SPEARHEAD -“I Never Endorse Political Candidates But I Do Endorse Political Ideas”

Michael Franti knows his music has as much power to soothe as it does to spark. He tells Rip Nicholson that Spearhead needn’t always be a weapon.

MICHAEL FRANTI interviewed August 29, 2016
For Street Press Australia [VIEW HERE]

“Especially in light of the current political climate in America, music can work as a balm when at times it gets super painful,” Michael Franti states. “It is also like fire at other times when we really need to get out and raise our voices.”

Michael Franti has started a lot of fires. Before the 1994 album Home established Spearhead on the frontier of socially conscious black music, Franti walked onto the San Franciscan scene with The Beatnigs. Resembling an avant-garde jazz collective, the band combined aspects of hardcore punk, hip hop and industrial noise — traits Franti would refine in The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy alongside producer Rono Tse. Together Franti and Tse stabbed at racism, misogyny, homophobia and mass media with their 1992 debut Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury. Despite the release’s critical success, and a follow-up album featuring William S Burroughs, their tenure was short lived. In ’94 Franti formed Spearhead, moving closer to roots-down rap and alternative rock.

“What I have found is that when I was doing music at that time there was the same group of angry young men showing up who were ready to pound their fists, and they already believed in the things that I said.”

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It isn’t just his sound that’s changed over the years. Although Franti’s message and purpose are still clear in his music, the delivery has evolved. “What I have found is that when I was doing music at that time there was the same group of angry young men showing up who were ready to pound their fists, and they already believed in the things that I said. I find it much more challenging to try to reach people who don’t, or those who are on the fence, and that’s why I don’t endorse political candidates, I want people to find their own way to whatever it is that they believe in.

“I never endorse political candidates but I do endorse political ideas,” he continues. “Everyone should be happy, healthy and equal… it will be hard for someone to be happy if they don’t have jobs or decent schools, or if there’s intense policing in a neighbourhood that is unjust. And it’s hard for people to be healthy if they don’t have adequate healthcare and opportunities to thrive and be physically fit on their own, and if people don’t have laws on the books that create equality. So I try to just keep presenting that message over and over again to people in the most humorous and compassionate way that I can, in the hope that people will come up with their own decisions about who best to vote for.”

Its a more tempered approach, but it can be very effective — and Franti has discovered that aggressively communicated messages, however well-intentioned, can be misplaced. In 2005 Spearhead played Folsom State Prison, and Franti learnt that prisoners don’t want to hear protest songs about how useless the prison system is – they already know. He had a similar reaction in Iraq.

“When I was in Iraq in 2004, I thought Iraqi civilians on the street would wanna hear songs like ‘fuck the war, fuck bombing’, and they were like, ‘how dare you sing songs like that to us when your nation is bombing us’. They said, ‘we wanna hear songs that make us laugh and dance and cry and sing and move through this time that we’re in’. So, music works on both levels. There is a time to rage against the machine and there is also a time to help people move through their sadness and into the light.”

Spearhead’s new album Soulrocker works toward the latter. It was recorded in Jamaica and produced by Supa Dups [Dwayne Chin-Quee] and Di Genius [Stephen McGregor], son of reggae legend Freddie McGregor, and speaks to a troubled world. “My message stays the same wherever I go, you know, it’s written into the songs. And I believe in compassion and I believe in the people in the planet that we can get through any challenges that we face. With so much anxiety people have about the election, this new record really speaks to what’s happening in the state of the world right now. It’s been a really good experience just being out on the road and trying to bring some musical therapy to the craziness that we’re living in right now.”

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Q&A with Michael Franti

You just played Vegas the other night, Santa Fe tonight. How has the current US tour been thus far?

We had an incredible time, most of our venues are outdoors. It’s been a really fun time playing this new record. Especially in light of the current political climate in America with so much anxiety people have about the election and this new record really speaks to what’s happening in the state of the world right now. It’s been a really good experience just being out on the road and trying to bring some musical therapy to the craziness that we’re living in right now.

Everything seems extremely heightened around the world at the moment. Music and message has always been a weapon of Spearhead. How much of this do you take on your shoulders?

Well, I never endorse political candidate but I do endorse political ideas and I’ve always endorsed the same idea all along which that everyone should be happy, healthy and equal. And, candidates who support those kinds of legislation that create that, meaning it will be hard for someone to be happy if they don’t have jobs or decent schools or if there’s intense policing in a neighbourhood that is unjust and it’s hard for people to be healthy if they don’t have adequate healthcare and opportunities to thrive and be physically fit on their own and if people don’t have laws on the books that create equality. So I try to just keep presenting that message over and over again to people in the most humorous and compassionate way that I can in the hope that people will come up with their own decisions about who best to vote for.

When you tour internationally do you feel that you have to switch up your message to fit?

Well I always try to keep my ear to the ground as soon as I arrive. I try to read what’s in the paper, talk to people in the streets and see where people’s hearts and minds are at. But, really my message stays the same wherever I go, you know. It’s written into the songs and I believe in compassion and I make music because I believe in the people in the planet and get through any challenges that we face. Music can work as a balm when at times it gets super painful and it is also like fire at other times when we really need to get out and raise our voices.

