Michael Franti Stays Human: An Interview
Interview by John C. Tripp
Michael Franti is a gifted and much-heralded spoken word artist and political activist from San Francisco, CA. As leader of the politically and socially-charged group Spearhead, Franti is at the forefront of hip-hop’s renaissance, expanding the music’s boundaries as he draws on funk and soul-driven beats. Through his music and poetry, Franti tackles a range of issues–the criminal justice system, corporatization of our daily lives, AIDS, gay rights, homelessness, the death penalty, drug addiction and suicide.
His project Spearhead produced the critically acclaimed Home in 1994. The album contained his biggest single, “Hole in the Bucket,” a thoughtful lament on the plight of the homeless, and “Positive,” which addressed the growing AIDS epidemic. The album boasted adept funk samplings, sinuous guitar vamps, and soulful, melodic tracks about family and social injustice. 1997’s Chocolate Supa Highway was not as pop-friendly as Home, but neither did its themes of kidnappings and police brutality lend themselves to such overt accessibility. Its mixture of harsher musical styles – techno, rock, and funk – was a step forward for Franti as his world view broadened and deepened. In 2001, Franti released Stay Human. In it he expresses his anger at the system, his advocacy of love, and his belief in freedom through individuality and self-expression through a set of songs that revolve around a fictitious death penalty case. In it, his embrace of the genres that inspired him is achieved with eloquence.
JC Tripp: Your music has always inspired me, so it’s nothing new. But I think it’s a new direction for you, as a person who is expressing yourself to humanity. I don’t want to use a catch-word, but it seems more accessible.
MF: Yeah, definitely. I’ve tried to continue to grow, both as a group and as an artist and as we’ve grown we learn things about music and about ourselves. And we try to learn from watching how audiences respond. The music has become, for lack of a better word, more musical. There was a time when we used to just program a beat and I would rhyme over it and know I try to spend a lot of time just sitting at the piano or the guitar, working on chords and song structure and getting the song sounding the way we want it to, just on acoustic guitar. And then from there adding a rhythm to it.
JT: It’s definitely very evident that your writing strong songs and it seems like you’re almost going against the grain, because so many tracks today are just beats or grooves. It’s very refreshing to actually be able to listen to your music and hum it or remember it later on.
MF: I want to write songs that last for time and that people can take into their lives and that hold meaning for people. And right before I got on the phone with you, I was just sitting in a room just listening. I was a fly on the wall with Aaron Neville, Chrissy Hynde, and Mavis Staples listening to the three of them just riff about their life in music and their life in this country and travels. And they invited me into the conversation and I ended up just shutting my mouth because I just wanted to take in everything they had to say, to listen and learn.
JT: Well, I was in San Francisco when you were in the Beatnigs. At that time it was very much industrial music. But, you’ve really evolved as an artist because you’ve gone from primarily spoken word and rap into a really strong vocal style. I’m just curious how that evolved for you.
MF: When I first started, you know I didn’t really intend to be making music. I just was writing lyrics and I startee hanging out with the guys from the Beatnigs. We worked in this cake factory together, me and the drummer. We used to package these cakes, and the cake packaging machine was like this pneumatic glue gun that glued these cardboard boxes together and that’s what we did all day long. And it had this rhythm to it as you were operating it and I would write lyrics to that rhythm and that’s how we got involved in thinking about this industrial sound of rhythms. So then we started going out to the shipyards and banging on pieces of metal. And rehearsing out there because we didn’t have any place to rehearse. And then with Disposable Heroes I started taking the same kind of industrial sounds, and sampling and using drum machines to create heavy beats. And at that time I started working with Charlie Hunter. I was working at this place called Subway Guitars in Berkeley. And learning how to build instruments there. He came in and he was the only guitar player I every saw walk in with a basketball under his arm. So, I thought ‘this guy’s cool, I gotta make some music with him’. So, we started performing together as a duo and then started working on the Disposable Heroes Album. Charlie was really the one who turned me onto chords. For the first time,I could sing a line and if Charlie changed the chord I could here how it almost made my voice sound like I was singing a different melody just by changing the chord structure underneath it. So, he was the one who taught me that and when we started Spearhead he worked on a lot of the sessions with me and that’s when I decided I want to make music with live instruments and start a live band.
JT: And Spearhead has been a band since the mid-nineties?
MF: We started making an album in ’93 and it came out in ’94. A lot of different people pass through the Spearhead crew, but the main bass player, guitar and drummer have been there for a while.
JT: A lot of your lyrics are very humanistic and spiritual, without being religious. How important is spirituality to you?
