Heads interview with Michael Franti of Spearhead
By Brother Shine
He’s a rare bird among modern popular musicians, with songs that proudly proclaim a progressive, almost communal message. Michael Franti has always been a pioneer. His first group, back in the late 80s, was the Beatnigs, which had an industrial sound featuring the voice of Malcolm X. Later he challenged Hip Hop’s sexist and gangsta imagery with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopricy. In recent years, his vehicle is Spearhead, whose music is uncompromising in its lyrics and leftist political stand as it echoes the political R&B crooners of the 60s.
Franti is still on the barricades, having protested the Word Trade Organization in Seattle and both the Republican and Democratic conventions where hundreds were arrested in sometimes violent confrontations. He’s also been in the studio working on his latest release, a tribute to community radio such as the Bay Area’s KPFA and New York City’s WBAI. He’s also got another album in the works for next year. He took time out to speak with Heads Magazine about pot, politics and music with a positive message.
Brother Shine: I received a CD release this spring called Stay Human and the best part about it is the gentleman who I consider my brother and a friend, Michael Franti. How’ya doing my brother?
Michael Franti: I’m doing great, man.
BS: I’ve been listening to you intently since Positive and what I’m finding is that all of your CDs are extremely political. I look at you as more of a historian. What’s your take on music and politics?
MF: The main message that I’ve had in my music is in a word: compassion. Recently, [death-row journalist] Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote an open letter to artists saying the main goal of an artist in our time is to try and enrage, enlighten and inspire people, and that’s what I try and do through my music.
BS: You certainly have been enraging and enlightening people. Is that a risk for you in terms of sales and notoriety?
MF: I don’t look at it like it’s a risk. I don’t have any illusion that I’m going to go on and sell multi-millions of records like I was Snoop Dog or Dr. Dre, but that’s not why I got into it. I didn’t get into it to get rich and retire; I got into it because I wanted a vehicle for my voice. Being an artist of a political nature, sometimes it’s hard to make ends meet, but as a band we try and put on great shows that are full of life and partying and fun. That’s what makes the difficult times be so worthwhile. We find joy in what we do and satisfaction beyond just commercial success.
BS: You have interrupted tours just so you can go to a particular demonstration. You were at the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. What did you get from that?
MF: The most amazing thing in Seattle was all kinds of different people coming together. It was great to see radical lesbian feminists next to airline pilots, and steelworkers right next to hardcore environmentalists. Also seeing the lengths that this system will take to silence dissent by the protestors was an eye-opener. People making puppets for the protests were locked up before the conventions even and had their puppets destroyed because the authorities didn’t want these voices heard in the streets.
BS: How did you become a radical musician?
MF: I was a student and basketball player at San Francisco University and I got involved in the campus anti-apartheid movement, but the coaches discouraged players from getting involved in political things. I started writing poetry about the issue and working with a group of musicians off-campus in putting that poetry to music. My first son was born around then so I took a little time off school. I was twenty and had to make decisions because when you have a kid your spare time goes away. So I decided to make music.
BS: The song Stay Human is title track of the new CD. In that song you’re saying that people have to work to stay human. I get the feeling that you work at getting into what the everyday person is into.
MF: I really enjoy it. In Philadelphia, we played a show and this group of people were holding a vigil outside of the jail where all these protestors were being held. I stayed out there until six in the morning just talking, playing songs and sharing poetry with people who were there. I got a lot of satisfaction out of that and a lot of satisfaction talking to people at our shows. Spending time with people afterwards and before the show is a part of my life that I really want to take advantage of. Right now I have the opportunity to do music, travel foreign countries; visit a lot of cities. When I was growing up, I never imagined I would have that opportunity.
BS: On Stay Human you do these radio cuts between the songs. Where did that concept come from?
MF: It came from the reality of our times. Last year radio station KPFA in Berkeley, California was going under some very intense times, with DJs and other people who worked at the station being locked out by the [Pacifica] foundation, which owns the station. I wanted to write a story that was about micro radio and was also about the death penalty. In between all the tracks of the songs are callers into this little station talking about the impending execution of this woman named Sister Fatima and the governor, not unlike George W., who is trying the execute her. It’s a very emotional story told through the voices of people calling into the station.
BS: Doing the voice of the governor on the CD is Woody Harrelson?
BS: How did you get him to work with you on this?
MF: I went on this trip to Cuba with a number of musicians from America and we collaborated with a bunch of Cuban artists to put on a concert, and Woody happened to be one of the people who was invited along—the only non-musician, although he does write songs and sing his own songs from time to time. Since that time, I’ve been involved with him in a number of other things. We did the Spitfire Tour, which is musicians and actors and activists speaking out on global affairs. Woody has been a strong advocate for marijuana reform. He had recently been busted in Kentucky for planting industrial hemp.
