Power to the Peaceful: An Exclusive One-on-One with Michael Franti

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Michael Franti has been mak­ing mu­sic for over 25 years, blend­ing his unique style of hip/hop with funk, reg­gae, soul, folk, world beat, rock and pol­i­tics. To some, he has been dubbed a rab­ble rouser, but to his loyal fol­low­ers he is a voice of rea­son, pro­mot­ing so­cial jus­tice through­out the world, echo­ing themes that are as as so­cially rel­e­vant to­day as they were when he be­gan in 1986—themes of peace, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism and ac­cep­tance of our fel­low hu­mans. Franti stanchly op­poses what he de­scribes as “man’s in­hu­man­ity to man in all its guises,” from the death penalty to war to the home­less who shuf­fle down the streets in his own San Francisco.

Franti’s mu­sic, his words and his films have be­come the em­bed­ded in the rhetoric of today’s anti-war move­ments. Lyrics from his 2003 song “Bomb the World” can be found on t-shirts, but­tons mugs and protest sings across the globe. “We can bomb the world to pieces,” he wrote. “But we can’t bomb it into peace.”

In­deed, Franti’s words carry a raw, pure passion—and a grav­ity that has come to be ex­pected from him. It’s that pas­sion that set the tone for our con­ver­sa­tion, when I re­cently caught up with him on the road be­fore the Moun­tain Jam in Hunter, New York. We talked about Franti’s mu­sic, his pas­sion for so­cial jus­tice, and his views on the state of world affairs.

HEATHER JACKS: You’ve been ex­tremely out­spo­ken against the war in Iraq, which has now ex­tended into Afghanistan. You have also been an ar­dent sup­porter of Pres­i­dent Obama. The fact is, the war has es­ca­lated; our sol­diers have not come home. So, I have to ask: How do you feel about the Pres­i­dent now?

MICHAEL FRANTI: Well first of all, he en­tered in the worst sit­u­a­tion pos­si­ble, a funky econ­omy and in­her­it­ing not one, but two wars. And I’m some­body who has been to Iraq and played in the streets of Bagh­dad and I’ve seen what life is like for peo­ple in Iraq, for Iraqi civil­ians as well as sol­diers. I’ve played at Wal­ter Reed Hos­pi­tal sev­eral times, seen in­jured sol­diers there and played for them. And apart from Barack Obama, left or right, Re­pub­li­can or De­mo­c­rat, I be­lieve that we should be spend­ing our re­sources on help­ing peo­ple be bet­ter, be more healthy, be more pro­duc­tive, have economies that work and spend less money on blow­ing peo­ple up; but, that’s just where my po­lit­i­cal lean­ings are. I’m al­ways go­ing to fight for that and I’m con­tin­u­ing to urge Obama to go in that direction.

My song “It’s Time To Go Home” came from my ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in Iraq, and from play­ing for sol­diers at the Wal­ter Reed Hos­pi­tal and see­ing these guys who are just ready to come home. It seems like now, with all the other things that are hap­pen­ing in the news—healthcare, cli­mate change, the oil spill—our broth­ers and sis­ters who are over there in Iraq and Afghanistan are on page 16 and kind of for­got­ten. So, I wrote that song as a re­minder, that they’re still over there and it’s time to go home.

HJ: I’m gonna be real here. I love your work, but when you did “The Obama Song,” I won­dered if you had sold out.

FRANTI: Well, I feel that most im­por­tantly to­day, we want every­one to feel like they can con­tribute and be ap­pre­ci­ated for their con­tri­bu­tions and that’s the spirit that Bar­rack re­ally brought to this coun­try. And he’s al­ready done a fan­tas­tic job of set­ting a tone and his tone is, “I’m gonna ap­proach this from calm­ness. I’m gonna ap­proach this with in­tel­li­gent passion.

And he’s not gonna do every­thing I think is right, but he’s gonna do what is best for get­ting our coun­try back on track and get­ting the world in a health­ier space. And if he’s not do­ing what we want, then get mad, speak out, stand up, and raise your voice. When we all sit back and go, ‘OK what­ever the gov­ern­ment de­cides is OK’, that’s when we have problems.

Stand­ing up and speak­ing out is some­thing Michael has been do­ing his en­tire ca­reer. As a mu­si­cian, a film­maker and ac­tivist. I Know I’m Not Alone, his award win­ning film, “Came out of [his] frus­tra­tion with watch­ing the nightly news and hear­ing gen­er­als, politi­cians, and pun­dits ex­plain­ing the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic cost of the war in the Mid­dle East, with­out ever men­tion­ing the hu­man cost. I wanted to hear about the war by the peo­ple af­fected by it most: doc­tors, nurses, po­ets, artists, sol­diers, and my per­sonal fa­vorite, mu­si­cians. The film it­self was not meant to be a po­lit­i­cal movie, it was a film about peo­ple, and how they cope in a war-ridden country.

Power to the Peaceful

Franti has been largely ig­nored by the main­stream me­dia. How­ever, through ex­ten­sive tour­ing, al­ter­na­tive news out­lets and an ever grow­ing, ex­tremely loyal grass­roots fan base, he con­tin­ues to gain notoriety.

In the early 80s, he—along with the rest of the world—followed the story of Amer­i­can ac­tivist, jour­nal­ist and con­victed mur­derer, Mu­mia Abu-Jamal. Ja­mal, a for­mer Black Pan­ther, was sen­tenced to death for the 1981 mur­der of Philadel­phia po­lice of­fi­cer Daniel Faulkner. His in­car­cer­a­tion, trial and ul­ti­mate sen­tence con­tinue to be mired in con­tro­versy and have at­tracted world­wide recog­ni­tion from or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and The Hu­man Rights Watch. As a way to sup­port Ja­mal and op­pose the death penalty, Franti founded Power to the Peace­ful; an or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to, not only peace, but hu­man rights. Power to the Peace­ful is a lifestyle choice, which is cel­e­brated at an an­nual free festival.

