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Taken from TheStar.com (Jan 12, 2009)

Uplifting music for the 'difficult night'

by Craig and Marc Kielburger

Michael Franti
Reggae musician Michael Franti has travelled to Baghdad to gather stories
for his songs of protest, but his latest song is one that celebrates
the election of Barack Obama.

Michael Franti’s newest single is called the "Obama Song."

It’s an upbeat anthem about the U.S. President-elect - a man whose name coincidentally lends itself well to rhythm. But for Franti, the new song is more than a catchy beat or homage to America’s first African-American president. It’s about getting people excited for the future.

The 6-foot-6 dreadlocked musician has become known on the festival circuit for taking on poverty and corruption in his rock, reggae and hip-hop-inspired protest songs. But while his past music focused on giving voice to the voiceless, the "Obama Song" is about celebration.

“I wanted to make songs about love and life and moving forward, especially leading up to the election,” says Franti. “I wanted to create an album that would help people shake the cynicism off their shoulders.”

Franti’s music is meant to rally the public and raise awareness - but he wanted to take the music further. To protest the world’s injustices, he needed to experience them.

So, Franti packed his guitar and headed to the streets of Baghdad where he began documenting the human cost of war.

“I tried to imagine what I would want to tell me friends if it were San Francisco being attacked,” he says. “Ever since, I had that curiosity. I wanted to know.”

Franti hired two drivers who promptly showed him their protection - a handgun and a grenade. They explained the risk of heading outside the protected areas. But Franti wanted to meet locals. So, the driver took them to his own Baghdad neighbourhood.

Nervous, Franti began street-busking, to the amazement of onlookers. He strummed and sang a song with one lyric - habibi, the Arabic world for friend. The people approached, wondering where he was from and what he was doing. Quickly, they welcomed Franti to their country.

“They would tell me about their lives, bring me into their homes, show me the shelters they had hid in during the bombings,” he says. “They were so welcoming. But, they just wanted to be heard.”

Franti told their stories on his album, Yell Fire!

“Razor wire on the street every corner, ninety degrees at six in the morning; Boiling water for the tea of a nation, planting seeds for next generation,” he sings in "What I’ve Seen." “Run like mad just a make a connection; pack what you need for your own protection.”

The album took on the war and could be heard at protests across North America. But, with the realization that people were becoming cynical about their own and others’ futures, Franti decided it was time to go in a new direction.

The result was All Rebel Rockers. Still drawing on his experiences in Iraq, Franti made something uplifting - something giving people hope. As one song says, “Hey world, you know you’ve got to put up a fight.”

“I don’t know if music can change the world overnight, but I know it can help us through a difficult night,” says Franti. “We all just need something to get us through to tomorrow.”

For his next project, the musician plans on traveling to Africa to hear the stories of poverty, war and HIV/AIDS. But, for now, he’ll continue touring, singing the "Obama Song" with the hope of inspiring people towards a better future.

And that’s exactly the purpose of music, he says. Just as important as those who cure the diseases, teach the children and fund the programs, musicians have the power to rally the public, make people pay attention and, hopefully, make the smile.

"You just need to give the people something they can sing along to," says Franti. "You have a lot more opportunity to reach them with your message if they go home singing the chorus.”

Craig and Marc Kielburger are children's rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world. Their column appears Mondays - take part in the discussion online at thestar.com/globalvoices.


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