Taken from MP3.com (May 22, 2007)
Franti tears down walls
In front of several hundred inmates at San Quentin Prison, multitalented singer and his band deliver a stirring performance.
by Jim Welte
at San Quentin State Prison.
SAN QUENTIN PRISON, Northern Calif.--The healing power of music is either a cheesy cliché or a potent calling, depending on your perspective.
But in a powerful, moving concert Saturday afternoon by Michael Franti and Spearhead inside the walls of San Quentin Prison, the latter overwhelmed the former--in spades. In the middle of one of the world's most famous prisons, hardened criminals, many of whom will never leave, bounced and swayed to Franti's hip-hop and reggae tunes as if they were in a public park somewhere outside the prison's storied walls.
It was quite a surreal scene: a typically beautiful and sunny weekend afternoon in the Bay Area, with Franti and his band performing songs about unity and love.
But instead of doing so in Golden Gate Park, where Franti holds his massive Power to the Peaceful event every September, the audience was hundreds of inmates, deceptively close but a life sentence away from freedom.
the yard at San Quentin.
Lt. Eric Messick, San Quentin's public information officer, set the scene upon entering the massive prison yard, which saw hundreds of men scattered all over, engaging in an Olympics' worth of sports and activities.
"Everyone you see here's an inmate, except those in green [prison officer] uniforms and, well, us," he said.
The afternoon was kicked off by Cold Blue Steel, an impressive jazz and blues collective comprised of inmates. The group dashed through a cover of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" and a bunch of Chicago blues songs. Screaming blues guitar could be heard throughout the yard, as could the booming voice of singer Jack, who said he joined the band less than a year ago.
at San Quentin State Prison.
Just before Franti and Spearhead took the stage, the towering singer and San Francisco native told MP3.com that he's played several prison shows over the years, but had always wanted to play San Quentin, right in his own backyard.
"There's been amazing transformation in San Quentin over the past year or so," Franti said, referring to the months following the February 2006 melee at the prison that sparked an effort to bring peace between the prison's warring inmate factions, and the subsequent Day of Peace that was held last month.
Cold Blue Steel at San Quentin
Following a brief sound check, Franti and his three-piece band dove into "East to the West," one of the standout tunes from 2006's Yell Fire!, the album that, along with the documentary I Know I'm Not Alone, chronicled the singer's travels through Iraq and the Middle East in an effort to see the war-ravaged region for himself.
Like much of Franti's recent material, the song was simple and chose message over narrative. Surrounded by men whose goal is a better tomorrow than today, the simplicity and principle fit like a glove.
Through the course of a nearly two-hour set, Franti made sure to engage the crowd, picking inmates to dance with or inviting a few to grab the mic and sing along. Dressed in all white, an inmate named Michael sang an impromptu cover of Sly & the Family Stone's "Family Affair," and later another group of inmates sang along to the apropos "Have a Little Faith."
The event was cosponsored by Bread & Roses, the Marin County-based nonprofit founded in 1974 to bring music and the arts to people who need it, whether it's institutionalized youth, elderly, disabled or, in the case of San Quentin, long-term prisoners.
But like much of the activities at San Quentin, the impetus came from within. San Quentin's Arts in Correction program, the only one in all of California, regularly connects with Bread & Roses for workshops and classes to help inmates like those in Cold Blue Steel pursue the arts.
Michael Franti at San Quentin
"In that room for each workshop, all of the [ethnic] divisions that exist in the yard go away--it's like a little United Nations in there," Bread & Roses' Kurt Huget said. "It's amazing to see them come together with the purpose of creating music."
As the day concluded, Franti summed up his intentions, which drew criticism from some victims' families who felt he was entertaining those who didn't deserve it.
"Music is a healing force," he said. "I don't play music for people to reward them or to punish them. ... Every time I come into a prison I am invited to share my peace and my music, but I always leave feeling like I learned more from than they did from me."