The U.S. seems as divided a country on the issue of the War in Iraq, as the world is on issues of abortion and religion. Our generation is already seeing our share of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, sadly destined to face the similar fate of those veterans in the 1960’s returning from Vietnam. Deep sadness, or increasing anger are natural emotions we can either imagine, internalize or directly express in our opposition to the War, but Michael Franti, social-change musical activist, developed a different approach in his protest against the US invading Iraq.
Growing tired of venting angrily and feeling no sense of accomplishment with his building rage, Michael Franti instead produced soft and calming songs that were made to be sipped–the antidote to major radio commercialism. Because of his very influential anti-war, thought-provoking lyrical content, Franti on this one record will raise many red flags for any Republican’s liking. In stark contrast to Franti’s days of angry combat lyrics as frontman for Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead, this album’s gentle and folk-sounding tone is a noticeable contrast. And it all came out of a warm place in Franti’s heart.
It’s not some imaginary place of peace for hallucinatory so-called neo-hippy activists who dream of picking daisies, but instead, it’s a place in his heart he had to find to process his frustration while upholding his defiant and strong stance of peace. The creative result is an album titled “Songs From The Front Porch: An Acoustic Collection” (Boo Boo Wax/iMUSIC). In this interview, he talks about making the album and going through that process, as well as his experiences having just returned from a trip to Israel, Palestine, and Iraq.
Marlon Regis: Now this latest album, an acoustic set at that, was released in Australia before the US. Is your fan base very strong in the Outback? Where are some of your other strong fan bases?
Michael Franti: We do really well all over. Europe – Holland, England, Italy, Belgium, we do well in Japan, we do well in Canada. We made this record as we were making the last album, “Everyone Deserves Music.” I was writing it on acoustic guitar and I thought, man these songs sound good like this. So we recorded a bunch of songs from previous albums and then we weren’t really gonna put it out as an album, we were gonna put it out on our web site, but the results got so good, that we put it out in Australia, it did really well in Australia, so all the other territories started asking for it.
Marlon Regis: You travel a lot, no doubt. As a musical activist, so to speak, what are some of the main differences you face traveling outside the US, when it comes to awareness, freedom and acceptance on a general basis, as well as your travel relates to global and political issues?
MF: Well, we just finished a trip. I went to Iraq, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan. And I just brought my acoustic guitar and I played on the streets for the people. In America, they see the world from a very one-sided viewpoint. They see the world as “America is the most important nation, and the richest nation, and what’s good for America must be good for the rest of the world.” The fact of the matter is, it’s exactly the opposite. In most cases, what’s good for America is good for America, and bad for the nations we do it to. And so, the importance of music in this is that music helps us to begin to dialogue because it allows us to give voice to our emotions, be it a joy or a sadness, or pain. Through that, we’re able to begin to talk about things that are happening in the world. That’s what I did on my trip to the Middle East. I spent time talking to people on camera about what their life is like. We’re making a documentary about our trip there–we shot over 200 hours of footage–so we’re editing it down to a 2-hour film now.
MR: Let’s talk a little about the concept of this album. I find it very strong on your part to reach deep within your soul, to refrain from dwelling on angry and sad emotions that rise from the war situation. You are definitely somehow with this LP, trying to find peace. Care to describe the evolutionary process towards creating this concept, and then the songs itself?
MF: Yeah, I found that as I watch the news, I become frustrated every night. All my friends, everyone becomes angry and frustrated about the news. I wanted to make a record with this acoustic album that people could just put on and chill to and bring some serenity into people’s lives. The next studio album that we’re making with the band is a lot harder, much more aggressive, showing the other side of things. Just try to create some balance in what we do.
MR: Does this evolutionary process sort of remind you of yourself as an artist, how you started off in 1986 as part of the Beatnigs, then Disposable Heroes of Hiphopcrisy and then to Michael Franti & Spearhead… I mean, you never started off performing barefoot.
MF: I’ve always wanted to be a communicator of ideas through music. Today, I wanna be the most effective musical communicator of social change I could be, so I try to find different ways to do it and I’m always challenging myself to find new things, learn new instruments. But I always try to find in my heart, what it is I really want to say with words.
MR: You and other artists are definitely responsible collectively, for making the public finally seem comfortable connecting and supporting an anti-war sentiment. Look at the wave of films, with “Fahrenheit 9/11” leading the pack, that are being released and watched by millions across the world now. That must make you feel great, possibly greater than seeing thousands jump and chant while you’re rocking the stage.
MF: I think right now is when we need to hear different voices coming out of all parts of the world. You can’t just hear the politicians and the military leaders. You have to hear from the taxi drivers. You have to hear from the painters. You have to hear from the poets. You have to hear from the school teachers and the filmmakers and musicians.
