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Taken from eye (Dec 13, 2001)
Burning Spear
Michael Franti and Spearhead hit new targets


Michael Franti Thursday, Dec. 13, 8pm. The BamBoo, 312 Queen W. $18 from Play de Record, Ed's Record World, Rotate This, Shanti Baba, Kops/Vortex, Vice and the BamBoo.

Michael Franti finds himself in America's heartland, on a bus rolling down the highway from Lincoln, Neb., to St. Louis, Mo.

It's not a part of the world you think of when the Bay Area artist/activist comes to mind, or when you think of his industrial-jazz act the Beatnigs or the subsequent "alternative" hip-hop of Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy -- who, of course, were only alternative in their socio-political mindset.

But he's not in San Francisco right now, where anti-war protests have occurred regularly since 9/11, he's in Middle America, where his current band Spearhead are on tour with Blues Traveller. So far, it has not been easy.

"I'm really focusing my attention on bringing the peace community together," he says, his exhaustion apparent. "It's a little scary getting up in front of a straight crowd that's 90 per cent in favour of bombing the crap out of anybody that appears to be the television vision of a terrorist and talking about what's going on with this war. It takes some courage."

Ever the pacifist, Franti has been frantically trying to spread this message through a country that doesn't want to hear it. Of course, this isn't the first time his messages haven't entirely jibed with the Middle American mindset.

Spearhead are touring their latest record, Stay Human (Six Degrees/Outside), which, despite its transcendent soul, is a concept record decrying the death penalty. But while the album's original message was suddenly superseded by war, Franti sees a direct correlation.

"War is the ultimate death penalty. It's worse than the death penalty," he says, going on a lengthy rant against the U.S. propaganda machine. "The songs are universal, and while this record focuses on the death penalty, the main message is the title of the record, Stay Human, and how do we hold on to our humanity in a crisis. And definitely we're in a crisis right now."

When Franti emerged into the public consciousness with "Television, Drug of the Nation" -- which, ironically, became popular due to a great music video -- his message of change was steeped in anger and rage. Adopted by an alcoholic white family and considerably well-travelled, Franti had a unique upbringing that offered a fresh perspective to the hip-hop nation. Alas, that nation wasn't listening.

"There was a moment in hip-hop where we really thought it was going to be the answer, where it could really elevate the consciousness of the community," he says. "And it was doing it, it was working. And then people found out you could make a lot of money doing this, and if you just talk about gangsta shit and make the music videos about sex and violence and machismo, you're going to sell a lot of records. So I like the beats, I still enjoy the music, but it's missing a crucial element -- soul."

Which is something Franti fixed by forming Spearhead in 1994, moving away from the junkyard instrumentation and drum machines of his earlier bands and concentrating on a soul-funk synthesis that only occasionally meanders into jam-band territory.

"I used to write a lot of songs that said, 'Fuck the system.' Now I don't just write songs that are in opposition to things. I write things that are in support of who we are and songs that celebrate us being a culturally diverse body of people. That's the main difference: I'm not just concentrating at pointing my finger at the system -- I am trying to write inspirational music, for people who are living the day-to-day struggle."

This celebratory vibe -- invoking the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron in its resurrection of golden-era '70s soul -- is the sugar that helps his polemic medicine go down, somehow turning lines like "Oh my, oh my God/Out here mama they got us livin' suicide" into an uplifting sing-along chorus that bombs your booty along with your mind.

"During the mid-'70s, a lot of black artists in soul music were speaking about what was happening in the world," Franti observes. "Then, when disco came in, that pushed all those messages out of the music."

But Franti then moved on to the redemption songs of Marley and later the Clash, who opened his ears to punk -- resulting in the Beatnigs' signing to Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label and the Disposable Heroes' cover of the Dead Kennedys' "California Uber Alles."

By then, the hip-hop scene had entranced Franti, and even though he eventually became disillusioned by the bling-bling, he infused his rhyming rap patois into Spearhead's soul. And though resistance music, as he calls it, has largely disappeared during the past decade of decadence, Franti has never given up his goal of moving the masses to simply stay human.

"It's hard to try and hold on to those feelings in a world that is computerized, consumerized, globalized. It's a difficult time right now -- it's hard for people to say, 'Let's hold on to our compassion.' But now is the time we really need to do that."


"You can chase down all our enemies/Bring them to their knees/You can bomb the world into pieces/But you cannot bomb it into peace."

This is the chorus to Spearhead's newest song, "Bomb da World." Written two weeks after the WTC tumbled, the track is Michael Franti's lament for the dead and a plea for peace. But is America ready for restraint?

At the end of November, Spearhead appeared on The Late, Late Show With Craig Kilborn and, while they recorded two songs -- a not unusual tactic -- "Bomb da World" never made it to air, though the producers pledged to run it sometime in the future.

"When we played the song at the rehearsal, all the camerapeople who were there stopped working and clapped for three or four minutes," Franti recounts. "And when we did the song in front of the audience, they stood up and gave us a long standing ovation.

"It was heartening to see that there are people who are turned on by the song. And I hope the show has the courage to air the song. If it doesn't get aired, then it definitely is a case of them not wanting that message to be put out, because the response to the song by everybody in the room was stronger than the song they did air." JO


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