Do you ever consider getting back into hip-hop or spoken word, maybe get back with Disposable Heroes (of Hiphoprisy) or Beatnigs as another outlet for conveying your social conscious message?

Well, what I have found is that when I was doing music at that time there was the same group of angry young men showing up who were ready to pound their fists and they already believed in the things that I said. I find it much more challenging to try to reach people who don’t or those who are on the fence and that’s why I don’t endorse political candidates, I want people to find their own way to whatever it is that they believe in. But, like I said, I do believe in everyone being happy, healthy and equal. I think music, for example, when I was in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, I thought Iraqi civilians on the street would wanna hear songs like ‘fuck the war, fuck bombing’, and when I was there they were like, how dare you come and sing songs like that to us when your nation is bombing us. They said we wanna hear songs that make us laugh and dance and cry and sing and move through this time that we’re in. So, music works on both levels. There is a time, like you said, to rage against the machine and there is also a time to help people move through their sadness and into the light.

That same example happened back in 2005, you did the Folsom prison concert where you had realised how music works in different ways for people. These prisoners didn’t want to hear about how unjust the prison system is in the US, trust me they know already.

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Michael, before we touch on the new album, I have one more political issue to get your perspective on. You’re from San Francisco and a 49ers fan. I wanted to get your take on Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem due to what he calls a representation of the oppressive regime for black and minority cultures in the US.

Well, I think, first of all everyone’s personal choice whether they want to stand for the national anthem. In America that’s a big deal, it’s a real slap in the face to people who are patriotic. I feel like speaking out against injustice is one of the most patriotic things you could ever do. But I also think you have to find the right time and the right place to choose your personal battles. Like, is that the right time and the right place? Maybe for him it is for other people, it’s not. So only he can make his own decisions for himself and he’s gotta live with whatever consequences come of it. I think there’s lots of ways that athletes can contribute to the greater good. I live in Hunter’s Point in San Francisco and there is a 49er who just recently bought a run-down building and is opening a restaurant there hiring and training people who live in the area, we live in an all-black neighbourhood basically and we have a lot of unemployment and that was his choice. That’s his way of making his voice heard. So I wouldn’t condone or discredit what Kaepernick has done I would just say everyone’s gotta live by their morals and I will add that I would hope he does more things in the neighbourhood rather than just sitting on the bench during the national anthem, you know. I would like to see some more pro-action that comes out of that and let this be his first step.

I don’t think it helps his cause on getting playing time on the field at the starting quarterback either.

No, I would agree with that. And I would also say that as a starting quarterback his message would be heard much louder, and I know there are already 49er fans who are saying, ‘dude, if you practised as much as you protested maybe you’d be out on the field. After you score a touchdown you could do some symbolic gesture’. As a real 49er fan I’d rather see that.

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Soulrocker, very cool album, man.

Thank you.

It sees you once again convene over in Jamaica for recording. What is it that being in Jamaica provides your recordings?

The main thing is I work with incredible musicians and producers that I admire and in this case I worked with Supa Dups and Stephen McGregor, who’s the son of legendary reggae singer Freddie McGregor and they call him Di Genius. When he was a kid he produced his first reggae album at the age of 13 and he really used that prodigious talent to where he could just sit down in front of a keyboard or guitar or bass and just play anything. So it’s inspiring for me to be around people who I know make the greatest rhythm tracks that I can then just concentrate on my acoustic guitar and just write lyrics that I feel passionate about. Another thing that’s cool about working in Jamaica is people stop by the studio all the time and walk in. Random people will walk in and you see them start nodding their heads ‘oh, this is cool’ and you get the street approval right away or it doesn’t, you know. Then we go back to the drawing board.

It brings you so much closer to the people whereas if you’re in America you’re on a third floor, fifth floor locked away in a studio.

Yeah, it makes a difference. I think the place where it makes the biggest difference is when you go out and play shows, live. And if you’ve recorded them in an air-conditioned studio and you go on stage it sounds like an air-conditioned studio but if you’re playing in like a sweaty rock box then the energy isn’t there sometimes, you know.

This time you collaborated with super producer Supa Dups – Was it a conscious choice to go from Sly and Robbie?

I’ll work again with Sly and Robbie again soon in fact I’ve been talking with them about some things. I ran into Supa Dups on tour and he said hey, I’d love to work with you why don’t you send me through some demos of things you’re working on and I sent him the song Once A Day and he sent it back with a really great rhythm track on it and so we just kept doing it over bits and pieces over email and then we said let’s get together and record. We really didn’t know where it would go and we ended up doing the whole album in a very short time and having a really fun experience doing it and so it ended up by the time we were done with the sessions we didn’t need any more songs for the record.

Coming to Australia next month? What do you look forward to away from the shows when you’re down here?

Well I’m actually going to be going up to Alice Springs right before we start the tour for a few days I’ve never been up there and we’ve got some friends who invited me to come out there, so I’m looking forward to doing that and we’re also going to be visiting a jail in Melbourne and play a small show the day before we play out there. I just love getting out into the streets and meeting people and I love swimming so I’m going to the beach wherever possible and we’ve come down there so many times and it really is our favourite place to tour every year so we’re excited to come down again.

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