BS: They dropped all the charges, didn’t they?
MF: Yeah, the jury acquitted him. Woody’s been on the front lines of social activism from the Hollywood side and I really loved getting him involved. He came in and did a great job of playing the governor.
BS: A close friend of Woody’s as well as yours is Todd McCormick, and if I’m not mistaken he’s in lockdown right now.
MF: He’s not in lockdown, but he has been. I just spoke to him on the phone. He’s serving a five-year term for growing medical marijuana in a state where that’s supposed to be legal. The federal government came in and prosecuted Todd to make an example of anyone who tries to test the law. So he’s doing five years and he has cancer, but he’s standing firm. It infuriates me to think that he’s just one of millions of people in this country who are locked up for marijuana and other petty drug offenses.
BS: When is Todd up for parole?
MF: Actually, he’s not really eligible for parole because of the mandatory minimum sentencing policy. He has to do the five years. He could get a little bit off for good time. Todd does have an appeal pending soon so we’re hoping that with his appeal he’ll have a chance to get out.
BS: Has Todd been getting enough support?
MF: Woody Harrelson initially bailed him out with half a million bucks. He’s got a lot of people behind him who are working to keep his spirits high and make sure he has a little bit of money while he’s in jail. Mostly it’s emotional support, spiritual support.
BS: Marijuana has been used to keep Todd alive since he was 12 years old, am I correct?
MF: He started smoking marijuana at age nine; he was diagnosed with cancer at age six. His mother tried every possible cure and was reading Family Circle magazine—of all magazines—and it said that smoking marijuana may help, and it did. Not only did it help him deal with the pain of going through his various bouts with cancer but it also kept his particular kind of cancer at bay. Now that he’s in jail a lot of us are concerned for his health.
BS: In a lot of your songs you talk about marijuana and police harassment of people who smoke or telling stories about then parties where smoke is. Does your interest come from Todd or have you been dealing with this for quite a while?
MF: It’s an issue I’ve been dealing with for a long time. Just like with gay and lesbian rights, it’s important for people to come out and be counted. The same thing goes for marijuana. Because this is something that’s part of my life, not something that’s evil or makes me a bad person, and something I’m willing to stand up and be counted for.
BS: Let’s return to the music for a moment. On your CD Chocolate Supa Highway is a cut called U Can’t Sing R Song, and on your latest CD the tune Thank You. It seems like every CD you do touches on the music of the 60s and 70s. The song Thank You especially pays homage to the musicians who came before you. Why?
MF: It’s soul music and I don’t use that term lightly. What I mean by soul music is that it’s music that inspires the soul; it’s music that brings out emotions that have been trapped away inside our souls that don’t always have a chance to have a voice or breathe. There were a lot of artists when I was a very young kid like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley who were creating soul music, R&B music, but it was about real things. It wasn’t just about I want to lick you up and down and I’m such a great lover. They were songs about heartache and power, longing and the struggle. They were about the environment and about the world, about plans. You would never see a record like Stevie’s Secret Life of Plants being recorded today. The artists that I admire were able to take all the pain that was going on in the world around them and create beauty by creating music that was able to uplift people. On every record that I do I usually try to pay some homage in song to those artists.
BS: I don’t have a favourite on Stay Human because all the songs are so powerful. But I think I’d play We Don’t Mind because it’s such a pretty song. Where did that come from?
MF: It came from when I was going through a lot of these protests and events that I’ve been involved in. It’s just reflecting on what our communities have been facing, out here in the San Francisco Bay area, the diverse and politically aware community that listens to KPFA radio. Community radio isn’t something we can take for granted anymore, KPFA was taken over last year and there was a struggle we all went through. The song came out of that, “We don’t mind, we’ve been doing it all the time, but if you want us to sacrifice you won’t get it without a price.” It’s kind of an anthem of liberation. Saying to the powers that be out there that you can push us, beat us down, lock us out, but there is going to be a price you will have to pay at some point. You are going to have to be responsible for giving something back to life. If you don’t, there will be an even higher price to pay.
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More about Michael Franti here
This article first appeared in Heads Vol.1 Issue 04 - July 2001
Editor’s note: CD is short for Compact Disk, a diminutive Frisbee-like thingie that came in a jewel case and was the cutting edge of audio technology in the day. CDs usually ended up scratched, stored in the wrong jewel case or lost underneath your car seats. Community radio was a broadcasting vehicle with the aim of serving the social and cultural needs of a specific community. Today its role as a community organizer has largely been replaced with social media.