The move­ment em­braces yoga, veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, hu­mor, so­cial jus­tice and the prac­tice of non-violence on a mu­si­cal back­drop that has in­cluded such lu­mi­nar­ies as Ala­nis Moris­sette, Ziggy Mar­ley, In­digo Girls, The String Cheese In­ci­dent, Anti Flag and An­gela Davis. It was, as MiFranti says, in­spired by, “The one ques­tion that kept com­ing up for me. And that is, can I be the peace that I want to see in the world?”

This year the Power to the Peac­ful fes­ti­val was at­tended by over 50,000 people.

Franti has be­come a fig­ure of im­por­tance on the mu­si­cal scene in gen­eral, and the world can­vas at large as a spokesper­son for en­vi­ron­men­tal issues.

The BP oil spill

HJ: You re­cently played at The Gulf Shores Fes­ti­val in Al­abama. Tell me about that.

FRANTI: Yeah, let’s talk about the oil spill. Be­cause it’s some­thing I’ve been keep­ing track of every day, since it first started. We were play­ing right at the beach with Zac Brown Band, Ma­tis and just some great play­ers, and from the stage you could look out over the ocean and it was so weird to have this feel­ing that there was this gi­ant sea mon­ster of oil that was brim­ming out there and no­body knows when it’s go­ing to hit shore.

If you live any­where near the Gulf Coast, I think it’s great to go there and see what’s hap­pen­ing with your own eyes. We need to keep as well in­formed as pos­si­ble, so that as this thing de­vel­ops, we can vote for peo­ple who are go­ing to change en­ergy pol­icy. We need to be in­de­pen­dent of for­eign oil.

HJ: So, in the theme of keep­ing well in­formed; how do you do that? What blogs or news are you reading?

FRANTI: I don’t re­ally read or fol­low one blog. My main blog is Face­book. I’ll check out some other blogs, CNN, BBC, Huff­in­g­ton Post, Ya­hoo News, and mostly check out the com­ments be­low. But I do fol­low Face­book. I get on there every day and cor­re­spond with peo­ple. I per­son­ally do a five or six minute me­dia clip, daily on Facebook.

HJ: Re­gard­ing the oil spill, what was your take on the com­mu­ni­ties on the Gulf Shore?

FRANTI: I went and had lunch at a cou­ple of restau­rants and talked to peo­ple who have busi­nesses there and the busi­nesses are just get­ting ham­mered. Even though it hadn’t af­fected the beaches yet, the com­mu­ni­ties were suffering.

This spill has so many dif­fer­ent lay­ers to it. There’s the eco­nomic com­po­nent, there’s the en­vi­ron­men­tal com­po­nent that we’re now see­ing in Louisiana as the oil washes up on the shore and it’s go­ing to be decades be­cause there’s these glob­ules that are sink­ing to the bot­tom and they’re even­tu­ally go­ing to wash up again in years to come. Then there’s the whole thing of our en­ergy and where we de­rive our en­ergy from, which then has to do with the wars that we’re wag­ing and the amounts of money that we’re spend­ing, which we should be spend­ing on things like bet­ter en­ergy, or ed­u­ca­tion, or health­care, or na­tional parks or roads or anything.

HJ: What do you think Michael? Is the world go­ing to get better?

FRANTI: Yeah, I think so. I see a lot of changes in our coun­try. Every­where I go, I see peo­ple who are look­ing to cre­ate a greener life for their fam­ily, for their school, for their com­mu­nity. Like re­cy­cling and or­ganic pro­duce. I see big chains like Wal-Mart in­cor­po­rat­ing green poli­cies into their stores and I think with this oil spill, it’s go­ing to make peo­ple feel the im­mi­nence of this change that needs to oc­cur. I hope that’s the pos­i­tive that comes out of it. Right now, there’s peo­ple who are re­ally strug­gling down there and need our help.

HJ: So, I know that in keep­ing with your en­vi­ron­men­tal mis­sion, you don’t use wa­ter bot­tles on your tour or in your per­sonal life. You’re a ve­gan, and your bus runs on biodiesel. You are what I would call a true gra­nola head.

FRANTI: Gra­nola Head? I like that.

HJ: But what about the shoes Michael? In­quir­ing minds want to know, ‘why don’t this boy wear no shoes?’

FRANTI: [Laugh­ing] Yeah, I haven’t worn shoes since, well, I guess for about ten years or so now. I went down to New Zealand and I was stay­ing with some tra­di­tional Maoris in the jun­gle and they don’t wear shoes in the jun­gle, so I took off my shoes and I couldn’t even walk three steps so I thought I’m gonna try this, like a fast, for three days in San Fran­cisco. And now it’s 10 years.

Not wear­ing shoes has been a great learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence about stay­ing in touch with the planet, learn­ing where to step, where not to step and walk­ing gen­tly upon the earth.

Shake it, baby

Franti’s mu­sic is po­lit­i­cally charged, but he tells me that the mes­sage is sim­pler. “To ap­pre­ci­ate your­self,” he says, “and to learn to em­brace oth­ers from all walks of life, all parts of the world, all re­li­gions, all races, shapes col­ors and sizes. We just want to spread some sun­shine on the road, be­cause it’s OK for us to have fun and ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty in each other. The first line to our new sin­gle is the most im­por­tant to me: You’re per­fect just the way you are, be­cause the way you look doesn’t matter/Just shake it, shake it, shake it baby.”

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