Some hip-hop is better left in the “all bark and no bite” category. See gangsta rap if you need a reference. Then there’s the politically conscious hip-hop of Michael Franti, arguably the greatest San Francisco treat in recent memory. The Bay Area lyricist/guitarist recently took a break from recording a new album with his group Spearhead (and from his yoga exercises) to chat with the Independent. If you’ve never heard Spearhead, allow Franti to boil it down for you right off the bat.
“We’re like a hip-hop jam band,” he says. “It’s hip-hop in its nature with dance and funk music, but we’re also an improvisational band and the lyrics are about things that are taking place in the world and within our hearts.”
Few performers today back up their words with actions to the extent that Franti does. The singer/rapper/speaker (his deep baritone hovers between all three categories on most songs) spends his time visiting schools, prisons, and attending anti-war protests. He helps organize a “9-11 Power to the Peaceful Concert” in San Francisco, and just recently, on Martin Luther King Day, he spoke about King at Yale University. Franti also has a wife and two young children. And somehow this guy has time to write music and tour. Franti explains that, for him, touring is a source of hope.
“To go to new places and see and meet different people who are all interested in creating a good life for themselves and for the community is really inspiring to me,” he says. “I see a lot of people who are going through different struggles, and that helps me with the struggle that I engage in.”
Franti’s struggle is one for social justice and greater humanity through music, and it’s a goal he believes is feasible.
“I want to enrage, enlighten and inspire people to become more compassionate. And I believe that music is one of the healing arts…so my goal is to help people heal themselves through music.”
This message is nowhere more evident than on Spearhead’s latest release, Stay Human. Franti explains that “staying human” is more of a challenge than it might sound.
“We live in a world today,” he explains, “where the corporate interests, military interests and material interests are always taking precedence over the human interests, natural interests and spiritual interests of the world, and it’s really hard for us to hold on to just being human beings and loving and taking care of ourselves.”
One of the ways we can stay human, Franti says, is through cultural expression in art and simply sharing stories with one another.
Though he appreciates the sharing of stories, Franti doesn’t talk much during live shows. Instead, he lets the music do the talking—and does it ever. In “Bomb the World,” Franti sings, “We can bomb the world to pieces, but we can’t bomb it into peace.” Presented with the outlandish choice of either performing one song of his choosing at W. Bush’s inauguration, or else magically dying in a poof of smoke, Franti says “Bomb the World” would be his pick. But Franti isn’t as utterly serious as much of his music is, and he quickly rethinks his imaginary presidential performance.
“But you know, ‘Bomb the World’ might not have such a great effect,” he says. “I might want to do something really silly like Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Let’s Get Physical’ and try to bring him up onstage and do something goofy with him. And then try to sit down with him afterwards and reason. You have to be mindful of the fact that sometimes your audience isn’t ready to be delivered this very intense, serious message until they’ve had their heart opened up through humor, or through laughter or dancing, or through the funk, you know?”
On another Stay Human track, “Rock the Nation,” Franti roars like a lion that the time has come for citizens to “take over television and radio stations.” Franti explains that this doesn’t mean loading a gun.
“We don’t hate the media,” Franti says. “We become the media. We don’t have to go charge into ABC and CBS. We can start our own thing independently. We can create our own online magazines and TV stations, our own community radio. There was a time when the Bay Guardian in San Francisco was one of the only alternative weekly newspapers in America. And now, you go to basically any city in America and they have their own weekly arts and entertainment and social issues magazine. It’s just because there’s a few people in the community who say, ‘You know what? I’m tired of the daily crap we get with the local rag, so we’re going to start our own.’”
Here again, Franti backs up his words with actions. Spearhead has been known to carry a small ten-watt transmitter on tour and broadcast live from shows. While Franti believes in independent radio, he also believes the government is holding the technology back.
“Our government is way behind the times with the laws on micro radio. There’s no reason why a town or a community within a town shouldn’t be able to have a little ten-, 50- or even 100-watt transmitter that is just talking about community issues. You know, ‘Joe’s dog is missing today. If anybody sees Joe’s dog, bring it over,’ or ‘Next week we’re having a PTA meeting.’ Why not? Instead, we make criminals out of people who just want to play a little music that you’re not hearing normally or talk about some issues that you don’t normally hear about.”
Spearhead’s music is, indeed, the stuff that you don’t normally hear, and Franti’s lyrics discuss the issues we don’t always talk about—the death penalty, drug laws, a somnambulant mainstream media. But the message never overtakes the medium, because Spearhead’s vibe is rich in soul and wrapped neatly in body-rocking funk. The music is so good that a staunch conservative could simply tune out the lyrics and get swept away in the rhythm. But if you’re looking for both kinetic and cerebral stimulation, then listen to the words as you dance. You’ll be glad you did.