Michael Franti: Is Not Alone (Relix Revisited)
Michael Franti and Eugene Hutz share the cover of our latest issue. Here is a look back to July 2006 and our first cover story on Franti, some of which is referenced in the current piece.
“I felt scared every second I was there,” says a barefoot and shirtless Michael Franti, contorting his midsection on a stretch of sun-soaked concrete. It’s a little before two o’clock in the afternoon and Franti has just gotten up, having emerged from Spearhead’s tour bus for his daily yoga session. After driving all-night from yesterday’s stop at the All Good festival in West Virginia, the Big Summer Classic tour has brought the band to the sprawling, evergreen Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. In between yoga positions, Franti is sharing memories of his trip to Iraq. It’s July 2005, just over 13 months since he and a group of filmmaker friends touched down in Baghdad, and the weather is almost identical: hot and sunny.
“As soon as we got off the plane, the first thing we encountered was two cars that had been blown up within the past ten minutes. They were on fire, and bodies were hanging out. Our drivers were like, ‘Keep your cameras down.’ Around the airport, it’s all controlled by the U.S. military. You can’t shoot anything. They’ll just open fire on your car, because they’re so paranoid of people surveilling for car-bombing.”
In between twisting himself like licorice, the dreadlocked Franti has been talking about waking up the morning after the invasion of Iraq, finding a television and seeing politicians and generals discussing the political and economic costs of the war, but never the human cost. Right now, he’s talking about his experience making I Know I’m Not Alone —the documentary film he made while visiting Iraq, Israel, The West Bank and the Gaza strip.
“It was the most powerful experience of my life,” he says, sweat beading on his forehead. “That and having my sons.”
Watching a rough cut of the film on the bus later, it’s easy to understand why: In it, Franti enters a polluted Baghdad inhabited by people in need of water and electricity and littered with bombed-out cars, homes and hotels. He ducks into basements where now-jobless men and their families hid for as long as 11 days in complete darkness during the initial bombings of Baghdad. He visits musicians and double-amputee children. And everywhere he goes—from the streets of Baghdad to a military checkpoint along the barbed wall separating The West Band and Israel—he brings his guitar, playing simple songs for children and protest songs before soldiers.
As Franti types away on his laptop, I watch him on the bus monitor; he spreads smiles on the faces of hospitalized Iraqis, and attracts throngs of children while strumming happy chords to the word “habibi,” Arabic for “my beloved friend.” In occupied territories in The West Bank and on the streets of Baghdad, beaming children are bouncing up and down, chanting “Ha-bee-bee! Ha-bee-bee!” Old men standing nearby grin and dance. I watch as Franti visits an Iraqi thrash-medal band and beatboxes with a Palestinian hip-hop group, before stepping into the rubble of homes bulldozed by Israeli forces, and evoking tears from an Israeli mother who lost her son in a suicide bombing.
Watching the film, you feel the fear of which Franti speaks: During an interview with an on-duty U.S. soldier one night, a bomb explodes nearby and conversation immediately ends. As they walk through a Palestinian neighborhood one afternoon, gunfire sounds out, and everyone within the camera’s eye scatters. You also laugh, and feel joy and excitement, heartbreak and grief. Over 90 minutes, I Know I’m Not Alone illuminates the resilience of the human spirit, while offering different perspectives on the war, one gained from cab drivers and musicians, homesick soldiers and children.
“It’s really emotional to relive, and to see these people that I met,” Franti says, looking up, and closing his computer. “Ya know, when I went to Ground Zero after September 11th, I was like, ‘This is so fucked. I don’t wish this upon anyone.’ And then to go and see face to face…Not only have we done that to people, but we continue to do it every day. There’s gotta be a better way.”
Out of his experiences in the Middle East, Franti wrote two albums. Yell Fire!, a collection of reggae-soaked rock tracks, will be the first to see daylight. Cool Water, an introspective, acoustic album will follow. With titles like “It’s Time to Go Home” and “Sweet Little Lies,” Yell Fire! includes tracks heard throughout the film and several previewed live, like the anthemic title track and the roof-raiser “Everybody Ona Move.”
