In 2004, musician Michael Franti and a small camera crew traveled into the hearts of Baghdad, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - not the Black Hawk-covered main streets that John McCain ambled through, nor the ones that resemble any open-air markets in Indiana, but the red zones, the burned-out shells of former buildings, the areas not particularly well-suited to public relations.
Franti’s goal was organizing and shooting the documentary “I Know I’m Not Alone,” which set out to illustrate the human cost of war in as much of a firsthand manner as his methods would allow.
“Alone” was released simultaneously in 2006 with a companion CD, “Yell Fire!” a fierce, poignant rebuke to the Bush administration’s rush to war. Lines like “Those who start wars never fight them/Those who fight wars never like them” were wrapped in Franti’s traditional dub and reggae-inflected rock, and resulted in one of the strongest, most cohesive records in a career split evenly between music and activism.
“You never want a song to become a sermon,” said Franti. “You want it to be a melody, something to sing to and be inspired by, something where the groove can carry the listener and make them dance. You want to find ways to phrase things that leave a lot to the imagination, but takes people who are listening on a journey somewhere.”
These are big aspirations, and over the course of his two-decade career, Franti’s endeavored to reach them in wildly different arenas. Franti began his musical life as a highly agitated MC with a Darth Vader voice and a penchant for layering dense, tumbling rhymes over a Public Enemy-sized wall of noise; with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy he sprayed fire at an increasingly tuned-out society (“Television, Drug of the Nation”) and more direct targets (in his funky reworking of the Dead Kennedys’ “California Uber Alles”).
But the intervening years with the organic, soulful band Spearhead cooled Franti out and found him drifting into territories that were still politically wary, but increasingly hopeful. Spearhead found a little MTV love with 1996’s homeless story “Hole in the Bucket”; the band’s 2003 record “Everyone Deserves Music” was something of an update of “What’s Going On” for a generation being raised on war.
But “Yell Fire!” took on war full-throttle: “They tellin’ you to never worry about the torture/They tellin’ you that you’ll never see the horror/Spend it all today and we will bill you tomorrow.”
These days, a few years removed from his initial journey, Franti says a few things have changed.
“Definitely the attitude in our country has,” he said. “When I first went to the Middle East in June of 2004, about 70 percent of the people were in support of the war in Iraq. Now it’s the opposite.”
Such a shift can’t be attributed to one thing, he said. “As much as the Bush administration has tried to convince Americans that this is the right way, the truth has slowly filtered out. Just the cost alone - we’re spending a billion a month over there, while our schools, our health care, our roads and services and economy are failing - people see that wilting up. I think the people spoke in the last election, but now that the Democratic party has yet to fulfill their campaign promises about stopping the war, I think they’ll speak even louder in the next one.”
There’s a hint of optimism in his voice when he says this. “I think the optimism comes from that people are beginning to talk about how they want to be viewed by the rest of the world. Do we want to be seen as a nation who, when its leader speaks at the U.N., no one believes a word, or do we want to be willing to share what we have here, in what’s really a blessed country of abundance?”
Franti says his next record, due in 2008, will be at least a little more dance floor-oriented, though it won’t, of course, abandon his politics entirely. He also recently published a children’s book “What I Be,” based on one of his songs. But throughout all his projects, it’s impossible to separate the man from the music, or the message.
“Everything revolves around music, everything I do politically, in terms of films or writing stories or whatever. It all comes from my musical experiences,” Franti said. “If I’m not working, I’m just sitting in the living room playing acoustic guitar or singing with friends. It’s really the point of my life.”