Michael Franti, the charismatic and politically astute leader of hip-hop/reggae/soul combo Spearhead, has always used his convictions to inspire his music. But as his sweat-soaked, party-down live shows attest, doing good doesn’t have to mean you can’t have a good time.
Franti, the former front man of the critically-acclaimed Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy (which also featured Charlie Hunter), founded Spearhead in 1994, and has since taken the band from the cult fringe to a close orbit around the center of radical celebrity activism.
Spearhead’s latest album, “Live at the Baobab,” combines songs about police brutality, corruption, and economic injustice with the kind of sing-along melodies and booty-shaking groove that mark Franti’s mission to make “music you can wash your toilet to.”
We spoke to Franti at his San Francisco studio about his music, the role of entertainers as activists, third-party politics, and his latest grassroots project called “911-2000,” a free concert in San Francisco on Sept. 16 to protest the excesses of US prison system and the death penalty.
MoJo: Tell me about the genesis of the “911-2000” event.
Michael Franti: Last year a collection of artists decided to do a day of art and culture for Mumia Abu-Jamal called “Mumia 911.” It went on around the country in various locations — some were art exhibitions and some were concerts. This year we decided to keep the torch alive in San Francisco, but we wanted to expand it to [include all] people who were on death row and really make a statement that in this country we need to put an end to the death penalty and work to finding a non-violent end to violence. And so it’s about the death penalty, but also about the prison industry as a whole. We’re going to have tables from different groups that workon prison reform, prison awareness, and the death penalty. Our goal is to put the question of the death penalty on the table, especially in this election year.
MoJo: Is the move away from Mumia a conscious attempt to not alienate some people who are anti-death penalty but don’t necessarily see Mumia as the ideal focus for that issue, or is it more a matter of not repeating what you’ve already done?
Franti: It’s not a conscious move away from Mumia. The reason I got involved in Mumia’s case in the first place is because I could identify with him so much as a person. He’s known as the voice of the voiceless, he’s a journalist, a writer and powerful poet, and I identify with all those things.
Between now and the election one person is scheduled to be executed in Texas every two weeks. [That] both Gore and Bush are in favor of the death penalty needs to be brought up in a larger way. I feel this country needs to do some soul-searching about the death penalty as a whole.
MoJo: You talked about putting the issue of the death penalty and prisons on the table in this election year. Do you think that those issues are ones that can engage young people with politics, especially given that most young people don’t vote?
Franti: Yeah, prisons especially because they affect so much of the world around us. But I don’t know if [that engagement] will be reflected in the polls, because what gets people out to the polls is when they feel like they can vote for their hopes cand not just against their fears. At the moment it’s fear: “If I don’t vote for Gore then Bush is gonna get in.” We endured eight years of Reagan and four years of Bush. If we had started putting drops in the bucket for the Green Party, or whatever third party, back in the ’80s, by now we’d be running somebody for real. This is the time when we can start planting those seeds for a third party because the choice between Bush and Gore is like having a choice between McDonalds and Burger King. And all of us decided we just gonna shop at the co-op.
MoJo: How do you spread your message to people who might be outside of the self-selecting tribe who already make up a Spearhead crowd?
Franti: Well, what I try to do with my art is to enrage, enlighten, and inspire. And so part of my role is trying to inspire people who already know something but feel burned out or feel [helpless]. Music brings people together and then they realize, “There are 500 or 1,000 other people in my town who think like I do,” and that lifts people up to go out and become active. As we go around the world, I try to reach out to places we don’t get to, like this summer we toured in support of the Indigo Girls, which is an audience we never played in front of before, and people were responsive to it.
Mainly I found that there is a new sentiment that’s growing across this country, and what I see as the role of the movement is to try to create critical mass amongst people. Everywhere I go — even to the small Midwestern towns — I meet people who are saying “My cousin got busted for pot” or “I’m really sick of this waste dump in my community.”
MoJo: How do you define this “movement”?
Franti: That’s something that a lot of us have been trying to do. There was a time when we were fighting against the Vietnam war or for the desegregation of schools and it was easy to tell what the enemy was and what we were up against. Now it’s a matter of corporate control of the world versus the people’s voice being heard, and that’s harder to define because it takes place on so many fronts.
So when I say “the movement,” I mean the energy that was created during the WTO protests and the fact that so many people from airline pilots to radical lesbian feminists to steel workers to environmentalists were coming together and saying “What these corporations are doing is really fucked up, and we want to put a stop to it.”
There was a time when the Gulf War protesters went out onto the Bay Bridge and we shut down the bridge and it got all over the news. Now we go out to shut down the bridge and it just gets on the traffic report. And so where does that leave us in terms of a movement? What have we really done to convince the rest of the country that the things that we’re fighting for are worth them risking part of their lives for?
When we have 30,000 people and one person throws a bottle and all 30,000 of us get fired upon, its kind of irresponsible. If we are going to be a movement then we have to think about what are the goals of the movement and define those clearly.
MoJo: So why focus on just one issue, for instance, prison reform?
Franti: When you start fighting for one thing, I believe that you have to come from a standpoint of compassion. The reason we should be concerned about prisons is because we care about people whose families are destroyed because they’re locked up in prison for 25 years for carrying a joint in their back pocket. Or people who because of their race are picked out of society and locked up. Once you’ve found that compassionate part of your spirit you can then apply it to any of these other issues. It doesn’t become so much an issue of gay rights or black rights anymore, it becomes an issue of social justice across the board.
MoJo: Getting back to the question of finding that balance between activism and entertainment, I know that your previous band, Disposable Heroes, was much more overtly political. How conscious is it that Spearhead is more about engaging people and then giving them the message?
Franti: Well, it’s pretty conscious. I didn’t just want to write songs that were against the system, I wanted to write songs that were for us, that were affirmations.
I found the same thing musically: If you create music that’s really hard, aggressive, and dissonant, you might be able to get people to bang their heads, but its not the thing that they’ll listen to to carry them through the day. And that’s what I want to do — to make music that you can wash your toilet to. I find that with artists like Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley, those are records that I want to put on over and over and over again. I don’t care what they say, they just make me feel great, and as I find what they say, that message just seeps into me and becomes more a part of me.