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Michael Franti: A Rebel Rocker Looks Ahead

Following a summer of headlining shows and more than a dozen music festivals around the globe, it’s not much of a surprise that Michael Franti & Spearhead’s latest album, All Rebel Rockers, received the group’s highest chart position following its release. Audiences received a strong dose of the material at those shows; so much so that the reggae-flavored tracks maintain a level of comfort and familiarity upon the very first listen. Similar to past releases, Franti uses his songs to make the politics of the world into personal statements that are not unrelenting speeches. Just as important, he does this in a musical setting that makes the medicine go down easy. Like Billy Bragg’s keen awareness of social change mixed with the affairs of the heart, numbers such as “Hey World” and “The Future” blend easily with “All I Want Is You” and “Say Hey (I Love You).”

The album’s become the next step in his unending desire to bring people together for a more tolerant and peaceful tomorrow. Not only has Franti done this through his music and, especially, during his uplifting concert performances but he’s branched out into numerous areas in order to affect change. Two examples include a yoga DVD that came out last year and the Power to the Peaceful Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which he’s promoted over the past 10 years.

While the album is still relatively fresh — read my Jambands review for a lengthier explanation of why you should get it — I wanted to concentrate on the current state of politics and how his views regarding society and culture have changed. For the longtime activist, he must have been pleased by more areas of the country turning blue’ yet pragmatic enough to understand that just because more people voted, our work as citizens isn’t done. As I put it near the end, “Let us see us head for a better day starting January 20.” To which the ever-positive artist answered, “I think we’re already there.”

The slightly chopped nature to the interview occurs as I find out at the very last second that I’m on a strict time limit. Fortunately, he was in the mood to keep the conversation going.

JPG: I wanted to talk with you after the election with the idea being that no matter which way the votes were cast we’d start with this. Now what?

MF: I think immediately after the election is a time for us to take in the moment of this historical election. The first black president. And that’s a historic time and it also comes on the heels of our least popular president in history. He was unpopular for a reason. Dubious wars. The administration took advantage of people’s fears after 9/11 to run their own agenda, unilaterally, within our government and within the world — ignoring climate change — and stacking everything in favor of what they thought was in favor of Wall Street. And now we’re in this huge economic mess. At the same time, it is a time to take in the moment and maybe even rejoice a little even, for times have changed. It’s a huge task at hand. Everybody who voted for him has got to give Obama an opportunity to get going, but also hold him accountable for the campaign promises that he made.

JPG: Do you think with this election, and also with so many people calling their representatives to voice their opinion on the financial bailout plan, that people are finally getting the idea that we have to be more responsible? We have to not just sit there and complain all the time, but stick our necks out and make phone calls and make those in Washington D.C. realize that we’re paying attention and we want action?

MF: Very definitely. This election proves one thing is that when the people speak, things happen. It wasn’t that McCain got any less votes than Bush did earlier. It’s just that Obama was able to wake up people who hadn’t voted, and young people and disenfranchised progressive people. And then he was able to do it in such a way that was healing to people in the center and right wing.

JPG: It’s kind of funny. I read the interview you did with the grist: Environmental News & Commentary website (www.grist.org) last year and you’re talking about inspiring people to be a part of a change for a better future. I’m thinking, Hmmm, did Obama or someone in his campaign read your interview. Maybe they owe you something, at least a thank you.’

MF: (slight laugh) I think that in the last two elections, the thing that I remember in every person that I know saying was, Well, I’m just going to vote for the lesser of two evils.’ It’s really hard to get people to vote for Evil Number 2. That’s a tough sell you know. So, some people didn’t go out and vote, especially among the festival and music scene where people are so openhearted in the best way. Someone’s tent falls over and they’re there to help them out. Somebody doesn’t have a ticket and they’re there to help somebody get inside the show. That type of spirit is going on in the music community yet when I would ask them, Did you vote?’ Awwyou know…’ Just not excited about it. They’re so apathetic about it. The right wing in America always knew that, and played it to their advantage. To get less people to vote, strike people from the voting records, put all kinds of roadblocks with voter registration…

JPG: Absolutely. I’ve worked the polls a number of years, so when there’s talk of voter registration, it’s a lot of bull because you could register 100 times but you only have one address. And it will be checked when you approaching the polling precinct. If you go to the wrong place you receive a provisional ballot that’s checked for authenticity later and won’t count if the information doesn’t match.

You mentioned the festival community. For someone who has performed for many festivals, spoke with people, etc. etc. all around the world, do you see youth culture maintaining a positive change without getting sidetracked like the Sixties Generation did?

MF: Yes. Definitely. I think the challenges that you see in the world today are ones that are going to require the efforts of all not just the efforts of one to solve it all. It’s gonna require the ideas that group organizing and the resources of the corporate world and cooperation of government and the hard work of and common sense of every day people. All that. Climate change is not going to happen because the government passed a law. It’s gonna happen because we all make lifestyle choices and decisions about products we buy and how much fuel we use. And that in turn is gonna come to be combined with a sensible plan for the future that in turn gets us out of our dependence on foreign oil. It’ll change the wars that we are dealing with today. All these things are intertwined. I also think that renewable energy is more than an economic issue.

JPG: Absolutely.

MF: Now, talking about the bailout of Detroit. If the big three auto manufacturers would have been looking into the future and saying, Hey, we need more efficient cars,’ they wouldn’t be in this position today where they’re stuck with a bunch of giant SUVs on their lot. It’s almost like, Do we bail out the auto industry or do we put that money and dump it in the future of renewable energy? To be honest, I don’t know. I know we have to invest in renewable energy.

