Michael Franti and half a dozen other anti-war activists were recently featured in the Chicago Tribune Magazine‘s “Seven Who Dared”. Franti’s standing on a street corner, probably somewhere in the Bay area, a camouflage cap cocked just off-center, decorated with a “Free Leonard Peltier” pin, dreads spilling out on both sides. His brow is furrowed gravely but tenderly while his mouth and eyes suggest a hint of bemusement about this whole business of posing for one of the nation’s largest media conglomerates.
It’s not as though Franti has become a full-blown poster child for the left-wing agenda. He’s too smart for that, or so he has us believe on 1995’s Home, a soulful, homespun record about urban life and the black struggle for freedom: “The left and the right / They all try to use me / But I’ll be in their faces before they can abuse me”. But if it hasn’t happened already, Franti will likely become one of those artists whose political views eclipse any interest in his music. That would be a travesty.
It would be a travesty in spite of the fact that Everyone Deserves Music, Franti’s fourth studio LP under the Spearhead moniker, reflects relatively little of what has made the band stand out among the platoon of heady, “positive” hip-hop groups of the last decade. In fact, one could make a convincing argument for a slow, steady decline in the quality of Franti’s work — including the brilliant Home — since the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy launched his career in 1992 with Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury. The latter was a sonically abrasive, socio-politically charged record mirroring much of what Public Enemy had ignited in late ’80s rap, but if ever Franti’s lexicon of incisive wordplay rivaled Chuck D’s, it did here. His songs were hard-hitting narratives about the cycles of violence at home and in schools, media manipulation, the complexities of “race” and identity in an ethnic and cultural melting pot, and our growing reliance on a technology that betrays us. Fast forward a decade and the scene about which Franti wrote looks eerily the same. A Bush is in power, and the dust is still settling in Baghdad. “Our representatives were Milli Vanillis for corporate Dallas Cowboy Beverly Hillbillies”, Franti wrote circa the Gulf War.
While it seems like a lost opportunity for Franti not to update that rhetoric in 2003, it would be unfair to apply the same standards to Everyone, since Spearhead represents an altogether different aesthetic than that of the Disposable Heroes. We have to concede that the introduction of more instrumentally-based styles into rap and hip-hop invariably dilutes the linguistic intensity. “What I Be” is a compelling foray into rock that resembles a self-affirming companion to Pearl Jam’s “Wishlist”. A layer of incandescent guitar introduces a brilliantly woven quartet of drum, bass, keyboard and fluttering synthesizer, while Franti rehearses a litany of “If I could be __, then . . .” Midway through the record, the band switches gears nicely with its second overt nod to the Police in the hip-shaker “Pray for Grace”, a twitchy Latino number that sees guest vocalist and sound manipulator Radioactive offer a convincing Marley impersonation. And thank God for the super funky revamp of “Bomb the World (Armageddon Version)”, which appropriately discards the original version’s heavy-handed string section in favor of some heavy guitar riffs and an all-out lyrical assault reminiscent of Franti’s best work. Sure, it’s uncomfortably preachy stuff, but Spearhead fans couldn’t have made it this far if they weren’t suckers for confrontation:
“The tears of one mother are the same as any other / Drop food on the kids while you’re murdering their fathers / Don’t bother to show it on CNN / Brothers and sisters don’t believe them / That it’s a war against evil / It’s really just revenge / Engaged on the poor by the same rich men / Fight terrorists wherever they be found / But why you not bombing Tim McVeigh’s hometown? / You can call it what you want, propaganda television / But all bombing is terrorism . . .”
Unfortunately, the majority of Everyone isn’t comparably endowed. The band has consistently proved on previous records — the underrated Chocolate Supa Highway and 2001’s flawed but promising Stay Human — that style doesn’t have to negate substance. But it seems as though Franti’s writing has morphed into messages of peace, love, and personal empowerment without context — which doesn’t make the songs bad per se, just closer to average. They can’t all be hard-hitting indictments of right-wing blood-for-oil foreign policy, but if they aren’t grounded in some solid narratives, they will eventually become platitudes set to music. “Never Too Late” is one of several examples. When Franti sings “Don’t fear your best friend / Because a best friend would never try to do you wrong / Don’t fear your worst friends / Because a worst friend is just a best friend that’s done you wrong”, we’re embarking on five minutes of cleverness for the sake of itself. Likewise, the title track’s refrain, “everyone deserves music, even our worst enemies deserve music”, sounds like piece of a greater profundity about the healing power of song, but it never stretches that far.
It would be difficult to begrudge the press any favorable reviews of Everyone Deserves Music simply because Franti has been so criminally overlooked all these years. Substantial sales are most likely not in the cards, but it would be worth an improperly hyped record just to introduce new fans to the rest of his catalogue. When Franti’s on his game, he’s a spiritual force — just not this time around.