Oct. 21, 2004
by BOB DORAN
AS THE ELECTION DRAWS NEAR MUSICIANS ALL OVER THE nation are adding political elements to their concerts, encouraging voter registration and taking a stand on the issues of the day. This is nothing new for Michael Franti [photo at right], leader of the hip-hop/funk band Spearhead. For over a decade Franti has addressed political and social issues, national and international, through music, trying to help bring about change. But don't make the mistake of confusing him with a politician -- he insists that the line between music and politics is clear.
When the Journal got him on the phone last week, Franti had just returned from taking his 5-year-old son to kindergarten after staying up late the night before working in the studio, writing songs for an album in progress. The album is based in part on his experience this summer as part of a peace delegation to the Middle East.
Franti says his new songs have taken a different turn as a result of his journey. "We've been editing this film about our time in Iraq, Palestine and Israel," he explained, "and as I've been editing, I've been writing songs to go along with the movie. I've felt on fire writing since I came back from the Middle East. I wrote a few songs while I was over there, but it didn't really kick in until I had some time to think about it, and watching the footage had brought a lot back."
His task at this point: translating thoughts and feelings about a complex situation into song. "The film we're making is not really trying to explain all the political intricacies. The record and the film are both about what people are going through. I got tired of hearing about the political and economic cost of the war without ever hearing about the human cost. Some songs are about the hardships, but others are about the joys people manage to find in the midst of hardship."
Franti see himself as more of an empathic storyteller than a crusading reporter. "I didn't go [to the Middle East] thinking I was going to help people over there; I went because I felt that my struggle is connected to theirs -- connected to those who have suffered under the bombs we've dropped, and connected to those who are dropping the bombs.
"As an American citizen, I feel that what happens to people as a result of our foreign policy is directly related to me. I also feel that the pain others feel is something that resonates in my own life experience."
When does he feel like he has made a difference? "I'm humbled when someone tells me that some song I wrote touched them; I think back to the artists who came before me, who did that for me when I was a teenager. For me it was The Clash, Bob Marley, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. When I listened to their music I knew in my heart that I wasn't the only person in the world who felt the way I did."
While agreeing that all of the artists he mentioned wrote songs with a political edge, Franti is quick to point out the contrast between music and politics.
"Music is the opposite of politics. Politics don't really deal with the emotional side of life -- they deal with statistics and the bottom line in an economic sense. As a musician I feel like I have a lot more liberty than I would as a politician. Rarely does a politician touch on what's right, just for the sake of what's right. Music reaches out to our emotions and our idealism. Music can bring people together where politics can't."
"There was a night in Baghdad; we had been invited to the Sheraton, the hotel with a view of the square where they pulled down the statue of Saddam. We were invited by some soldiers to come play music for them. On the way there we got another invitation, from the people who ran the first privately owned radio station in [post-Saddam] Iraq, which happened to be in the same building. After we played for the soldiers, several of them came with me to hang out at the radio station. The soldiers had no idea that the station was in the building they were occupying.
"It was a pop music station. It was an interest of these young Iraqis, but something they could never do under Saddam. They played everything from hip-hop by Tupac and Nelly to alternative groups like Korn and classic rock by the Beatles and the Stones.
"We played some Spearhead records on the air and gave them some of our music. We even sang some songs live; the guy who ran the station was a guitar player, so we played a couple of things together.
"We ended up having a party with these Iraqi kids, some American soldiers and this group of peace activists -- and everyone got along, hanging out talking until four in the morning -- but then when daybreak came, all of us went out into the world returning to our diametrically opposite positions."
Looking back, Franti considers the walls that separate occupiers from the occupied and the ability of music to break down barriers and unite people with different world views. You could say he set himself a lofty goal. I say, more power to him.
Michael Franti and Spearhead perform an early show at the Mateel Community Center in Redway Monday, Oct. 25, with doors opening at 7 p.m., music at 7:30. SoHum rockers N*P*K open the show, which will end by 11 p.m. Advance tickets are advised. For details call People Productions at 923-4599.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.