Taken from Real Change (January 23, 2003)
Spearhead's Micheal Franti Unplugged
Zen and the peaceful power of music
by Paul Rice
Michael Franti has a reputation for being one of the most deep, sensitive, socially conscious artists in America today. He has been making music since 1988, beginning his career in a group called The Beatnigs, going on to form The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in 1990, and then Spearhead in 1994. The sound of Franti's music has shifted along with his band affiliations. The Beatnigs were a hybrid of industrial music and punk rock, while Disposable Heroes was hard-hitting hip-hop with a potent and well-versed political and social message. And it is impossible to relegate Spearhead's music to a single category; it's simply the smoothest blend of funk, jazz, hip-hop, rock, and reggae. Franti and his band have created one of the most unique styles of the last decade.
The sounds are eclectic, and the lyrics deal with a broad range of themes: HIV, racism, war, homelessness, police brutality, and homophobia. Franti's concern for the well-being and happiness of all humanity knits together each of his concerns.
Although Franti's work has often been ignored by the mainstream, his current group Spearhead has a huge underground following, especially here in Seattle. They often play to sold-out venues, offering an "Exspearience" - or, as Franti puts it on the Spearhead website, a "part booty-shaking jam session, part cosmic transformation, and part social activism assembly, all rolled into one sweaty, sexy, raucous good time."
Next time he brings Spearhead to town, go see the show. You will understand why Michael Franti is one of the most revolutionary musical artists of our time. And you won't be able to stop dancing.
Franti spoke to Real Change just before he comes to Seattle February 6 to perform spoken-word poetry for the first public event of a new regional coalition called 10,000 Flowers.
Real Change: It is always a big deal when you and/or Spearhead do a show in Seattle, and you seem to find yourself here quite frequently. Can you speak a little about your connection to this city?
Michael Franti: I have a strong connection to Seattle; my wife is from Seattle. I've spent quite a bit of time up there. I was there during the WTO. One thing I really like about Seattle is that there are a lot of people there who believe that the world can be different. Sometimes there are moments in time when we feel that things are really going to change, like when the WTO stuff was happening, everyone was thinking, "Man, the world is really going to change!" and "Here it is in our faces - the revolution is occurring right before our eyes!" And then we wake up the next morning and we read all these lies in the newspaper and we feel frustrated - like, "Man! All this incredible stuff has happened, and now we've been reduced to [being likened to] anarchists or terrorists!" It takes inspiration and it takes patience and it takes healing. And that is what the 10,000 Flowers project is all about, bringing together those elements.
RC: You have done a couple songs about basketball over the years, namely "Dream Team" on the album Home and "Why oh Why" on Chocolate Supa Highway. What does the game mean to you and how has it affected your life?
Franti: Well, when I was growing up, I was adopted and raised in a family that I never really felt like I fit in with. The father that raised me was an alcoholic. Basketball was something I did that made me feel good about myself. I could be away from the craziness of my family and just be out on the court for long hours at a time. The more I did it, the better I became at it. Eventually I went on and played at the University of San Francisco. By the time I got to college, it became something different. It wasn't fun anymore...it became a business. It was less fulfilling for me. By the time I was done playing ball at the university I was kind of burned out on it, but it's taken on a more of a Zen practice: I really enjoy going out on the court and working on my shot, dribbling, and such. When I'm playing I feel like I'm in the moment. I don't feel like I'm worried about the past or thinking about the future. Basketball taught me the tenacity to keep going.
RC: You did a song with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy called "Famous and Dandy (Like Amos and Andy)" that speaks to the exploitation of Black culture in America. Do you see this song being pertinent in our world today?
Franti: That song was recognizing that there are very few options for young Black men in American culture. Being an athlete or an entertainer are the things held up to us as examples of success, and that is still true today. I've done both - I've been an athlete and I'm a musician. But what I've always tried to do through my music is to make the music that is about me and not just making it because it's going to sell, not just change the style of my music because of what the radio is playing. My message in my music has always been, "Be Yourself."
RC: One of your more commercially successful songs, called "Hole in the Bucket," is about your own efforts to understand and deal with homelessness. What led you to create that song?
Franti: It's a sad irony that we live in the richest nation in the world, but we still have people living on the streets. When you go to nations in Europe, they have a different attitude about it. The people understand that when a society is really strong, those things - education, health care, a roof over your head - should be taken care of. That those people who fall through the cracks should have a safety net provided for them. And when we don't have that safety net, we end up making our society weaker. The more people that we have falling through the cracks, the worse it is for all of us.
That song "Hole in the Bucket" is about my own experience living in San Francisco. I'd walk to the corner grocery store everyday and people would ask me for change. I'd have all these things going through my head like... "Is this guy going to buy crack? Is this guy going to buy alcohol?" I'd be passing all these judgments about this person's life who I'd never even met before. And I'd be making a judgment that I'm not going to give them these 28 cents that I have in my pocket. I'd go home, sit down on my couch, and lift up the cushions - and there's all this change from my pocket sitting there in between the cracks of my sofa. Meanwhile, there's a person on the street, hungry.
To me, it's a personal thing, but it's also a metaphor for something larger. We say as a nation that we don't want to spend a small amount of money on helping people, but we'll happily go drop a bomb that costs $750,000, drop thousands and thousands of them on people in Afghanistan. It just doesn't make sense.
RC: Our world seems to be constantly steeped in conflict and violence these days. Your new album called Songs from the Front Porch is an acoustic effort that is intended to create a peaceful state of mind for the listener in these turbulent times. How does this album fit in to the way you see the world right now?
Franti: I feel like the role of the artist today is to try to enrage, enlighten, and inspire. Sometimes I think it's really good that we get out, through the music, our frustrations, and our anger. I also think that there are other times where the music should take us inward and help us to sit down and be mindful, and create peace in our own hearts and remove judgment and self-criticism, so we're prepared to go out and face the challenges of the world. Right now we're facing a lot of challenges.
RC: What was it like being in Seattle for the WTO
Franti: Well, my experiences, when I really think back on it, were not about tear gas in the street, or being shot at by rubber bullets. To me it's about the connection I made with a lot of really beautiful people who are working in the world everyday to try to bring about social change. And that's really my lasting memory of the WTO? the connections that I still have to this day with people who are doing things around the world. I'm really grateful to have been there during that time, at that moment. It was really a powerful convergence of people from around the globe who are really trying to bring about social change.
RC: Do you think there has been any social action
in the world as effective and as meaningful since the WTO?
Franti: Yes, but this is a movement that, at the end of the day, is really saying that the human and the natural and the spiritual interests of the world should not have to take a second seat to the corporate and the military and the materialistic interests of the world. That movement is going on around the planet, and the more that the world becomes consumer-oriented and militaristically oriented and less about human beings, and less about human spirit, and less about the natural world, then the greater this energy is going to become to revolt.
What I am in the process of doing by traveling and playing my music is to challenge people to revolt in meaningful and mindful ways instead of ways that are reactionary, because a reaction burns out quickly, and when we're mindful, we think about what we are doing, and why, and that gives us a lasting power.
RC: Do you see this movement having some sort of culmination? Is there an ultimate goal that can be reached?
Franti: I don't think there is one ultimate goal. Just like in everyday life, there's always good days and there's always bad days. There's always going to be things in the world that are going in the right direction and things that are going in the wrong direction. It's continual. So I don't think there is one final thing that we're going to do, but what's important is the drive in the hearts and minds of people to promote the human and the natural interests in this world.