Taken from BeliefNet (August 02, 2000)
Enrage, Enlighten, Inspire
Soulful hip-hop artist Michael Franti talks about how music makes politics personal
By Mark LeVine
It was no surprise to find Michael Franti in the thick of the political fray at the Philadelphia Shadow Convention. Since his debut with The Disposable Heroes Of HipHoprisy in 1992, Franti has been at the vanguard of hip-hop, both as an artist and a social activist. His first notoriety came as a spoken-word artist, reading pieces adapted from the writings of the famous Beat poet William S. Burroughs. By the mid-1990s, Franti's new group, Spearhead, was blending social conscience with infectious grooves that found critical acclaim in 1997's "Chocolate Super Highway."
His newest CD, "Michael Franti: Live at the Baobab," released on his own BooBoo imprint, demonstrates his signature mix of art and activism. In songs like "Crime to Be Broke in America," Franti drops knowledge on an America where "everybody's just looking out for theyself," where new prisons go up at 14 times the rate of publicly funded colleges: "Locking brothers in the poorhouse that can't afford Morehouse," rhymes Franti. "Politicians nervous 'cause it's the only free service they provide." Franti urges America to "put money back into schools, not into prisons." His spiritual sensitivities contrast sharply the materialism of so much contemporary pop lyrics. "Oh no, another soul has lost control," Franti says on "Every Single Soul." "We pull him back into the fold. Another soul has got strung out on the material. All the superficial initials upon his clothes." Near the end of "Stay Human," he exhorts the audience to "Be resistant; the negativity we keep it at a distance."
Franti's appearance in Seattle last November was one of the highlights of the protests there against the World Trade Organization, and he was eager to come to Philadelphia to join the various protests against the Republican Convention, where he participated in the Shadow Convention's culture jam. He takes time for frequent, short meditations in whatever quiet space he finds and chooses to walk barefoot throughout the city.
Mark Levine, one of the coordinators of the Shadow Conventions, interviewed Franti August 2 in Philadelphia.
Can you describe your spiritual evolution?
I was brought up a Lutheran. My family went to church every Sunday. I always had faith, but didn't identify with the church I was brought up in. As I grew up, I became immersed in politics and music and began to ask, Why is there so much garbage in the world? How could God, if there is a God, allow it?
At the same time, I was working for social change and doing music full time. I began to get increasingly tired and developed "compassion fatigue". Finally, during a solo tour of Australia, the energy was very intense, and I became really drained. But I didn't want to lose my compassion or commitment, so I started praying and meditating, and through them became reinvigorated spiritually and emotionally. Now I pray every day--morning and night, before every meal--and I meditate throughout the day, and that gives me strength.
What kind of meditation and prayer do you do?
I use TM. I need to constantly fill up my energy and cleanse the bad energy we all pick up, especially when you perform a lot in front of large crowds, when there's an incredible transfer of energy. You have to understand that performers pick up both the positive and negative energies coming from people in an audience.
Do you consider yourself a follower of any particular religion or path?
No, I don't. I read about all religions and take on aspects of them all. I pray to the Creator and ask for guidance and protection and to show me the light to follow, so I can pass it on to others. I think that's a central function of being religious and being a performer.
Does religion motivate you in ways beyond just the spiritual dimension?
Yes, of course. It also motivates me politically.
Carlos Santana once said he would die for Jesus, but that he doesn't really care for organized religion.
I can relate to that quote. I'm not a big fan of organized religion. Too much violence. We don't need missionaries, because God is omnipresent, and people will come to God based on the context of where they live. We shouldn't be evangelizing but discussing and sharing; then we can all come together to God.
What about the other members of Spearhead? Are they religious?
Yes, they're devoutly religious, Christian and Rastafarian. I also work with the Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. It's a great church, one that really celebrates diversity, and they have a soup kitchen that feeds thousands of people. Most important, it's about service, and not absolving sins on Sunday.
These culture jams are meant to bring together artists, activists, scholars, and writers to perform and have a dialogue on our three core issues, poverty, the failed war on drugs, and campaign-finance reforms. We want to address the concerns of young people to be more politically aware and active. What's the most important contribution you can bring to such gatherings?
For me, it's to always have something for them to do when they leave. Let me share a story. I saw the Dalai Lama speaking once, and an American in the audience asked him what he could do to most help Tibet and its people. The Dalai Lama thought for a minute and said, "I don't know." That stunned the audience, but he continued by saying, "If you want to help us, learn everything you can about us, all our history--how we went from a great warrior nation, from an army of war, to an army of monks and peace. Become an expert on us, and then embody these ideals so every step of your life you can speak on Tibet and act for us." I think it's giving people the tools to embody the principles you preach is the key.
Can our culture, especially music, ever be re-politicized, the way they were briefly during the 1960s and the '80s, with hippies, punk, and hip-hop?
First, you need to be clear about your motivations and intentions. If your motivation is to get rich, you're not going to be political; if it's to enrage, enlighten, and inspire, you must do that creatively--while paying the rent.
The energy of the protests, from Seattle to here, has a lot of negativity to it, however righteous the anger. But will that kind of energy transform our society?
We need a nonviolent end to violence. Otherwise, we wind up with our boot on their necks, which is no better than the reverse. We need to express our anger, but not overshadow love. We need to have compassion as our approach. We can't just criticize the angry right-wing people.
I was at an event once, where there were some anti-gay demonstrators. One man in particular was screaming such violent and hate-filled things at people, so I went up to him and didn't scream back, but simply asked him to try to understand that if we really wants them to change, shouldn't he be approaching them with love and compassion? Did he really think that screaming insults at them would change them? I think that kind of response to violence and hatred is the way. We need to hold up a mirror to ourselves and find non-angry ways to confront injustice--to use art, puppets, all of the fun things that the protesters are doing. Art and spirit and love together are the way.