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Taken from PRI's The World (Nov 01, 2006)

Interview with Michael Franti

by Eric Mack


Michael FrantiCandidates for Congress continue to put their messages across to voters in the run-up to next week's elections. The war in Iraq is getting plenty of play on both sides. San Francisco musician Michael Franti has a message, too. It comes through loud and clear in the new CD by Franti and his band, Spearhead. It's called "Yell Fire." The message is also quite clear in Franti's documentary, "I Know I'm Not Alone." Both the music and the film were inspired by his trip in 2004 to Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. Eric Mack caught up with Michael Franti before a recent concert in Park City, Utah.


Since breaking into the hip-hop scene in the late 1980s, Michael Franti has gone from focusing on domestic issues such as homelessness to global issues such as war and peace. Franti says he took a film crew to Iraq two years ago because he wanted to see first-hand the human cost of war.


"I went to visit kids in hospitals who had suffered blast injuries and you see face to face this is what a bomb does to a nine-year-old kids' legs. And then I'd spend time with US soldiers and be thinking to myself, 'God, these are the guys that could have done this to these people.' But then when you sit down and spend time with them you realize, these are just 19 or 20 year old kids who could have been in the front row of my show."


"I'm somebody who advocates an immediate withdrawal and some people say that well, it's going to bring the country into chaos. But since our time since first attacking in 1991 and the sanctions that followed that and the war now, we've done nothing but bring them chaos and I say ... allow them to have their opportunity to create their own democracy."


Part of the CD was recorded in Jamaica, lending some reggae flavor to several tracks. But some of the lyrical content was inspired by musicians Franti met during his travels in the Mideast. In a scene from the film about his trip, he visits the practice space of the Black Scorpions, a makeshift heavy metal band IN Baghdad. They struggle to play over the sound of an electrical generator, and use bits of telephone wire to replace broken guitar strings.


"Whether it was people playing traditional music or heavy metal or hip-hop, they all informed my music in that, some in direct ways, like the Black Scorpions, who coined one of my favorite phrases to describe music which is 'loudy.' I've witnessed how music has a healing power and really enables people to get through difficult times and it's to that aim that I dedicate all my songs."


Other songs on "Yell Fire" are surprisingly uplifting with strong pop sensibilities.


Franti says the tone of the CD was deliberate.


"When I would go to a family's house in Baghdad and I'd play a sad song protesting the war, people would be like, play me something happy. That's what I wanted. I didn't want to make a record that was telling the President to go to Hell, because he's not gonna listen to my music. I wanted to make music that helps people who are thinking and feeling this way to get up every morning and to face their day."


Franti says no matter where he went, he was inspired by the strength and resilience of ordinary people. He's trying now to share their stories with people here. This year, at his eighth annual Power to the Peaceful music festival in San Francisco, he invited Israeli and Palestinian peace activists to speak about forgiveness and reconciliation. And Franti was invited to be part of a World Health Organization panel on the human face of conflict and health. But despite his reputation as an emerging leader among peace activists, Franti says he's just another voice who wanted to see something different and share it with the world.


"I hope that that encourages other people to do the same, not only in terms of the war, but in terms of whatever issues you find in your community that are important to you...pick up your camera, pick up your pen and paper, pick up your paint, pick up your guitar and tell the world about it."


"That's what we need right now is courageous people to stand up and yell 'fire' in this crowded theater that we're in and say you know what, there's something happening here and we can no longer turn away from it."


Michael Franti says his next project is a film about forgiveness and moving past conflict. During Spearhead's recent swing through Japan, he stopped to interview atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima. He has also been to Northern Ireland and next spring he plans to head to South Africa and Northern Uganda to learn more about life after armed conflict.

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