MR: Or even the soldiers themselves.
MF: Or yes, the soldiers themselves. Exactly. That’s what we did, when I was there. We spent a lot of time speaking to the soldiers. And I played for them too, in Iraq.
MR: How was the reception to this?
MF: Well, it was great, they were so happy that I was there to sing, just that I would get off the plane and be there. They all wanna come home. You know 2 or 3 would say to me, “I believe in the war, I believe in what we’re doing but I still come home.” About half of them said, “I believed in the war when I got here, but now I see that we should have gone to the UN first.” The rest of them were saying, “F**K Bush, F**K the war, we should have never come here in the first place!”
MR: Speaking of films, I’ve seen “Fahrenheit 9/11;” “OutFoxed;” “Uncovered: The War on Terror” and plan to see others. Have you seen these, or any others we’re not aware of? What has impressed you the most about some of these films?
MF: I’ve seen “Fahrenheit 9/11,” I’ve seen “Control Room,” that was a good one. But those are the only two I’ve seen. I’m gonna see as many as I can see because it’s our way of being able to see or hear other viewpoints. We don’t see it in the mainstream media. We don’t hear it on CNN, or commercial mainstream radio. That’s why all these films are appearing right now, because people like me got tired of hearing this shit. So we said let’s go there ourselves, take our little punk camera and see what we can make. The film we’re making concentrates a little bit more on music. We interviewed lots of musicians, poets, writers…
MR: Coming closer and closer to the November elections, the wave of political slants on everything, from TV shows to documentaries, to music is rampant. Almost everyone is dropping a political track in an album. Have you heard Jadakiss’ “Why?” which is blowing up urban radio, with his line, “Why did Bush have to knock down the towers?”
MF: Yeah, I’ve heard it. I think it’s great and I’m glad people are beginning to speak out from the hip-hop world, it’s been too long.
MR: Censorship and democracy are really ironic terms it seems in the US, of all places. Time and time again, under this administration, it’s as if citizens are wondering if other countries have more freedom than us, or if we still have the freedom, but with a detrimental price. What’s causing the wave of freedom and democracy to close its walls closer together, stifling us? Why are we feeling like this more and more every day when it comes to basic human issues?
MF: When I was in Iraq, I spoke to poets who had their fingers broken, and had been electrocuted in jail, tortured because of things they wrote. Just poetry, not even defensive poetry against Sadam, but just sort of poetry that questioned the status quo a little bit. In America, the censorship is different. It plays to the greedy bone in the artist [he laughs]. If you write these things, say these things, we’re not gonna play this song on the radio, your record sales are gonna suffer. And you’re gonna be banned. Well, being banned and having your record sales suffer is very different than being tortured. So I challenge artists in America to try to put things in perspective. You think you are really suffering because this radio station don’t play the shit? It’s nothing compared to what other people go through. So, you really need to be realistic about what it means to be censored. No one is really censoring us, they are just really giving us this ultimatum. So I continue to say what I say, and I encourage others to say what they say.
MR: Speaking of freedom of speech, wasn’t the CIA or FBI on your or one of your band member’s trail? This to me is very interesting, showing fans how effective you are as an artist–that what you’re saying is definitely something the administration seems to want to hide and protect. It’s almost like you’re saying aliens exist, and they want to keep it hush hush.
MF: What happened is, we have one band member who has a sister in the military and we played a show speaking out against the war on March 15th, 2003, and the next day, March 16th, there were two military intelligence officers who came to his mother’s house and were asking questions about their son and his involvement with our band and his sister who is in the military. And why our management offices are called Guerilla Management. They had the names of everybody who worked for our band and for our management office. Everyone. They had flight records, where we’d been, they had banking records. They mainly wanted to intimidate. It was a very scary time for us, it was just before the War broke out, and we were nervous about what could possibly happen to us. But in the end, we as a family, management and us as a band, continued to do what we’re doing. If we’re drawing this attention, yes, it means that we’re doing the right thing. We just kept going.
MR: Lastly, I read a meditation tip that went:
“Dance like no one’s watching,
love like you’ve never been hurt,
sing like no one’s listening,
live like it’s heaven on earth”
MF: [Immediately interrupting me] Yeah man, I like that one.
MR: I immediately thought of you and your message in this album. Do you agree and live accordingly?
MF: Yeah, I love that, I’ve heard that one before. I really try to honor those words in my music. When we play, I want people to feel free, to really express themselves, to speak from their heart, act from their heart, to vote from their heart. How many times we censor ourselves, we censor our actions, we censor the way we love, we censor the way we dance because we’re afraid of how it’s gonna look to other people. But we look the most beautiful when we look like ourselves.
For more information check out the Spearhead website, www.spearheadvibrations.com.