MF: Well, all of us are trying to constantly transform our lives in search of happiness. And our spirituality is the path that we seek to find that happiness, that union between our body, our mind and our spirit our soul. And this world we live in serves the body and the mind, primarily. Especially in this country, which pays little attention to the soul which is our real self. Through music we’re able to bring ourselves into the moment. And that’s what all of us are really trying to deal with when we feel happy, is just to be. And not be worried about the future, and not concerned about the past and music is one of the things that helps us to be in the moment. When we’re at a nightclub and we feel our bodies go into these states of elation dancing. Or when I’m sitting with an instrument and learning to play or performing music or going to a concert and being around vibrations with others. That’s part of my reason why I make music. But there’s also the connection that comes from knowing ourselves. And the only way that we understand ourselves as individuals better is to spend time in silence. And it’s just like looking into a pond to see our reflection, if we’re always dropping pebbles in that pond we never see our reflection clearly. But when we allow that surface of water to settle we can see ourselves more clearly. So, for me that practice has come through my practicing yoga and it’s the way I’ve learned to be still. It’s the way I’ve learned to open my heart, open my body and open my mind.
JC: Considering how much you tour and all of the pressures of being in your position, it’s probably a great place to go to.
MF: Yeah, and it’s something I can do everywhere I go and I carry my yoga mat with me. Like, today I’m in New York City and there’s a great yoga school here so I took a class today and I’ll take a class tomorrow. But, when I’m in places where there is no school to go I just practice on my own and get to that place. Also, just physically being on the road your body becomes tired and weary and the practice helps that side of it too, to stay fit and have endurance.
JC: With that in mind, do you think of music as a healing force for humanity?
MF: It all depends on the intention that is put into it. Because I went to the Woodstock thing in ’99 and I was thinking ‘this is going to be great. It’s going to be a re-connection to the Woodstock that took place thirty years ago. And it’s going to be this flowery thing and beautiful people and whether it’s sunny or rain comes it’s all going to be great.’ And I got out there and it was bands on stage getting the audience to chant ‘show your tits’, it was bonfires being lit and people looting and people attacking other people, there was fights and people getting drunk and throwing beer bottles out into the middle of the crowd. It was not anything like I imagined it would be. The thing that I really noticed is that the audience takes its cues a lot of times from the music itself and from the artists. And when the artists on-stage are talking and saying ‘we’re all here out in this field and let’s love each other and let’s take care of each other during out time that we’re here’ then that message becomes infectious and spreads amongst people. But when artists are out there saying things that are very negative or selfish, then that ripples out into the audience as well. So, I think it’s really a matter of the intention that’s put into it. And my intention is to create environments that at our shows where people feel like they’re safe to express themselves. And if they need to cry or laugh or raise their fist in the air and get angry, there’s going to be everyone else around them that is supportive and people expressing themselves in a safe way. And we try to make the music funky and danceable and also have seeds planted in the lyrics that people can latch onto.
JC: Well, you’ve come up with some really wicked turns-of-phrase and metaphors that definitely do stick and resonate. Some of your songs, I guess, would be called anthems going all the way back to ‘Television’ and now with ‘Bomb the World’. I’m sure when you write these songs you don’t think of them becoming that but they really reflect a lot of what’s going on in the world or popular culture. How did ‘Bomb the World’ come about, because that’s such a powerful message?
MF: Well, right after September 11 occurred, even before that, we put on a festival on the weekend of September 11 for the last five years. And the first one was an international day or art and culture for Mumia Abdul Jamal. People in cities all over the world who put on concerts, theater performances, poetry readings, art shows to gain awareness of the case of Mumia Abdul Jamal. We selected September 11 because it’s the emergency number that we dial – 911 since we wanted to draw attention to the emergency status of this case. And then on September 11, 2000 we did it again. And the thing that we did was a concert in Delores Park, a free event. The first year it was us and Digital Underground and the second year it was us and Talib Kweli. And so then the third year we were about to put on the show and September 11 occurred so we post-poned the show by two weeks. And in the meantime we put on an emergency show that was declaring San Francisco a hate-free zone because there was a lot of anti-Muslim anti-Arab sentiment whizzing around. And so I sat in the park where we were going to put the show on and had my guitar and started strumming up some chords and I had heard some people talking about ‘yeah, we’re going to bomb this, we’re going to bomb that country’. They were talking about Afghanistan, because the government was already talking about this. And then I just thought to myself, ‘yeah, the only thing we can’t do is bomb the world into peace’. So, that’s how the expression came up and then I sat there and riffed some chords and some lyrics. And then the actual song went through a lot of metamorphosis; we probably did 6 or 7 versions of the song before we came up with the one that, the two actually, that went onto the album.
JC: Do a lot of your songs come out of moments like that?
MF: Yeah, I think they all come out of that in terms of the lyrical idea I always try to write the hook of the song fist. Because it’s really hard to write a verse and then go ‘Oh, God, where’s the chorus?’ If you start with the chorus then you have something worth repeating and it’s kind of catchy then you can always write backwards and work through the verses. So, all of my songs come from moments of inspiration like ‘oh, wow, that really works. That’s a clever pairing of words’. So, I keep my ears open. They all come from something I might hear somebody say on a bus or something. And I might read two bits of graffiti in a bathroom wall that weren’t supposed to go together but they work great. Anything, really.
JC: Your role is more than what is considered the typical musician’s role in the sense that you are very outspoken and your very involved politically. And you always have been and I suppose that’s one of the motivations for what you do?
