Taken from Adventure Logue (Oct 23-26, 2006)
An Interview with Michael Franti
Part 1 - 4
by Eric Mack
As promised, this week we're launching Adventure Logue with a sit-down interview with musician, activist, and bona fide adventure traveler, Michael Franti. The San Fran musician has been making socially conscious and politically charged music for years with groups like the Beatnigs, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and most recently, Spearhead. In 2004, he traveled to Baghdad and the Palestinian Territories with an acoustic guitar and a camera to try and capture, as he puts it: "The Human Cost of War." The result of that trip is a new CD, "Yell Fire" and a documentary, "I Know I'm Not Alone," both of which came out at the end of July.
I sat down with Franti during sound check before a show in Park City last Thursday. This is part one of that interview about Franti's trip, the movie and the music that it inspired. Right-Click here to download the mp3. Or, read on for the transcript:
AdventureLogue: What was the impetus for your trip the Middle East in (2004)?
Michael Franti: I had grown tired of listening to generals and politicians talk about the political costs and the economic cost of war without every mentioning the human cost of war. And I wanted to see with my own eyes, exactly what everyday life was like for people in the street. So , I picked up my acoustic guitar and my videocamera and flew to Baghdad and played music for people and then I turned the camera on and said: 'Please tell me about your life here.'
AL: When you had the idea to film this, what were you hoping to accomplish, what reaction were you hoping for?
MF: I didn't have any reaction in mind, but the main thing I wanted to see is, you know, we're dropping more TNT than we dropped in WW1, WW2, Vietnam and Korea combined in this war. It's gotta be hitting somebody. It's gotta be affecting life in some way. They kept telling us on the news: 'Oh, these are smart bombs, they only go in to buildings that are empty, they only blow up strategic military sites' and I kept thinking 'I know this cannot be true.' And when I got there I saw that in fact it isn't true. We're blowing up whole neighborhoods, whole communities, and in some cases, like in the case of Fallujah, the whole town. Killing tens of thousands, upwards of 100,000 people have died.What I found was that not only are people suffering under the initial blast but also today people have no access to water, electricity, health care, education or any type of power - access to gasoline is very limited.
AL: Were you surprised at all by what you saw?
MF: Well everyone knows war is bad, but you have no idea what its like until you see it up close, and when I went to visit kids in hospitals who had suffered blast injuries, you see face to face - this is what a bomb does to a 9 year old kid's legs. You see stumps, or you see what depleted uranium weapons do to kids. After the first gulf war, there was so much depleted Uranium dropped that now the increase of cancer amongst children is 400 %. So you see these kids that had horrible deformities suffering from cancer. Then I'd spend time with US soldiers and be thinking to my self 'my god, these are the guys that may have done this to these people, how can I sing for them?' But then I'd sit down with them and realize these are just 19, 20 year old kids that kid have been in the front row of my show. In fact just a few nights ago there were a few marines that had just returned from Iraq that were in the front frow of my show. You realize that they're there for a reason that's been proved to be a falsehood, and they just want to go home.
AL: Did the time you spent over there change any of your pre-conceived notions? What surprised you?
MF: The thing that surprised me the most was that I had thought that from the reports you see in the news that the war was basically over and that there were peacekeeping forces and a couple arrests in the street. But in fact that is completely false. What's happened is that once it was clear that the Iraqi army had lost the conventional war, they sent all their soldiers home and began fighting this underground resistance that is happening today. And the news is presented to us as there's a handleful of insurgents or some foreign fighters that have come in, or it's Al-Qaeda or something like that. But, what it is, is they want the occupation to end in the same way that America came up against the Viet Cong in Vietnam, we've come up against this resistance that everyday is launching attacks on the US Army and Iraqi Military Forces and police who were supposedly over there training to take over the country, because they're viewed as collusionists, they not viewed as our new friends, they're viewed as people who are colluded with the US Army to continue this occupation and oppression.
AL: So it was worse than you were expecting?
MF: It was much worse than I imagined.
Continuing from where we began yesterday, we hear from musician Michael Franti about his trip to Iraq in 2004, the people he met there and still keeps in touch with, and his plans to go back sometime in the future.
AL: You were there in 2004, right?
AL: In the last couple years you could argue that the situation there has gotten far worse, would you go back today?
MF: I would definitely go back. I'm sort of planning in the distance a time to return there. I feel a committment now having been there to do everything I can to bring our soldiers home as fast as possible and allow the Iraqi people who have gone through so much to create their own life and their own democracy there.
AL: What sort of reaction have you received?
MF: Well, we've released the film in a sort of unique way. We didn't want to just put it in art house theaters and then have it run for three or four days and then be gone. What we've done is we've toured with it as if it were a rock album. We've done about 50 or 60 cities around North America, probably 20 in Europe, 15 in Australia and just recently we were in Japan. Now on our American tour, every town we stop in we also set up screenings the next night.
AL: What's been the reaction?
MF: It's been amazing, people have never seen what life is like on the street there. For example, a heavy metal band in Baghdad who because they don't have any electricity use a generator, so they have to run this diesel generator in a basement with them, play over the din of the generator, sing over the choke of the exhaust, and then when they break a string they have to use bits of telephone wire to replace the strings on their guitars. You see stuff like that and it puts a whole new perspective on the war.
AL: Have you kept in touch with any of the people in the film?
