Taken from AOL Hometown - Ally Fogg (Dec, 2001)
Michael Franti - SKIN ON A DRUM
by Ally Fogg
Towards the end of Stay Human the superb new album from Spearhead, Michael Franti sniffs audibly and drawls: "I'm a little under the weather today - too much pepper spray can make a brother congested, y'know what I'm saying? But the harder they hit us, the louder we become, kinda like the skin on a drum."
Those two lines encapsulate Michael Franti, possibly better than anything he has written in fifteen years with the Beatnigs, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy or Spearhead. There is Franti the political activist, veteran of the 1999 Seattle anti-globalisation protests and countless other radical causes. There is Franti the poet, capturing complex emotional reactions in a single, simple metaphor with such precision it can send shivers down the spine. There is Franti the eternal humanitarian optimist, determined to fight for justice until justice is won.
Reviews of the album have tended to gloss over the smooth soul, jazz funk, hip-hop and even disco grooves of the album, and focussed on a short audio drama about the execution of a wrongly convicted black activist, which is played out between tracks. However Franti is keen that listeners should not think of it as a concept album about the death penalty.
"There is a larger theme that I find more important," he says, "which is the title of the album itself: Stay Human. How is it that we are able to hold on to our dignity and our compassion, not become just cynical robotic consumers at a time when corporate interests are always being held above the interests of the people and the natural world."
Franti is deeply steeped in his politics, but he is reluctant to be seen as an 'activist-musician'.
"I think that the responsibility of artists is to make great art," he states. "But in order to make great art you have to find some truth in it. There is social truth, there is political truth, there is emotional truth, there is spiritual truth and in order to make good art you have to find what that is.
"When I started out" he continues, "I was doing a lot of angry music, you know 'the system is fucked, the system is fucked,' how many different ways can I say that? And then there was a point when I realised yes, it is fucked, but we are working on it. We have positive and negative capacities within all of us and there's an incredible range of emotion in all of us. I wanted to express that too."
This is another side to the radical Franti that is mentioned surprisingly rarely. He has a large, unashamedly romantic, hippyish streak which comes across in his music. Stay Human includes lines like "All the freaky people make the beauty of the world," "everywhere I roam, every single soul is a poem" and "love will set me free." It appears also in his private life - he has been walking around barefoot for the past 18 months after giving up shoes. It is a side to him that comes out when talking about the radio segments on the album.
"I've always been opposed to the death penalty because I thought, what if they get the wrong person, and what if that wrong person happens to be me? As a black person that is part of our experience. But as I've grown older I've realised that I am opposed to the death penalty for one simple truth, which is that nobody has the right to kill. Whether you're gang banging or whether it's a nation warring against another nation or whether it's us granting the right to our Government to kill our own people - it's all wrong."
As a measure of how different Franti is to the musical norm, in an age when the industry is attempting to close down the MP3 trade, Spearhead actively encourage their fans to bring tape recorders and cameras to their gigs and to share the results with other fans. As a politicised musician, Franti can sometimes feel like a voice in the wilderness.
"The corporate industry has hijacked all music," he says "not just rap music. You are hard pressed to find any real messages in music at all now. There was a time when artists like Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield were all writing beautiful music that was talking about what was taking place in the world. In rap music today it is all about how much of the system can I get for myself? And fuck everyone else along the way. I am not down with that."
While other musicians might harbour the occasional liberal sentiment and turn them into a track for the Free the Pandas from the Tibetan Rainforest benefit album, Franti takes his politics to the frontline.
"When the WTO protests were over," he recalls, "a lot of us left there had been out in the cold and rain for days, breathing in all these noxious gases. We'd been hit by rubber bullets, and we left and felt tired and beaten. But then we went away and reflected on what took place. It galvanised people, it made some people give up, and it made others say you know what, this is why we call it the struggle.
"It has just hit these Western shores but it is all part of the same struggle that got the British out of India and got the Dutch out of South Africa and the Spanish out of Mexico. It is all part of the same movement of people saying, we don't want to be trampled anymore."
Franti knows that his radical stances are anathema to the white music industry's obsession with safe marketability and to the black hip-hop establishment's obsession with designer labels and consumerism. He has taken more batterings from each than from an army of riot police. Franti doesn't care. He knows that the harder they hit him, the louder he'll become.
Kind of like the skin on a drum.