Taken from Connect Savannah (FEBRUARY 11, 2004)
Music is most powerful when it helps us keep going
Counterculture musical icon Michael Franti opens for Ziggy Marley Saturday at the Trustee's
by JIM REED
While news of the upcoming Savannah appearance by Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers has thrilled local fans of world and reggae music to no end, one may be surprised to find that a sizable portion of ticketholders may be most excited to see his opening act.
Beginning with his work in the late 1980s as a member of the radical Bay Area black punk band The Beatnigs, and continuing through his later efforts as a founding member of the pioneering rap/jazz fusion project The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (with Charlie Hunter), Michael Franti has stood at the forefront of an ever-evolving style of popular music that is almost impossible to easily categorize.
A charismatic writer, performer and recording artist, he often seems to combine the essence of such revolutionary and controversial black edu-tainers as Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron all while keeping an eye on the future, seeking out new musical trends and political causes. He's become an icon of modern-day protest music.
Since 1994, he's fronted Spearhead, and since 1999, he's put on San Francisco's "Power to the Peaceful" festival (a massive event combining nonviolent protest and global awareness with spiritually uplifting entertainment). Oddly enough, that event has fallen each year on September 11th, the sad irony of which is not lost on Franti. Although he and Ziggy Marley have remained close friends since they met on 1997's Smoking Grooves Tour, this is the first time since then the two musicians have joined forces for an extended jaunt.
He spoke to me by cell phone only moments after leaving a Women's Maximum Security Prison in New Mexico, where he and his band had just played a free show for over 200 female inmates.
Connect Savannah: How did the show go?
Michael Franti: It was one of the most amazing gigs of my life. We've done quite a few prison shows before - like juvenile facilities, and some for men, but I've never done a women's prison before.
CS: Was anyone there familiar with you?
MF: Not that I know of. Actually, there was one woman who said she'd seen one of my videos before.
CS: Your tour manager told me he believes that right now is the perfect time in both of your lives for you and Ziggy to be playing together. Would you agree?
MF: I do agree with that. Although Ziggy plays reggae and we play this weird far-out mixture of funk and rap and rock and reggae and jazz, we carry the same spirit. If I could identify it as one thing, it would be the spirit that music has the ability to open people's hearts and bring emotion to the surface that don't often have the chance to get there on their own. Today at the prison was a really great reminder of that for me. Everyone at first was sitting in chairs, and gradually as they tuned into us they came forward. By the end the whole crowd was dancing in a circle and taking turns showing off. For the finale, many people were arm in arm and crying. Ziggy and I share the belief that music is at its best when it does that.
CS: Has your outlook on your career changed much over the years?
MF: I don't know if music can change the world overnight, but I do know it can help us make it through difficult things. Just to have that endurance... Music is most powerful when it helps us to keep going.
CS: Is it getting harder to offer people hope these days?
MF: I think it's hard at anytime. But right now, people are in need of safe places to express their feelings. It's an election year and we're in a very difficult time in the world. It's very important that each of us take a moment, pause and ask where we want our nation to be five years from now. Do we want to be viewed as a nation of benevolent people who look out for the best interests of the whole planet, or do we want to be a nation that's feared because of our military might?
CS: You've worked with an amazing list of artists so far William S. Burroughs, just to name one. What did you take away from that rare experience?
MF: Every person I've ever worked with, whether they're the biggest group in the world, filling arenas like U2 or some local punk rock band that's getting started, I always learn something from them. I try to always remain a student of music. That's one of the main things I learned from William Burroughs. Although when we worked together he was 78 years old, he still remained a student of writing and music, and of the world. He didn't read about the world in the paper. He would read the world. From that, he was able to remain creative. I have a tradition in my house that every Thanksgiving we draw a picture of what we're thankful for. And every year I look at my picture and realize it looks the same as the way I drew in the 6th grade! That's because that's when I stopped drawing pictures every day. Our creativity only stops when we don't practice being creative. If you work on things like that every day, it'll keep you alive. That's what William taught me.
Michael Franti & Spearhead open for Ziggy Marley Saturday night at 8:00 pm at Trustees Theatre.