MF: I have. I kept in touch with Waleed, who is the singer of the Black Scorpions, and with Muhare, who was our driver who is prominently featured in the film. Throughout Israel and Palestine where we've been we've kept in touch with a lot of the people. At our annual Power to the Peaceful festival in San Francisco we brought over this year an Israeli Woman and a Palestinian Woman who have started an organization called the bereaved parents family circle, which is a group of families who have lost family members in the conflict. On both the Israeli and Palestinian side they have come together to talk about their pain and express their voice in a way that says we dont want the death of our children to be used as a call for more war, but to be used as a call to end war.
Once again we hear from musician Michael Franti about his trip to Iraq in 2004. Today he talks about what he's done since he's been back and his recent and future travels abroad.
AL: What else are you doing to get your message out?
MF: I work with a lot of different veterans groups, and one website that I like to turn people on to is optruth.org. It's a group of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq and soldiers who are still there who are posting their thoughts and feelings about whats happening over there. Alot are simple like 'I got sand in my teeth and eyes' and some are really very political and some are really sad, but its all great, real-life expressions of what's happening there. They're also a lobby for congress to make sure that veterans when they come home, have access to health care, which continues to get cuts as congress spends more on the war.
AL: Are you campaigning actively for any policies?
MF: I'm somebody who believes in an immediate withdrawal of all troops. We have a failed policy there and to think that we have, we're there to liberate people is not really the case. We're there to control the land and the oil. I'm somebdoy who advocates an immediate withdrawal and some people say that well it's going to bring the country into chaos. But since we first started attacking in 1991 and the sanctions that followed, we've done nothing but bring them chaos. And I say the Iraqi people which are very intelligent and wanting freedom for so long, allow them the opportunity to create their own democracy.
AL: What can we expect to hear from Michael Franti and Spearhead in the future?
MF: I've been working on another film. Last week I was in Japan interviewing Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors - people in their 70s and 80s who've undergone various diseases related to low-level radiation. I've also been in Northern Ireland interviewing people there and this spring we're going to South Africa and Uganda to speak with people there. The film is kind of about forgiveness and how do people get through very difficult conflicts and come out on the other side. I really wanna learn the ways that they've been able to move past things in their lives and find love, or in some cases, not find love and what the results of that have been, too.
AL: What did you learn on this trip?
MF: There's always so much history that goes into situations. So when you look at things on the surface you say, well why don't people just stop the fighting? It seems really simple, but then you start to understand the history and you realize wow, there's so many years of this, -but how can we move on? Somebody at some point has to let go, has to say OK, I'm willing to take a risk. And it takes incredible courage to do that. And I've seen and been inspired by the courage of those who have been able to move through that, but first it takes acknowledgement of the past and a real telling of truth so people can say, OK, my pain is acknowledged and now I can let it go.
Once again we hear from musician Michael Franti about his trip to Iraq in 2004. Today he talks about what the peace movement here in the U.S.
AL: Do you think there is a peace movement in the U.S.?
MF: Of course, yea. There's been an anti-war movement since before the war. One of the things that is disturbing to me is that the Bush Administration has said 'you're either with us or against us.' But now it's like 'you're either with us or you're irrelevant.' That's what they say to the UN, that what they say to other nations and Cindy Sheehan and millions of other people that are outspoken against the war. But I believe that as time goes on and we begin to see the futility, and our nation begins to get ffected by it economically that resistance against the war continues and grows and takes shape in the form of voting and eventually the war will end, I can see it on the horizon.
AL: I don't think the peace movement gets much coverage here. You travel around and see it and are a part of it. How would you explain the nature and the extent of the movement to someone sitting in Topeka watching Fox News?
MF: It's very difficult for people in the peace movement to find access to getting their message out because mainstream media has become such a mouthpiece for the government. It's like they take their feeds straight off the wire and read them, not even thinking, not even questioning, Is there any truth in this? And investigate journalism has been totally squashed. So, its a difficult task, but I'm encouraged by the fact that today the war is polling 35% in support, 65 against. And it isn't because Bush or the media has changed their tune, it's because people have talked about it at their dinner tables at home or their water coolers at work, sometimes they made silly signs and walked out into the streets. And just by that, we've been able to change the tenor of this country, and I think its just a matter of time before candidates realize that and begin to run with an endplan in mind. And I don't see this as a partisan issue. I don't think its about Republican Democrat because I see people on both sides of the aisle waking up to it, and I see people in the military waking up to it too. It's just a matter of is this the direction we want our country to go in? Are we really make ourselves safer by building up this much hatred towards America? And it's not that people hate the American way of life. The love our way of life, they'd like to have it themselves. But what American foreign policy is doing to their lives is having real affects in a negative way in their countries.
AL: If I can get you to brag a bit, what do you see your role being in this movement?
MF: Well, my role is a humble role. It's just as another voice. In making this film and this music I hope to take whatever light is shined on me and reflect it on to something that needs more light shined on it. I also hope that when people see the film, they see that its just a small group of people who wanted to see something different and show it to the world and we just picked up our home videocameras and we went and did it. I hope that encourages other people to do the same. Not only in terms of the war but in terms of what ever issues you find in the world or in your community that are important to you to pick up your camera, pick up your pen and paper, pick up your paint or your guitar and tell people about it.
AL: Are there any individuals you look to for leadership or inspiration?
MF: I'm inspired everyday just by people in the street, everywhere I go and no matter what country I'm in, I meet people that are doing amazing things under very adverse circumstances and those are the people I find to be my heroes.