In 2004, with Iraq sinking into insurgency and Israel’s occupied territories gripped by violence, musician Michael Franti decided to see the people and places he was watching on television news for himself. During his two-week trip, Franti videotaped the locals who emerged from their homes when he played his music in the streets, and that footage resulted in his new film, I Know I’m Not Alone. The title refers to Franti’s sentiment that the Western world is culpable for the suffering he saw on his travels—and that he’s not the only one ashamed of it.
“We’re living in nations that are making decisions to wage war or are complicit in those decisions and so people here and in other places feel alone a lot of the time in resisting it,” Franti says during a recent phone interview from Tokyo, where he and his band Spearhead are concluding a tour of the Eastern Pacific. “People want to feel that they’re not the only people in the world who feel this way.”
Franti has long been interested in incorporating political dissent in his music. Making a film, however, has allowed him to bring his message to people who might not be interested in the music.
“Last week, in Australia,” Franti says, “I showed [I Know I’m Not Alone] in parliament. All the ministers, some of whom voted for the war in Iraq [to which Australia has contributed military troops, civilian experts and financial support] were asking me the same questions American audiences ask when I screen the film for young people here, like ‘What do we do next?’…Really, people have not seen the effects of this war on the people.”
Filmmaking is a new venture for Franti, a musician by trade who has performed professionally since the 1980s and, since 1994, as part of Spearhead, an ensemble that blends funk and hip-hop with reggae, folk and rock styles. Spearhead’s message is part protest and part personal but always political—whether angry finger-pointing at hypocrisy and exploitation or sentimental expressions of love and a more generalized feeling that, Franti says, “acknowledges who we are as humans” in response to inhumanity in the world. Franti, whose ancestry includes European, African and American Indian strains, traces his commitment to politically engaging music to his upbringing.
“I grew up in a mixed family, adopted by white parents,” he says, “…and so my whole life has been one of navigating through a country that’s very racially charged…I always had this consciousness of looking out for the underdog.”
Initially, that consciousness manifested itself in the acerbic lyrics and music of the Beatnigs—characterized in Franti’s media kit as an “afro-noize band”—but, with age, Franti’s focus has turned to reinforcing the positive as well as casting light on the negative.
“As I’ve grown as a musician,” he says, “I’ve changed from just writing angry songs to participating and helping where I can.”
The desire to nurture positive interpersonal experience rather than wallowing in caustic conflict-based lyrics is an impulse Franti found especially strong among the people he encountered in conflict zones on his recent trip.
“People [in Baghdad] would tell me ‘Don’t sing us songs about protesting the war,’” Franti recalls. “‘We want to hear songs that make us laugh and clap and smile.’ They live conflict; they don’t feel the need to hear about it.”
Still, Yell Fire!, the album that resulted from Franti’s trip alongside I Know I’m Not Alone, directs darts at the powerful. “Time to Go Home,” the album’s opener, begins with the line: “Those who start wars never fight them and those who fight wars never like them”—a sentiment Franti remembers from his conversation with Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint outside a small Palestinian village. The young men were standing, fully armored under a blazing sun, checking the papers of Palestinians trying to cross over to their farmlands.
“[The soldiers] told me,” Franti says, “that it was the last thing they wanted to do…I heard the same things from American soldiers in Iraq, who felt like they were fighting a war for reasons like WMD or the 9/11 connection that weren’t true.”
The track “Time to Go Home,” like I Know I’m Not Alone, aims to tell stories left unshared, says Franti, “showing something that’s not being seen.” In response, he says, he hopes that those who listen to his music, see his film or attend his performances “shine their light onto things in the world that need light on them,” whether they be the worst that people do to one another or the joy and affection of humanity at its best.
Michael Franti and Spearhead perform at the Wilma Theatre Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 8 PM. Eightrack Mind opens. $28. On Monday, Oct. 16, Franti’s film I Know I’m Not Alone screens at The Loft at 6 and 8 PM. $5.