Michael Franti & Spearhead Play for Peace
Coming on the heels of their stunningly cathartic and impromptu free show/anti-war rally in The City’s Precita Park on September 16th, Michael Franti & Spearhead launched another volley for peace and social change with their third annual “911” free show on October 6th in Dolores Park. In contrast to the September 16th show which was specifically put together as a response to the events of September 11th – this show, was planned well before those events and was billed as such to draw attention to the plight of incarcerated journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, and to protest the death penalty and prison industrial complex. Due to current events, the theme was expanded to also be another anti-war rally. It was a beautiful, sunny day and positive vibes abounded. Featuring speakers such as activists Pam and Mario Africa, Global Exchange’s Medea Benjamin, and environmentalist Julia Butterfly Hill, the event had a decidedly socially conscious tone, which is in line with Franti’s musical mission.
“My music has always been about trying to enrage and enlighten and inspire people”, said Franti before the show. “I want people to hear things that are going to be shocking to them, I want people to feel enlightened when they hear things that they haven’t heard before, and I want people to feel inspired when they leave their experience, whether it’s a show or listening to the album. I want people to feel uplifted, like they can go on with their life, and they could work for change and work for peace and that they’re not alone.”
Franti achieved these goals in compelling fashion with the September 16th show, at a time when emotional healing was desperately needed. The October 6th show provided more of the same. Drawing mainly from their incredibly prescient new concept album, “Stay Human”, the band delivered an inspired balance between groovy funk and hip-hop social commentary. The show opening, spoken-word version of political diatribe “Rock the Nation” set the tone Franti clearly wanted people to be able to hear the song’s provocative lyrics, which openly question the current political paradigm and call for people to become more active in seeking to catalyze meaningful change in the world. The gospel-prayer tinged “Oh My God” provided more of the same theme, but in a deeply soulful context. By the time the band returned to “Rock the Nation” halfway through the set for a fully electrified version, Spearhead had won the crowd over completely.
The set-closing feel-good rocker “Sometimes” brought it all home, and had the entire crowd bouncing up and down in jubilance. It featured actor Woody Harrelson, who appears on “Stay Human” as the voice of a right-wing state governor, being pulled out of the front row to join Franti onstage and share in singing the chorus “sometimes, I feel like I can do anything, sometimes I’m so alive, sometimes, I feel like I can zoom across the sky”. The positive vibes continued after the show as the crowd wound up forming an impromptu meditation circle for peace!
The band succeeded in raising political awareness and raising spirits. In these troubled times, it seems like a strategy more bands ought to employ if music is to be utilized to its full potential to help change the world a potential first hinted at in the 1960s and whose real chance to shine may now be dawning.
“I consider music to be one of the healing arts”, said Franti before the September 16th show. “We hear the drums of war being beaten. Music can be a place where the drums of peace can have a chance to be heard.”
I had the pleasure of conducting a brief interview with Franti before the Dolores Park show. To this reporter’s view, Franti is one of the most inspiring artists on the planet, as he constantly seeks to help people get their groove on AND to raise awareness about needed social change in the world. Some jambands already have a few songs in this vein Galactic’s “Something’s Wrong with This Picture”, Phish’s “Sand”, String Cheese Incident’s “Black and White”, etc. I’ve had a vision of a Peace-a-palooza type festival in 2002 that would bring these type of jambands together with socially-conscious “alternative” acts such as Pearl Jam, U2, Neil Young, etc. I took the opportunity to query Franti about his relations with some of these acts, as well as probing deeper into his creative process during the making of the “Stay Human” album.
I knew Spearhead had already played with String Cheese, and asked him how that came about-
Franti: “We played with String Cheese a few times, some of the guys in the band were I guess fans of our music, and they invited us to play and we’d played out in Colorado a lot and a lot of the trips that we made out there, either Michael or Travis would come sit in with us.”
Franti’s previous band, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprasy, had once been invited to tour with U2. I asked him if he was still in touch with Bono
Franti: “I still speak with him (Bono) occasionally When we were putting this album together, our new album, Stay Human’, which has a theme of the death penalty in it, I put the word out to a number of artists, who would like to make comments about the death penalty? And Bono was one of the first people to call and respond and make a statement about the death penalty”
I then asked him if he’d ever met Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam
Franti: “I met him a long, long, long time agoand it was cool You know, he’s an inspired person, and I’m glad that he’s a part of music, part of keeping the soul of music alive People talk about soul music in reference to black R&B music, and I feel like soul music is anything that comes directly from someone’s heart and it’s really more about your intentions and motives behind doing it, than it is just what the music sounds like or the style of music.”
I followed this by inquiring about the thought process behind deciding to make “Stay Human” a concept album with such a powerful socio-political message
Franti: “On this record, we started our own record label before we put it out, so I wanted to really concentrate and think – if I only made one album in my whole life what would it say? And these are all the things I wanted to talk about: about the death penalty, about medical marijuana, about the importance of cultural diversity and the celebration of diversity, and finally the main message of the album is the title, Stay Human, how do we stay human in these times that are so crazy and pushing us out of our humanity?”
An excellent question. For those having a hard time with finding the answers in these turbulent times, this reporter strongly recommends picking up a copy of “Stay Human”. Upon visiting Spearhead’s website (http://www.spearheadvibrations.com/) I was surprised to discover a video clip for “Rock the Nation”. I had never seen it on MTV or VH1 and upon viewing it, I realized why. Besides the fact that the lyrics are far more provocative than anything those networks show, the video itself would be seen as extremely controversial for its tacit endorsement of “Taxi Driver”
style vigilantism. I asked Franti about whether he ever imagined the video would get any airplay
Franti: “I never cared about that (getting it on MTV.) I just wanted to make a statement with a video, and its ironic, because the statement I was trying to make with the video and it came out a long time six months before all this stuff went down (the 9/11 attacks) was that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter and that often times we confuse those things. So I chose to use the film “Taxi Driver” as an example of that. In “Taxi Driver”, Travis Bickle is this guy who sets out to rid the world of all its evil, and so he decides to arm himself, and the first person he’s gonna go after is this politician, and when he’s not successful at murdering this politician, he then goes after a pimp and when he kills this pimp at the end of the movie, instead of him being like this evil guy who killed the politician, now he’s this hero, who killed the pimp and the point of it is that killing is wrong in all its forms and often it just depends on which side of the killing you’re on, that determines whether you’re conceived by society to be a hero or the villain.”
This reporter would submit the notion that what the music world needs now is some more visionary musicians with Franti’s combination of insight on the world’s problems AND the guts to stand up and sing about them. I ended the interview by asking what advice he had for weekend revolutionaries, since most people in this paradigm are required to be 40-hour per week wage slaves to support themselves
Franti: “Well, the thing that I would say is that there’s ways that we can make changes in our life every day. Through the businesses that we support, through the products that we buy, through the best form of media, which I still feel is one on one communication, you know, we can help each other. And, it all kind of begins within our hearts, that’s ultimately what peace is, is a sense of balance for all of us, and that balance needs to start within each of our hearts.”
Say word, a visionary message from a visionary man. Many thanks to Michael and Guerrilla Management for the interview, and for putting on these inspiring shows.
For more information on Spearhead, see:
Greg Schwartz can be reached at: