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Taken from Metromix Baltimore (February 9, 2009)

Michael Franti's reggae revolution

The Spearhead frontman ignites a new kind of Obama party

by Andy Hermann

Michael Franti
(Credit: Danny Clinch)

Of the seemingly hundreds of songs written in celebration of our 44th president, none is catchier than the simply titled "Obama Song," a bouncy, ska-tinged collaboration between Michael Franti's Spearhead and Florida-based rap group Solillaquists of Sound. The song, still a fan favorite at Spearhead shows, is a culmination of sorts for Franti, an outspoken peace advocate and critic of the Bush administration who has long mixed progressive political messages into his band's freewheeling mix of rock, reggae, pop and hip-hop.

"It was a big sense of relief," Franti says of the election-night victory for Obama and the Democrats, "and now, an even deeper sense of purpose for me personally, to continue to do the work I do."

That work includes everything from promoting his anti-war documentary, "I Know I'm Not Alone" (for which Franti visited Baghdad, Gaza and the West Bank to talk with Iraqis, Palestinians and Israelis about their struggles), to organizing his Power to the Peaceful Festival (an annual celebration of "music, consciousness and action" held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park) to touring behind Spearhead's latest album, "All Rebel Rockers," which Franti and his band recorded in Jamaica with legendary reggae producers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. In short, this is one activist who's staying active.

During a rare break from touring, Franti chatted with Metromix about the "Obama Song," doing prison concerts, and his choice of footwear at the inauguration.

So has Obama heard the "Obama Song" yet?
I haven't heard anything if he's specifically heard it, but I know that his many aides and warriors [have]... [Laughs] It was really amazing to be out at the inauguration; just to be among two million people who not only were happy to see an end to the Bush administration, but were so grateful that there's such an inspiring leader who's coming in now.

Is the vibe at Spearhead concerts a lot different since Obama got elected?
I think definitely, people are in a celebration mood. It's kind of like the wicked witch is dead. But I also think that people are still feeling really driven, like, "Man, we can't stop now." That's really what my message has been to people: don't just sit back and say, "I'm gonna hold Barack accountable to his promises." Get out there and help him make his promises a reality.

When you're working with producers like Sly and Robbie, two guys who are practically living legends, do you pretty much just do whatever they tell you to do?
Pretty much. [Laughs] No, the working relationship is that I come in with a song, usually on the guitar, and say, "Here's the song. Let's make a beat for it." When I first started working with them, I'd say, "You know, Sly, there are some songs I want to be dance songs and other songs I want to be just listening songs." And Sly would say to me, "Hey, man-every song we do is a dance song." [Laughs] Doesn't matter; even if it's the slowest ballad, any song you make should have a rhythm that people can just bounce to and nod to.

Those Jamaican and reggae rhythms are pretty infectious; do you find some of your earlier songs taking on a reggae vibe they didn't used to have?
Yeah, definitely. You know, so much of dance music today is done with drum machines, and it's about who can create that "boom" and rhythms that are so precise and virtually impossible to play with your hands, you know? But what reggae does is with live instruments, you're able to create that bubble effect that makes people dance. So yeah, there's times when we take old songs and we just drop those kinds of rhythms under them and breathe new life into them.

You've done shows everywhere from jam band festivals to Burning Man to the Green Inaugural Ball for people like Al Gore and Samuel L. Jackson. Does playing in radically different settings like that affect the way you approach a show?
Sometimes it does at the beginning: the first song can be affected by the atmosphere. But then, you know, for example, when I've played in prisons a lot of times ... you walk in there and you've got the guards, you've got the warden and his crew, and then you've got the prisoners. Everybody's kind of divided. But then, as soon as you start playing the music, it's like-people start to dance, start to clap, start to sing. And pretty soon, you've created this whole other atmosphere.

I didn't know you've played a lot of prison shows.
Yeah, the most recent one we did was San Quentin, California. And we played Folsom, I think three years ago, on Thanksgiving.

When you played Folsom, did you do any Johnny Cash songs?
No, we didn't, but we were the first group to play since Johnny Cash had played there. It was 37 years since he had played. We were the first band they allowed in. What had happened was my album "Stay Human," which is all about the death penalty, had been circulated amongst the prisoners. And they had this poetry group that they had started, and they had asked me to come in and work with this poetry group. But it just worked out that we were able to bring the whole band in.

I've heard that you literally don't own a pair of shoes. True?
That's not exactly, completely true. I do own one pair of shoes, and I do have a pair of really hardcore snow boots. And I have only worn them once, the snow boots. I bought them in a snowstorm in New York City; I had previously had a bunch of socks and plastic bags tied around my feet, with my flip-flops on, but that didn't get very far. [Laughs]

But for the most part, you prefer to go the barefoot route?
Yeah, or I just wear flip-flops. If it gets really cold, I put socks on, like at the inauguration.

You wore socks for that?
Yeah. As long as it's not inches of snow, then I'm OK.


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