Taken from PulseTC.com (Oct 27, 2006)
Michael Franti's travelin' blues
by LYDIA HOWELL
"I was the first American they'd ever met who wasn't holding an M16," says Michael Franti, lead singer/songwriter of Spearhead, of the Iraqis he met in a summer 2004 trip to the Middle East. "I came holding a guitar with a gift of music, so they treated me differently and wanted their stories to be heard."
That journey resulted in the new Spearhead CD, Yell Fire!, and a film, "I Know I'm Not Alone."
Franti's deep appreciation for narrative comes from his grandmother, "an excellent storyteller," but she's only the first in a long line of influences.
"Slick Rick is a favorite for his ability to twist a tale. Chuck D's a strong influence in my life," he says. "Beyond hip-hop, I love Bob Marley and Linton Kwesi Johnson, the great dub poet. John Lennon. Willie Nelson. Woody Guthrie. Johnny Cash. All great storytellers. That's what I'm trying to do."
Franti's twenty-year career in music began with The Beatnigs, who sampled Malcom X speeches and merged hip-hop and industrial. He's countered corporate rap, from The Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy in the early '90s to the ever-expanding musical horizons of his group Spearhead, whose influences have spanned Marvin Gaye/Curtis Mayfield liberation soul to the eclectic influences he mentioned above.
"In the early 1990s, gangsta rap-NWA selling three or four million CDs WITHOUT airplay- the major labels saw that and said, 'People want to live that vicarious lifestyle.' When hip-hop extended from the 'hood to the middle class, it was sales driven. That's why all the music videos have women, cars, money. It's people saying, 'This could be me, living the ultimate party,'" says Franti. As a vegetarian who's gone barefoot since 2000 and has taken on AIDS, poverty, capital punishment and war in his music, he quietly challenges his fellow artists to step up their game.
"It's my personal request to all artists that at some point you speak to what's going on in the world. Even if you're writing party music, it's nice to plant seeds," he says. "What makes Tupac and Biggie great is they dropped those pearls every once in a while."
Disposable Heroes' 1992 album, Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, included a seven-minute piece about the first war on Iraq that reads remarkably true today with regards to the current U.S. occupation. Since that time, he's drawn more on personal and spiritual universality when addressing politics, beginning with Spearhead's Stay Human in 2001.
His personal and political journey brought him to Iraq. At the Baghdad airport, Franti saw still-burning cars from a roadside bombing. His Iraqi driver knocked the camera from his hand, warning that to film U.S. military operation would result in soldiers opening fire on them.
"I got tired of watching the news every night with generals and politicians talking about the economic costs of war WITHOUT mentioning the human crisis there. Rather than sit around frustrated, I picked up a guitar and a camera, flew to Baghdad and played music on the street," he says, describing his film's genesis. "When people listened, I turned on the camera and said 'Talk to me about your life.'"
Invited into Iraqi homes, hospitals, the first independent radio station, hanging out with Iraqi musicians who play traditional music, hip hop or metal, Franti's film reveals the human beings CNN reduces to "insurgents" or "collateral damage." Yell Fire! includes songs from the film, recreating these connections. Franti also got an undeniable sense of Iraqis' attitude about the U.S. occupation.
"[The idea that is] most MIS-represented in U.S. media is that a handful of 'insurgents' and 'terrorists' hate the American way of life. Fact is, all the violence is resistance to the occupation. Iraqis want Americans OUT. They want their own nation, their own democracy," he says, growing more adamant. "It's said, 'If we leave, what will we leave them with?' Iraqis are capable. Baghdad is the birthplace of civilization: Mesopatamia, 10,000 years ago, was the first civilization on this planet."
Franti underscores that "liberating the Iraqis" was never the aim of Bush's invasion; control of resources in Iraq and the Middle East was.
"Those who think the killing is wrong, we need to be very, very vocal. Not only in the streets, but in our vote."
Franti also played for American soldiers-"the hardest show I've ever done." While they were split on the reasons for invading Iraq, all of them wanted to come home.
Also visiting Israel and Palestine, Franti searched out peacemakers on both sides, showing realities few Americans are aware of.
"Traveling through Israel is First World-shopping malls, restaurants. Then, the West Bank is the so-called Third World. People live on less than $2 a day. They've lived under occupation for three or four generations, living with the presence of the Israeli army every day. A divided nation, two worlds there," Franti says. "On one side, Israelis fear that when they go to a movie or mall, they're going to be killed ... Palestinians, oppressed people living under occupation take up armed struggle against a massive army-Israel is the fourth largest military-with bombs built in their basements. I believe suicide bombings have hurt the Palestinian cause. At the same time, occupation is doing more to bring anger against Israel than to provide safety. I want ALL the violence to stop ... Like with South Africa ... or Northern Ireland."
Franti gained a fresh perspective on Americans, too.
"It's unbelievable what's happened since 9/11-this neo-conservative cult taking over, Patriot Acts and now, approval of torture. There are so many issues Americans need to think about. Millions ARE thinking about these things. Millions want to go in a different direction," he concludes. "Now is our time. Power to the peaceful!" ||