JPG: It’s a scary situation because there is a major GM plant nearby, and I see all the affiliated industries and economic impact. So, letting the auto industry shut down would affect so much more areas. Still, if there is a bailout it has come with conditions in regards to the executives who got the companies into this mess and what they’re producing.

MF: Absolutely. You know DHL [Express] lost 10,000 jobs. So, it’s like do we bailout them or…? So many things have been…I don’t know why they are…

JPG: It’s just all hitting at once.

MF: It’s happened on Bush’s watch.

JPG: The next 100 days can’t come quick enough. As far as things needing to change, climate change and how things connect, let’s say that I changed my light bulbs from incandescent to fluorescent, I’m using a cloth bag rather than plastic for groceries, I weatherstripped and insulated my home… Give me something else to do that takes matters to another level.

MF: In terms of climate change if you’re doing everything you can to personally Green your buying, you personally reduce your carbon footprint. You also are encouraging that type of future. The other thing is that we all have to get more involved in terms of what’s said, voting on a daily basis. Electronically, we have that opportunity to write to the websites, to our lawmakers, to the newsmakers, whatever we can. Make our voices heard. We count. It’s a little old, but if they got a hundred emails today saying we agree or disagree with what’s happening, they’ll pay attention.

JPG: In your own case, your early years with the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, your own transformation to where you are now. Were you always in this mode?

MF: No, most definitely not. I think I was far more actionary’ guy. As a younger artist, I believed that corporations and government are inherently evil. And I don’t believe it. I’ve seen corporations that are willing to take incredible risks to practice better, more ethical business practices and more governments willing to go against whatever’s popular in the news that day and in the world that day and make decisions that is based on the truth. And I’ve also seen politicians who are willing to risk it or maybe change their opinions and maybe work across in a bi-partisan way to get things done rather than watch that nothing happens because they’re stuck in their partisanship. I’m somebody who really believes that unity is the key to the future, being able to have a dialogue. Ultimately, you don’t get everything that you want but we meet somewhere in the middle and get things approved.

JPG: Did the music correlate in the same manner, that as you transformed your views and approaches, the music transformed as well?

MF: Yeah. You know there was a time when my music was shouting into a microphone. Maybe not literally all the time, but my approach to ideas. Today, I want to write songs that fill people’s soul up with the energy to make it through their day as much as I do want to talk about ideas.

JPG: Then when people describe your music as party music,’ is that okay?

MF: No. I definitely want people to be able to dance and let go. I also want there to be meaning in every song. On this record, for example, there’s songs like “A Little Bit of Riddim,” which is definitely a dance and party song. Played live, you jump. The words accomplish that.

JPG: Definitely felt that uplifting vibe when I saw you perform “Say Hey (I Love You)” at the yoga session at ROTHBURY and then later when you were on the main Odeum stage, just seeing the power of that song driving everybody crazy in a good way. Now, back to the idea of transformation. There are so many ways to describe you. Give me an idea of the connection of Michael Franti, an author, documentary filmmaker, yoga practitioner with a DVD, activist, musician, promoter…

MF: Well, everything is just part of what I do, a reason to bring people together. Really, my message is one thing, different walks of life, different countries, different religions, different economic backgrounds, gender, sexuality, I want to bring people together through music. Every bit of our ideas, whether it’s a film or book or singing at a festival during a concert, it’s always dedicated to that. Everybody in our scene understands that.

For example, when the election was happening we were going to play a show in Santa Fe, New Mexico on the night of the first Democratic Party debate. The Democratic Party said, We want to put up a table at your show.’ The debate was happening right when the opening act was supposed to be going on, so we said, Why don’t we screen the debate for the whole crowd?’ We got a widescreen projector and set it up. And then I said, If we’re going to have Democrats there, then we have to have the Republican and Libertarian teams and everybody else who wanted to set up. So, we called up all the different political parties and we had everybody represented there.

JPG: You’ve mentioned the concept of unity. Is that something that has developed as you’ve gone through life that it’s become more of a core issue now? Did it become more important based on your life or through musical influences or your parents instilled it in you?

MF: It came from my background. My mother is Irish/French/German. My father is African-American and Native American. But I was given up for adoption, and I was raised by two Finnish parents. Second generation Finnish-Americans. They had three kids of their own and adopted me and another Black son. So, my whole life, as a kid, I was always wondering, Where do I fit in?’ I felt comfortable in the family and schools or any situation I was in, but I always had to find my own way. And I’ve always identified with that part in everybody that feels like an outsider. I really believe that everybody feels that way. It might not be just by the color of their skin. It might be because some kid likes to paint, but he goes with the rest of the family who are construction workers, some girl likes to play sports, but her family told her she’s going to be in the Girl Scouts. One way or another all of us feel like an outsider. That’s why I wrote a song like “Stay Human (All the Freaky People)” and [the line] “All the freaky people make the beauty in the world.”

JPG: Talk about a song that unites people. Everyone feels like a freak at some point in their life. Last thing, the cover photo on “All Rebel Rockers,” it looks as if there has to be some story behind it.

MF: It was taken at the video shoot we did for say “Hey World (Remote Control Version)” in Bali. There’s a gang of bikers. I spend a lot of time in Bali. They’re a Balinese biker gang. They ride tricked out Vespas; some of em are like 15 feet long and have parts from old World War II machine guns on them and bullhorns. I met em a couple of years ago, and I wanted to do a video there. So, we were just riding around Bali shooting a video for this song.

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