MF: Uh-huh. You know, when I first started my lyrics were really angry because I felt so powerless in the world. I felt like ‘man, I see all of these things that are happening around me, there’s nothing I can do about it. So, I’m just going to raise my voice as loud as I can.’ And that felt good to me, you know? And then over time I started to realize there’s ways that I could become involved directly. I can go and visit in prisons and sit down with people who are locked up for twenty-five years. I can go to schools and talk to young people. I can get involved politically at demonstrations around the world. And I can become more involved in my community in San Francisco. And I can help to have effect and become active. And as I became more active my songs changed. Because they went from things that were me just lashing out against the system to songs that once I realized I could have a voice in the world, now it became more important to write songs of tenacity, songs of inspiration, songs that were going to keep us alive in this movement that we’re all a part of. So that’s what I try to do today. Half of the songs are things that are going on in the world, and half are things that are going on inside our hearts. I’m trying to write songs that just lift us up. Listening to Aaron Neville today – we’re doing a show tonight with the Blind Boys of Alabama – singing ‘People Get Ready’ and I’m here a sound check and he’s just got his big parka on, he just walked in off the street, he’s got his glasses on and he’s just singing this beautiful song and I’m just sitting here moved to tears just hearing him and one of the Blind Boys sing this song. And I’m just so inspired just from hearing him sing a few bars and those are the songs that I aspire to.
JC: Do you have a idols or people like Bob Marley that you just channel into sometimes?
MF: Yeah, definitely, Bob Marley is one of them. Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, but those are my musical heroes that I really look up to and analyze and think about and dream their music in my head. But it’s always the people I meet, like the Blind Boys of Alabama, who are 73-years-old, blind, and have been doing this since 1943 when they made their first record. And just to watch what they do, and just study everything that they do, that’s really the inspiration for me. Again, just sitting here and listening the Chrissy Hynde shooting shit was Mavis Staples about life on the road. It’s always just people that I come in contact with who have a lot more experience than me who become my heroes, whether I know their music or not.
JC: I don’t want to get to deeply into addressing the policitcs of today, because sometimes it’s just too easy to talk about it. But, it’s almost like, for me anyway going through Bush Sr. and “Desert Storm” and I know you were expressing your opposition to that. Do you ever feel like it’s just a bad dream? How do you deal with this as an artist?
MF: We had a song of a Disposable Heroes album ‘The Winter of the Long Hot Summer’ and you could play it today and it’s almost word-for-word what is happening twelve years ago. And, unfortunately, sometimes political things like that go in cycles. But it’s also a reminder that before the first Gulf War there was thousands of people who were protesting that. And when it started there was tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands maybe. But, before this war started there was, on one weekend, 30 million people in different countries that were all protesting this war. And, we really have to look at things not at the news bit type of world that we live in. And look at things more in the time it takes to grow a tree, and that’s really how the world changes. Stand firm in knowing that in time this tree’s going to bear fruit and without water and air and soil a tree can never grow and the same thing goes with humanity. Without music, without culture, without resistance, we don’t change.
JC: I’m interested in some of your collaborations. You did a song with Buscemi. Are you into the whole downtempo scene?
MF: I’m not really in touch with it but I like it. I’m not really up to speed with all the latest producers and Djs. Most of the collaborations I do just come out of friendships. I don’t ever sit down and go ‘if I could get Bustah on this sound and Ja Rule on this song and J Lo on this song, we’ll sell a million’ you know? I always just comes about, like ‘I was down in Cuba, and I met Meshell Ndegéocello and we did a song’ or I did a radio show in Australia or something and they had Zap Mama on, so we ended up doing a track. They always just come out of friendships.
JC: Just in general, is the idea of dissent being commodified or turned into a product. How do you deal with this?
MF: Well, for better or worse I’m in this business willingly of selling records. And so there is now way around it, you want your record to be everywhere it can possibly be sold. You hope as many people who like it can find it. So, you go out and promote your record and do interviews and tour and do all of those things. That’s the business side of it, but what goes into the music and what goes into the performance on stage and what goes into the song writing, it’s up to each artist to decide how they want to creat their music. Are they trying to create an image that works on MTV? Are they trying to create a beat that they know is just the next edition to last week’s beat? Or are you really digging into your soul and trying to put something in there that other people can relate to. And not really worry about the whims of fashion so much as you are concerned about getting in touch with that place inside you. I try to write songs from my heart so that if I listen back to songs that I wrote ten years ago I can say ‘hey, this is what I was feeling then’ and I can still feel the emotion in it. I always say ‘I don’t know if music can change the world overnight. But I know it can help us make it through a difficult night.’ And that’s the real aspiration I have as a songwriter.
J.C. Tripp is the Editor of Mundovibe.com.
In the late ’80s he resided in San Francisco and published Ipso Facto magazine, on of the first ‘zines to cover the Beatnigs, Michael Franti’s first band.
Free Songs by Michael Franti