Musician. Poet. Activist. Messenger. These are all terms that fit Michael Franti. His brand of reggae music infused with hip-hop, folk and rock has been a vocal bridge spanning the ever-growing space between global crises and individual human destiny since the 1980s.
His 2001 album “Stay Human,” with its powerful opening track “Oh My God” was the first indicator of his place amongst the current activist/artists who represent this generation’s voice of change. His first documentary, “I Know I’m Not Alone,” released in 2005, followed Franti through Iraq, Palestine and Israel, where he met with civilians and soldiers on all sides of the fighting and captured street-level insight into the impact and human toll of war. Of his latest release, “The Sound of Sunshine,” he says: “Like sunshine, music is a powerful force that can instantly and almost chemically change your entire mood. Music gives us new energy and a stronger sense of purpose.”
Always combining the spiritual with the political, Franti’s message of “power to the peaceful” is as apropos and poignant on stage as on the street amongst an Occupy crowd. I spoke with Franti about his activism and his artistry.
Rebecca Carter for Truthout: What first influenced you to first become politically active?
Michael Franti: My mother was Irish, German and French, and my father was African-American and Seminole Indian. I was adopted, and I grew up in a pretty mixed neighborhood, and although I had a great family that raised me, I always felt like an outsider, and I think everyone’s felt that way at some time. But for my politicization – I guess you would say is the right word (laughing) – my first really governmental political memory is of Richard Nixon resigning. I remember hearing that on the radio. We were driving on a family trip, and the first political memory I have was of someone’s political career dying as a result of corruption.
What came first? The activist or the musician?
I began writing poetry first, and from there I got involved in music when I was going to the University of San Francisco, and I was interested in the South Africa movement and ending the system of apartheid there. So I started writing some poems and performing at those events and at the same started making music with a group, putting some music to my poetry; it was really personal at the same time.
A recurring theme in your music is talking about the human and individual side of global conflict. Would you say that is more important than talking about issues in the broader in the sense?
Well, there’s big-letter-P politics – governments and nations and wars and rhetoric, and then there’s small-P politics, and that’s the people on the street. I think that sometimes we get so caught up in the big-letter-P politics that you forget the importance of the little ones, but as I travel around the world, I never see the big-letter-P politics, and you realize that when you get out on the streets.
For instance, during my time in Iraq, the people I met who were in the war, Iraqi civilians and US soldiers, their voices weren’t being heard at all. One of the things I found was that they didn’t want to hear angry songs; they wanted to hear songs that made them laugh and want to dance and to sing so they could get up in the morning and face the things that they have to face.
The thing is, war isn’t always having bombs dropped on your head, but, “How am I going get across town today? How am I going find food for my kid?” and, “Is there going be a skirmish in my neighborhood between people who are on the same side, but because of the lack of resources, there’s a fight between a shop owner and a supplier who’s trying to get something?” Those are the things that I feel very moved about; those are the things that I write about more than something about the president.
Do musicians have any responsibility to report?
I feel that the responsibility of any artist is to make great art and intrinsic to making great art is having some kind of truth: it could be a political truth; it could be a sexual truth; it could be an event. I feel like every individual has a responsibility to express their views about what’s happening in our society, and that’s what keeps it alive.
Do you affiliate with a political party?
I don’t. I think my political beliefs are farther to the left than any political party could get. There was a time when I just felt like big corporations are the problem, not the government. Then I started to realize there’s a bigger picture to everything. For example, if you want to address climate change, the best science has to offer needs world corporations and the wisdom of indigenous people alike. So, it’s not always as easy as bumper stickers say.
You were very supportive of President Obama during his first election, writing the “Obama Song” – are you supporting him during this campaign?
Well, I’ve never actually endorsed a political candidate, although I suppose making a song celebrating his victory would be an endorsement, although I never officially endorsed a candidate, but the option between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – I’m voting for Obama. I feel like where we’re at economically was not a result of his policies; it is the result of the Bush administration’s eight years of allowing Wall Street to do whatever they felt like and doing what they wanted to do. And I’m a strong supporter of equality and the rights of gay and lesbian people to be equal members of our society, and I think Barack has been doing amazing things in that regard against a Senate and Congress that really didn’t want to go that way. So, I would like to see Obama have four more years and get things going, but at the same time, I’m realistic about the obstructionists, the Republicans. Basically any idea that he had – there was, no “Let’s see if we can work together on this.” It seemed that any idea he brought to the Senate or Congress was just shot down by the Republicans. It’s been very frustrating over the last four years.
Do you think there is any hope for an attitude change from Republicans if he’s elected again?
No, no, I don’t. I think it could be even worse. But that doesn’t mean for me that the option is voting for a rich businessman.
Do you think that race has been playing a different role in politics since Obama’s election?
Politics haven’t become more racist now than any other time, but I do hear race being brought into the conversation so much more, and I think it’s a good thing. The more we talk about it, the more people look at it and examine it and what it means and what it doesn’t mean. For a long time these issues were just whispers, but now they are part of the conversation. The more that these things are talked about openly, and the more discussions that we have on them, the sooner we’ll get to where we want to go, which is a nation of equality.
Have you been supportive of the Occupy movement?
I’m very supportive of Occupy. I went to New York and played in the square out there and I’ve been to different Occupy camps in Dublin and Barcelona and Amsterdam and Milan and a lot of the places I travel to and other cities in America. I feel like the Occupy movement is voicing a dissatisfaction of people who feel like the needs of the business world are taking precedence over the needs of human beings and everyday people who are denied access to the financial world. And so it’s really hard to say exactly what it is that people want and the movement has been accused of being, well, what is it really about? What does it really mean? And it doesn’t need to be about one thing because there are so many things taking place in the world today that are affected by a chain of financial decisions and the way that they affect things on the street. But at the same time, it’s important that we turn Occupy into political power – steering votes and steering policy, and that’s where we’re at today, so it will be interesting to see what takes place during the election. I’m sure we’ll see tons of action at both the RNC [Republican National Convention] and DNC [Democratic National Convention]. I usually attend both: I go and I bring my guitar and end up playing somewhere.
What differences do you see in the people that you’ve met at the DNC versus the RNC?
There are different conversations that are taking place. People have been protesting at the DNC and RNC in the previous three elections leading up to George Bush’s first term and then second term and then the election of Obama. There were different things that were taking place; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and hundreds of thousands of people were marching in the streets saying no to war, and with the election of Obama entered the hopes that these wars would end, but in the meantime, the economy tanked in part because of these wars. Now the conflicts are different, so I think for the first time, we’re going to see a lot more people from the right-wing side out in the street when traditionally it’s always been people from the left out in the street.
Michael Franti & Spearhead are currently on tour in support of “The Sound of Sunshine,” with plans to return to the studio to start work on a new album in the fall. Also in the works is a follow-up documentary to “I Know I’m Not Alone” – which will go back to Iraq to revisit the people interviewed in the first film and discuss how things have changed. For more information and tour dates go to Franti’s web site.