Taken from thewest.com.au (Jul 26, 2007)
Up! For the cause and fun
by RANIA GHANDOUR
Celebrities with a cause seem to be setting themselves up for mudslinging these days. The Live Earth concerts highlighted environmental issues but also underlined a cynicism which runs deep. It seems it is now almost impossible to draw attention to a cause, no matter how worthy, without either have one’s credibility questioned or being mocked for being sanctimonious.
Spearhead frontman Michael Franti says it’s too easy to take pot shots at celebrities, but: “If the end result is that people of this generation feel like environmental issues are part of their agenda, then that’s a really good thing.”
Franti has started a new festival called Up!, which aims to combat cynicism and encourage people to raise their voice about anything that concerns them, while putting on a “kick-ass show”.
“The idea is when people leave the show, that they feel inspired and motivated to do whatever’s coming next in their lives,” he said.
The festival also aims to work with environmental groups to recycle and offset energy used with carbon neutralising and tree planting.
The charismatic singer-songwriter recalls the concerts he went to in his youth and the way they showed him it wasn’t necessary to choose between politics and music. “I remember seeing The Clash in 1983 and Public Enemy in 1987,” he said from his San Francisco base. “Those were really big political moments in my life, hearing those bands.
“They showed me something maybe even more important than (political messages), which was that if the music wasn’t fun and something you could enjoy and dance to, there wasn’t really any point in looking further to know what message is coming through.”
Franti’s political messages are woven into his upbeat music, a blend of styles including hip-hop, funk and folk. His most recent album, last year’s Yell Fire! and the 2003 album Everyone Deserves Music feature reggae giants Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare while pushing strong anti-war themes.
Franti’s concerns of late have centred on the war in Iraq. His travels through the Middle East inspired Yell Fire! and were also the subject of his documentary I Know I’m Not Alone, released last year. He said there had been a huge shift in perceptions in the US about the war in the time since his film came out — at first angry Americans would ask him how he could have made such a film at a time when they needed to support their Government and their troops.
“When I came back from Iraq, the country was still pulling about 75 per cent support for the war,” he said. “I remember going on tour and speaking my truth about what I saw there and getting booed by audiences.”
Now, people thank him for making the film. “It’s taken on this incredible life where people all around the States buy copies and show it at their church or school or at home to their friends,” he said. “Now people feel that they were lied to (about Iraq) and they want it to end.”
But Franti’s concerns are by no means confined to the war. He believes the cynicism he sees around him as perhaps an even bigger issue. “Cynicism is why the war continues to take place and that’s why the environment issues continue, because people think, ‘Oh, what difference does it make? What can I do?’,” he said.
“We have the problem in America today where people feel they don’t want to vote because they think the last few elections were stolen. But I think what’s more dangerous than an election which is stolen by electronic means or the Supreme Court or something like that, is the theft of an election by cynicism.”
The Up! Festival is designed to kill cynicism with a healthy dose of fun. And unlike most concerts, where crowds are checked for recording equipment like mobile phones, still cameras or video cameras, Franti jokes that audiences will be checked to make sure they have them. While he doesn’t care what particular political statement people make, the essential thing is for people to express themselves.
“Some people have never done it but I feel it’s something you can learn to do and practise doing,” he said. “That’s why I really feel that YouTube and MySpace and all these places where people are expressing themselves are really important.”
The Up! Festival tour kicks off in Perth in September, with Michael Franti and Spearhead headlining a line-up featuring Ben Lee, Blue King Brown and Old Man River.
Meanwhile, Franti is working on a new album in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which will be released in the middle of next year. He continues to sing about what concerns him and to do his part to combat violence his own way.
“The best way to combat violence in the world is through education and through truth,” he said.
“With this concert, we don’t have any illusions — we’re definitely not going to save the world but hopefully there’ll be some great music.”
The Up! Festival is on at Challenge Stadium on September 14. Tickets go on sale through Ticketmaster outlets next Tuesday.