put his mouth where America's money is going. The singer and activist--although he disputes both tags--spent a month in the Middle East, visiting Iraq, Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Not many musicians have done that, but then again, Michael Franti is not really like other musicians.
"I played music on the streets for people," Franti said down the line from his home in San Francisco earlier this month. "I just brought my guitar and a video camera, and some friends. And small crowds of people would gather to listen to me play, and I would turn on the video camera and ask them to tell about their lives and they would take me to their homes and show me where they hid during the bombings."
If this all sounds like the actions of a professional "protest singer," Franti has learned that proselytizing can alienate those you want to get through to. He knows that coming across as an uncompromising idealist who rants at the audience is the quickest way to having no audience at all.
This revelation came to him in the late 1990s. While it seems everyone else in the music industry that decade were shagging supermodels, developing bling theory or trying to top the Flower Power generation's consumption of mind-altering substances, Franti was taking on the prison industry.
Franti had been a raging member of Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, a hip-hop outfit that rode in the wake of Public Enemy and NWA in energizing fans and enraging conservatives with an aggressive message that fell outside the remit of the conventional political process. But when he took his righteous indignation into prisons, he found people that were not in need of getting any angrier--they were plenty angry already.
"When I came out, I was like, 'I might not be able to change the prison industry overnight, but I can play songs for these guys who are dealing with unjust circumstances. And what these guys want to hear are not angry songs about the prison industry--they might just want to hear songs about how much they miss their girlfriends.'"
After years of raising his voice against things, Franti realized "there comes a point where you have to be for something."
This change of approach and philosophy--that "in music, I want to express more than anger," leads directly to his current projects. And just as the antiwar movement in the United States begins to make a difference to the public perception of the war, comes a movie based on his footage--"just one ribbon of an experience"--called I Know I'm Not Alone, accompanied by a set of songs on an album called Yell Fire!
The trip was a response to "watching politicians and generals talking every night about the economic cost and the political cost of war without ever mentioning the human cost."
While he doesn't deny the horrific--"children in hospital who are missing legs, or visiting families who lived in their basements for weeks on end without food or water"--Franti also draws attention to "the subtle things."
"I went to visit a heavy metal band called the Black Scorpions, who rehearsed in a basement. They didn't have any electricity, so they used a generator in the basement with them.
"So they had to play these broken down amplifiers over the roar of the generator. And they have to sing over the choke of the exhaust. And then when they break a string, they have to use bits of telephone wire.
"Oftentimes we forget when we think of war, or ask as a nation, 'Should we go?', we forget that after the initial bomb blast, people take decades, generations just to put their lives back together."
But while fans love Franti and his band, Spearhead, for their music and their message, critics parody him as a dreadlocked, barefoot, vegetarian who organizes peace concerts in Golden Gate Park. For them, he's an antiwar cheerleader and his protest songs are all a bit Joan Baez, Hanoi Jane and "We shall overcome."
How to overcome the perception he is a mouthpiece for the left--America's liberal agitprop commander-in-chief--is something Franti still has trouble dealing with.
"It is a problem. That's why we tour, and that is why we put on the best live show that we can and make the shows fun.
Cutting out the "lengthy speeches on stage," Franti aims to "just let the songs speak for themselves."
"And also, when I made an album about this experience, I didn't just write 14 angry songs telling the president to f--k off... which I could have easily done. Instead I wrote songs about hope, and faith, and connections with people and songs that you can also dance to."
If it sounds like he has learned the lessons from the '90s all over again, that is because it "came to me from the experience of being on the ground in Baghdad and people saying to me, 'We don't want to hear songs about war, we want hear songs that make us laugh and dance and clap our hands, and sometimes cry.'"
Yell Fire! certainly can do that. For some, its blend of AOR, hip-hop, reggae and funk will be the aural equivalent of a curate's egg. But for others, tracks like "Bonjour Hello"--a multilingual paean to internationalism--will very much whet the appetite for Franti's live show as will the dub-tinged "Time to go home," an inspiring Peter Tosh-style call to arms that could start a revolution with the right--or wrong--crowd.
Franti, who brings Spearhead to Japan on Wednesday, promises "a funky party of hip hop, reggae, funk, music from all around the world. Our experience in Japan has been that when people come to see the live show, they go away having had a great time."
All well and fine. But on top of being the musician and showman, doesn't being a voice of conscience get really depressing? Isn't it hard to keep things upbeat when our 24-hour media-infused world means you can never escape from bad news.
"Some days I feel frustrated and down," Franti admits. "But I feel incredibly grateful living in a country where I don't have to worry about where my next meal's coming from, or if a rocket is going to smash through my roof. And part of the way I can express that gratitude is by speaking up for others who don't have that."
"I'm hopeful for the future," he says. "I just hope it gets here fast. I'm not an idealist though. I don't we'll ever live in a world where we're gonna love each other all the time, and live in peace and harmony all the time...I do believe, however, that we can live in a world where we kill each other a lot less of the time."
Michael Franti and Spearhead will play Oct. 4, 7 p.m. at Club Quattro in Shinsaibashi, Osaka, (06) 6535-5569; Oct. 5, 7 p.m. at Liquid Room in Ebisu, Tokyo, (03) 3444-6751. "Yell Fire!" is out now on Sony Music Japan.