“It comes from that expression, ‘Don’t yell fire in a crowded theatre,’” Franti says of the album’s title. “’Don’t alarm people unnecessarily.’ But I feel like right now we need to be yelling fire, because there’s an absence of dissent. Ever since September 11th, this administration and the media have done everything to convince us that dissent is unpatriotic, when in fact it’s what this country was founded on.”
While political, Yell Fire! isn’t stiff. A big-hearted album partially recorded in Jamaica—with riddim masters Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare—its songs are breezy and funky and punctuated with Jamaican toasting and dub playfulness. While some songs are rooted in the dusty streets of Baghdad, others, like the gem “One Step Closer to You” (featuring Jamaican DJ Squid Lee and subtle backing vocals from Pink—yep, that Pink), is a sweet, universal love song. With bassist Carl Young, guitarist Dave Shul, percussionist Roberto Quintana and drummer Manas Itiene, Franti has once again pulled off the rare trick of writing conscious music that people—can—and will —dance to.
Musically, Yell Fire! marks a new beginning for Franti. The disc was primarily written on guitar, which he plays throughout the album, on which he’s rarely heard rhyming. Gone is hype man/beatboxer Radioactive, a Spearhead staple since the late ‘90s. Radio’s role diminished as Franti increasingly explored more of a traditional troubadour path, one that’s a giant stylistic leap from his days as a street performer-turned-MC. The new songs find Franti evolving, but not as his audience’s expense. If his 2001 concept-album masterwork Stay Human marked his coming of age as an artist, Yell Fire! foreshadows a long, fruitful career full of reinvention.
At 38, Franti is marking two decades as a professional musician this year. And in those 20 years, he’s blossomed as a musician and a man, while amassing a fiercely credible catalog. The militant history lessons and societal critiques he doled out as a member of The Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy have given way to songs of peace and love, compassionate, witty poetry balanced with funk-injected party tracks.
If Franti ripped his songs from the headlines and rewrote history as a young artist, on the even of 40 he’s more interested in universal emotions and understanding. “When I first started, every song was angry, every song was, like, ‘Fuck the system.’ Now I want to write songs that reflect the whole rainbow of human emotions.”
Physically, Franti is an awesome presence. Without sandals or shoes, which he uses rarely, he towers above nearly everyone he meets. The hair on his forehead is receding, but his dreads still fall far below his waist. Swirling, tribal designs inked into arms and back, he’s rarely seen without the white spearhead hanging from a beaded necklace. His smile is magnetic, and can feel like a hug. In his actual embrace, he swallows otherwise large men.
As he walked around Blossom today, Franti was impossible to miss, and fans approached immediately, with varying degrees of nervousness. When a tiny hippie girl neared, unable to muster more than a few words, he wrapped his arms around her and she utterly melted. “My friends and I play this drinking game when you’re onstage,” said a toasty red-haired twenty-something in a faded T-shirt and baseball cap. “Every time you say, ‘How you feeelin’,’ we take a shot,” he said, looking up at Franti—as everyone does. The singer smiled and chuckled, giving the guy a shoulder hug. He’s heard it before.
As more fans came out, Franti stopped to talk with each, devoting his full attention to every one, listening carefully, never losing eye contact, smiling often and doling out hug after hug. It’s the same wherever he goes.
“Every single time we play a show,” says Young. “I mean, every time, someone comes up to me and just thanks me for being a part of something that completely changed their life, or for bringing them a period of happiness during a time when they weren’t feeling very happy.”
For as conscious as his work is, fans often have little to say about political, social, or environmental issues when they approach him. And that’s okay with Franti. “It’s funny,” he says. “When you’re asking somebody to go to the next step, you’re asking them to make a commitment. You’re saying, ‘If you were moved emotionally by what you saw or heard, we’re asking you to do something,’ and it can be something like the commitment I made few years ago, where everything we bring I the house is reused, recycled or composted. We’re asking them to think consciously about the world, to see what your role is in it, like, ‘Vote from your heart.’ And that’s a hard thing to do.
“For me, it’s important to express these things, and I also feel like I can be helpful to the world in doing it. This is just who I am, and what I feel. I don’t feel like any artist has a responsibility to be political. Their responsibility is to make great art, and get their kids to school on time. But in order to make great art, you have to have some truth. It can be sexual, comedic, spiritual, romantic—there just has to be some truth for it to be a great work of art. And, right now, when I look around the world, it’s hard to ignore what’s happening.”
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