Musician, poet and outspoken activist, Michael Franti has rocked the nation with his politically charged lyrics for nearly two decades. He’s the lead singer of the band Spearhead and their new album “Everyone Deserves Music” resonates with messages of hope and inspiration. The music blends a cultivated rhythm of soul, rock, funk, rap and reggae, to generate a sound that naturally brings people together. Throughout his prolific career, he’s covered the full spectrum of social issues from war and peace to poverty and racism, from the environment and globalization to the prison industrial-complex and the death penalty. For over the past four years, Michael has produced the annual “Power to the Peaceful” festival, which has drawn over 20,000 people to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I recently sat down with Michael while he was touring with Ziggy Marley. Shortly after his tour, Michael and the peace delegation, began their two-week journey thru Iraq, Jordan and Israel. The intention of the trip was to see first-hand the affects of the war on all those involved from Iraqi civilians to men and women in uniform. They visited bombsites, hospitals, women centers, universities and refuge camps.
“If I was the Earth I’d be like mountains bountiful and if I were the sky so high, I’d be like wind invincible and if I could be a seed, I would give birth to redwood trees and if I were the trees, I’d generate the freshest air” When did you start to become conscious of the world around you?
Franti: When I was a kid, I was raised in a family that I didn’t “fit in” really. So that gave me a different perspective. I’ve always identified with the underdog and people whose voices weren’t being heard. I’ve always found it strange in our system, our world, our government, that one person gets 51% of a vote and other 49%. Does that mean 49% of the people are wrong? Why doesn’t their feelings get addressed? It shouldn’t be that way. There has to be a way in our daily lives for us to deal with people, on a more individual basis. Like trying to create a consensus of the direction we want things to go. Not feeling comfortable with my family also gave me a different perspective on family. So for me family is not just the people we’re related to by blood, they’re the people who’ve come into your life and stayed in your life. By living with them and learning from them, we feel a connection to them. Then it extends beyond that to community and beyond that to this planet. So as a person, that’s what I’ve wanted to do define my family as the planet as a whole and try to connect with it, as much as I can.
Could you tell me some things about yourself growing up and some of your influences?
Franti: I was born in Oakland California. I was given up for adoption at birth. The biggest influence in my life growing up was playing sports. I never identified with jock culture and didn’t always get along with the jocks but sports taught me something about overcoming our weaknesses and the things that are difficult for you and how to get better at them. That’s something I’ve carried with me throughout my life. I’m always looking for something new to learn and to become better at being a musician. Musically in my house there were a lot of soul artists, generally we listened to a bunch of soul music that wouldn’t be consider in the “soul genre.” It would be things like Neil Young, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Santana. To me, those were the artists that spoke to my heart. They spoke about things that were spiritual; they spoke about the power of love. Through all their songs, it was as if there was a war going on in the world between love and hate. They were on the side of love and music should be on the side of love. That’s what they were fighting for and you knew that from their songs.
Have you always believed in peace and love or has that blossomed in you over time?
Franti: Growing up, I’d see footage of John Lennon with long hair, sitting in his bed with Yoko Ono waving a tambourine singing “Peace”. It becomes like a cliché. But now that were in a time of war, you see that what they’re saying then was really radical. And I never imagined that I would live in a time where to be on the side of peace would be considered radical. I don’t blame our culture for that, but I do blame the fact that the military, the government, and the U.S. media have continued to keep under wraps the realities of this war. During the Vietnam War, you saw pictures of kids screaming and homes being burned; we haven’t seen an image of one body on TV. An Amnesty International report [Statistics from 3/04] says there’s between 7,000 and 9,000 civilians who’ve died in Iraq. We’ve had over 500 American and “god knows” how many Iraqi soldiers killed and we haven’t seen one of them. And that to me is wrong. When we’re talking about war, you have to talk about what it really is. You can’t sit on TV and talk about the political cost, the economic cost and not be real about the human cost. I think if people were allowed to see the human cost of war, overnight there would be a shift. People would say this is not what I want in my life—the fear of being bombed. We’d be a lot more cautious to beat the drums of war and go oversees and do this to other people, if we knew the potential we could be doing to ourselves.
Given the current state of our world – there’s a war in Iraq, a corporation in the white house, environmental degradation and economic hardship; how do you manage to keep a positive outlook?
Franti: [Laughs] Well, I play music. It’s a great way to stay positive by expressing yourself with song. Or I find some other creative expression and I practice Yoga daily. Which is another way to take time in the day to put yourself in some positions, that are often quite uncomfortable; and to be able to still your mind, even through that discomfort. To be able to breathe and remain calm and find that serenity inside, even though your body is saying, “what the fuck you doing to me.” And that’s where we are in this world today; we’re walking around going, “what the fuck!” I never imagined we’d be in a world today where every night on TV, we’d hear people talking about religion…from a very fanatical viewpoint. With the film The Passion and all the tension that exists with the Islamic world, the Christian world, the Hindu world, and the Jewish world; I never would have imagined at this point in history, we’d still be dealing with this stuff. Because to me we’re all a part of God and God is within each of us. We all have a different route to find God. To me it doesn’t matter what your path is. It doesn’t matter who you sleep with along the way. It just matters to me that you find it and are successful in your vision of it. I’m not going to try to preach to you or teach you how you should find it. That’s for you to decide. I see this stuff on TV today and it’s like, “Man, this is the time we’re living in; I feel like we back in the fucking 1950’s.”
What do you think of the presidential “hopefuls” and Ralph Nader’s candidacy?
Franti: I’m really glad to see Ralph enter the race and not because I think he can win or that he’ll destroy the race either. But I like the fact that he’s able to bring up questions that nobody else brings up. What candidate have you heard saying, “It’s corporate money that’s destroying our political process.” That’s the truth, you know and you’re not going to hear John Kerry say that and you’re not going to hear Bush say that, for sure. John Kerry and George Bush are both members of Yale’s Skull and Bones. [Laughs] Yeah, there you go! They are just flipping the other side of the same coin. Franti: But, I do think there is an opportunity for us today to activate a lot of people and that’s a great thing. I’m glad Bush is coming out so strongly against gay marriage. Because I think it’s time in this country for people to wake up. You can’t have the most popular TV show in America be Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and then not allow people to love who they’re gonna love. If you’re partner happens to be the same sex as you, I don’t have a problem with that and I don’t think anyone else should. We’re not doing a service to our kids by cloistering them from reality. It’s better to discuss reality. Yes, there are men who sleep with other men and women who sleep with women. That’s the real world. We should come to grips with it and not try to legislate it out of our view.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a difference in the world?
Franti:I think the easiest place to make a difference is within yourself. I wouldn’t suggest a path for anyone else, but I could just relate to people what my experiences have been. Practicing meditation and yoga have been a great opportunity to use my body as a tool to discover what’s inside me. The body is a great tool for that—to discover your weaknesses, discover your strengths, your beauty and discover what it is that’s holding you back and what brings pain in your life. So whatever people can find that will do that— to reveal and uncover their true self. Not just their body and their physical self. The self that’s inside the body—that’s a great start toward changing the world. The other thing is to envision the world you want to live in and make a plan to see where you can have an effect. That’s why I make music and travel, performing in prisons and schools. I also talk with military people on the street and I try to bring as much loving, kind energy as I can.