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Taken from TheStar.com (Nov 2, 2006)

Musician in lion's mouth

Californian proved his activist beliefs by seeking truths on the mean streets of Baghdad



Michael FrantiOffered our ideal vacation destination, most of us wouldn't gun for Baghdad.

Then again, most of us are not Michael Franti.

For 20 years, the Oakland-born musical agitant has been shoring up his consciousness-raising words with social and political activism, first as a member of California punkers the Beatnigs and the short-lived but seminal hip-hop outfit Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and these days as front man for reggae-fied jammers Spearhead. But if Franti's commitment to the cause of human betterment was ever in doubt, his visit to war-wracked Iraq in June 2004 for a look at the "human cost" of the American invasion cemented his status.

The three-week visit - chronicled, along with a 2005 trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, in the gripping documentary I Know I'm Not Alone - grew out of a conversation with a friend who asked Franti what country he'd visit if handed a blank ticket.

"I'd hear on CNN over and over again about the economic and the political costs of the war, but they were never mentioning the human costs," says Franti. "If they were bombing San Francisco, there'd certainly be tons of people being killed. So I had this question stuck in my head: what would I tell my kids - I have two sons - on the night before the world's largest air force was coming to bomb our town? I couldn't think of anything to say, so from that curiosity I wanted to go and ask people that question."

With a camera, his guitar and a few like-minded friends in tow, Franti endured a harrowing nosedive spiral into the Baghdad airport on a 16-passenger, twin-prop plane (a standard landing practice to avoid ground-based fire) and the much scarier realities of daily life on the ground in Iraq in the shadow of America's so-called "enemies."

His trip through shattered city streets filled with rubble, miasmic pollution emanating from portable generators, and the constant threat of explosions and gunfire, introduced Franti to numerous new friends - Baghdad taxi drivers, poets, bloggers, parents and, of course, musicians - who turned out to be ordinary, friendly and frightened people just like you and me. Gracious hosts, too. As Franti puts it: "I was the first American they'd met in the street who wasn't holding an M-16."

Through word-of-mouth and city-by-city screenings coupled with acoustic Franti sets, I Know I'm Not Alone has grown into a grassroots phenomenon on four continents since its DVD release last spring. It has also inspired at least two albums' worth of songs, the first batch of which are captured on the humanity-affirming new Spearhead disc, Yell Fire!

Franti brings his crack live band to the Guvernment tonight, encouraged by recent developments in the States to believe that the cumulative efforts of activist artists such as himself can make a difference.

"When I first came back from Iraq, the nation was still polling 70 per cent in support of the war and now it's down in the low 30s, and Bush's approval rating has gone the same way.

"It hasn't been because suddenly CNN or Fox News or the government changed their tune about the war. People started to talk about it around the water cooler at work, and other people went out and made silly signs and protested, and now people are being asked this November to vote their conscience about the war....

"I think all the independent news articles that have been written and all the documentary films that have slowly surfaced have all helped. They changed people's minds."


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