Thursday, October 18, 2007
When the guitar riffs hit, the audience doesn’t nod their heads or pass around joints. Instead, the camouflaged crowd clutches M16s and stands ready to wage war. The dreadlocked musician at the center of their attention then offers this message: “We can bomb the world to pieces/ but we can’t bomb it into peace.”
In perhaps his most nerve-wracking performance, Michael Franti sang his famous anti-war anthem “Bomb the World” in front of American soldiers stationed in Baghdad. Franti says he was ready to take cover. “I thought these guys were going to raise their barrels at me, but they didn’t. They suddenly paid attention and said, ‘Well, who is this guy? And he’s got big balls to walk in and sing a song like that. Let’s sit down and talk to him.’ ”
As portrayed in Franti’s documentary I Know I’m Not Alone, the soldiers later partied with the peacenik. Throughout the film his provocative music and down-to-earth personality were the keys that unlocked a flood of dialogue, coming from families, poets, nurses and cab drivers. And it is precisely this kind of elevated social awareness that Franti hopes Monterey listeners will take home—while dancing and smiling, of course.
“I really think that music inspires consciousness which then inspires action,” Franti says. “My goal anytime I play anywhere is to make music that is joyful.”
Franti’s band Spearhead certainly gets any crowd jumping with their reggae-infused blend of hip-hop, rock and funk. Franti is the towering maestro of the quintet, consistently calling on Manas Itiene and Carl Young to “smash up the place” on drums and bass while beckoning solos from guitarist Dave Shul and keyboardist Raleigh Neil. Their set ventures from hyped-up hits like “Rock the Nation” to heart-soothing sojourns such as “One Step Closer to You.”
Spearhead’s latest album, Yell Fire!, is a testament to the band’s gripping blend of political calls to action and goofy dance tracks. The song “Light Up Ya Lighter” encapsulates Franti’s frustration with the United States’ military tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq: “And we never ever ever keep a body count/ We’re killing so efficiently we can’t keep count.”
The album was inspired by Franti’s 2004 visit to Iraq, Israel and Palestine, where he filmed his documentary. Guitar in hand, Franti covered a lot of ground, visiting amputated children, bomb shelters and barbed-wire borders.
Franti, a longtime social justice advocate, says his trip motivated him to continue his pursuit to end the War in Iraq. “I felt the sense of responsibility, which gave me even more purpose,” Franti says. “While I was there I felt that something needed to be done.”
Making conscious music has been Franti’s habit for more than 20 years. The San Franciscan started out as a bass player with the short-lived punk outfit The Beatnigs and then became the baritone MC for Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The hip-hop group’s hit “Television, the Drug of the Nation,” which came out in 1992, still resonates today. Now Franti is recording his sixth album with Spearhead, which released its debut Home in 1994.
Franti says Spearhead’s success comes from its combination of a progressive political message and energetic performances. “At the end of the day all music is political in some way,” Franti says. “Either you are saying the status quo is OK—that’s what pop music does. Rock and roll, when it’s at its best, tells you that the world is fucked up and you can fix it.”
And Franti is working diligently to do just that. The 41-year-old vegan recently released a children’s book championing self-acceptance. Every year he organizes the annual Power to the Peaceful Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Sept. 11. Now the band is taking the festival international, starting with Brazil in December—and there are talks of taking it to Japan and Australia.
Franti admits that it’s difficult to motivate a population far removed from the atrocities of war to take action. But he says sharing information, at places such as concerts, is a place to start. “We have to educate ourselves and be aware as possible,” he says, “and share that information with others and then find ways everyday that we can help promote positive change.”
Franti says that includes cutting back on the use of oil, supporting companies that are supplying renewable energy, and voting. He also believes that the reforms most needed in the United States, such as ending the War in Iraq, establishing universal health care and combating global warming, are based on fundamental principles that go beyond party lines.
“I believe the changes that need to be made in this country are not Republican or Democrat,” he says. “They are just things that are based on truth.”