American entertainers have a tradition of visiting war zones, from Bob Hope’s USO tours during World War II to Stephen Colbert’s recent visit to Iraq. They are usually heavily protected by military escorts and relegated to the safest sections of whatever city they’re occupying. But in 2004, Spearhead lead singer and solo artist Michael Franti journeyed to Iraq armed only with a guitar. He was an anomaly, a 6’6 barefoot American, with no bodyguards, no weapons and no agenda other than listening to what both the Iraqi people and U.S. soldiers had to say. Later, he repeated the experience in Israel and Palestine, a process featured in the documentary I Know I’m Not Alone.
After deciding to find out for himself what sort of impact the Iraq war was having on the lives of Iraqi people, Franti flew to the Middle East and spent time on the streets, playing songs and talking with the crowds who came to listen. Using his guitar and a simple song that repeated the Arabic word for “sweetheart,” he created a bridge between cultures that overcame language barriers and mistrust. Before long, he was followed by throngs of children wherever he went, and local people brought him into their homes, introduced him to their families and shared stories of their daily struggles amid violence, blackouts and shortages that most Americans never get to hear.
What you put out into the world is precisely what you get back. Not even “kinda, you might get it back”– no, it’s exactly what you get back. That’s what that song is.
The journey was quintessential Franti. In twenty-five years of combining a multitude of musical styles with committed social activism, he has been a peacemaker, a motivator and above all, a listener. Wherever he plays, whether it’s a prison yard, a college campus or a living room in the West Bank, he talks with people and invariably, incorporates what he hears in song.
Michael Franti spoke with SuperConsciousness about the universal power of music.
SC: When you went to the Middle East, you said “I didn’t go there on a peace mission. I went to play music for people.” What’s the distinction?
MF: I don’t feel like I have the answers to any of the issues in the Middle East. The Iraq trip was in 2004 and we had been there for one year. Even after I left I didn’t feel like I was any closer to understanding how eventually we would ever get out of there or how Iraqis would have a free and independent nation that was stable, stable being the biggest question mark. I didn’t go there, or to Israel and Palestine, thinking that I’m going to be able to solve this thing, or even have a clue about what was going on. I really went there because I wanted to listen to people and I felt like a good way to have people open up is to share music with them. So that’s what I did. I would play music on the street and people would gather around and listen and then I would have a conversation with them.
SC: One of the striking things is that throughout, you maintained a very even stance and you weren’t there to make anybody wrong, even though the sides themselves were polarized. How were you able to maintain that perspective even with everything you were seeing?
I really want to inspire people to shake off the chains of cynicism, and to play a role. It’s something that I’m always trying to do personally, every day, in my own life.
MF: It’s really hard. Just as an example, there’s one day that I go and visit this children’s hospital and meet families and kids who’ve had limbs blown off by U.S. weapons in Baghdad, and then that evening I’m asked to go play for a group of soldiers in their bar when they’re off duty. These might have been the guys who did this to these kids. I left the hospital just completely shattered, in tears, and full of anger – like, man, this is what my tax dollars are going to, is cluster bombing kids?
Then I go and I play for these soldiers, and they talk to me. They say “I’m from Eugene, Oregon, I’m from Tupelo, Mississippi, I’m from Austin, Texas, I’m from some little town in upstate New York.” These are all young men and women who could have come to my shows. For whatever circumstances, they found themselves there. There was even one guy who said to me, “I signed up the day after September 11th, 2001, I thought we were going there to get Saddam because he was involved in 9/11 and because he had weapons of mass destruction. Now I’m finding out that both of those things are untrue and I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing here.”
So you hear those things, and then coming home, meeting soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital who are in the same condition as those kids that I met in Baghdad, you start to develop empathy for everyone in the situation. That’s why at the end of the film I came to the conclusion that I’m not on the side of the Iraqis, Americans, Israelis or Palestinians. I’m on the side of the peacemakers. Everywhere I went I met people who were willing to do incredible things, extreme things, to achieve peace. I was so moved by that, and that’s what I want to support.
SC: Your music has changed over the years from being more polarized in your early days to now. What changed you?
MF: There was one time when I was invited, in the early 90’s, to play music in a prison. I had written songs about the prison industrial complex and how much money was being spent on prisons versus education. I had this song “Crime to be Broke in America” that was on the first Spearhead album.
I was looking around the room at these faces looking at me kind of like, “We didn’t come here to listen to you sing songs about prison. We live here. We know what prison’s about.”
So I was playing this song in the prison and I was looking around the room at these faces looking at me kind of like, “We didn’t come here to listen to you sing songs about prison. We live here. We know what prison’s about. Just sing a song about how you miss your girlfriend. That’s what we want to hear.” Over and over again, I started realizing that it’s the universal themes, the elemental themes which are the strongest and that can take on meaning in many contexts. Those are the songs that really change people and can give people hope and give people strength to deal with whatever it is that they’re facing.
|Franti in Iraq|
SC: You don’t make explicitly spiritual music, yet we could argue that it serves that function for a lot of people. You emphasize responsibility, which is not a terribly popular topic. Your song “Never Too Late” is totally danceable, and yet really you’re talking about the fact that you can’t blame anybody and you’re responsible for your life. Is personal responsibility part of your spiritual ethos?
MF: Definitely. I really want to inspire people to shake off the chains of cynicism, and to play a role. It’s something that I’m always trying to do personally, every day, in my own life – to not get down, and not get discouraged, and find ways to plug in. We do the Power to the Peaceful festival every year, and that’s really what it’s dedicated to, is helping people to find ways that they can give back and make a difference. We do it every year on the weekend closest to September 11th. It came out of that feeling after September 11th that no matter what your political perspective was, there was just so much uncertainty about the world, so much fear about where our nation was headed and where the world was headed. I’ve always found that when I feel that way, the best way to get out of that feeling is to do something to help someone else, to make a contribution in some way. I don’t mean a money contribution, I mean a contribution in terms of time and energy.
I really went there because I wanted to listen to people and I felt like a good way to have people open up is to share music with them. So that’s what I did.
About spirituality and music – I feel that it’s far beyond the lyrics. There’s a song by Miles Davis, “ My Funny Valentine .” There’s just a few little notes that he plays on the trumpet, just him – no other musical accompaniment, no words, no lyrics – but almost every time I hear it, it makes me cry. I don’t know what it is in those particular notes.
|Franti visiting an Iraqi hospital|
SC: In the song “Yes I Will” you sing, “I believe that what we sing to the clouds will rain upon you when your sun has gone away/and I believe that what we dream to the moon will manifest before we rest another day.” How do those lyrics reflect your spiritual beliefs?
MF: That is really sort of the basic principle of karma. What you put out into the world is precisely what you get back. Not even “kinda, you might get it back”– no, it’s exactly what you get back. That’s what that song is. I believe that what you sing to the clouds is going to rain on you at some point.
SC: It seems like in your creative process, you go out and have experiences with people, then you bring those experiences to your music and share it. It’s almost an ongoing conversation with your audience.
MF: That’s very accurate. Sometimes it comes from doing some exotic journey to some culture I’ve never experienced before or it’s like a war or prison, but more often than not it’s just meeting people on the street or conversations after a show, the simple conversations that I have. I guess it kind of underscores the fact that people are the same. We really have the same basic needs. The themes that I write about so often are “home” “sunshine” “togetherness” – the universals. That’s what everyone is longing for – to feel like they belong and like other people care about what their needs are.