Freedom fighters

“I am reggae. I decide what reggae is, because I create the music.”

— Ziggy Marley

“No one told Gandhi it would be easy,” muses Spearhead front man Michael Franti.

Resistance movements, the musician points out, never are.

However, “through music, we have a chance to be joyful,” Franti continues. “That’s why I create the music I do — to provide a soundtrack to people who are [standing up for their beliefs] every day.”

Ziggy Marley, the driving force behind sibling reggae group The Melody Makers — and, of course, the son of Bob — echoes Franti’s thinking while adding another dimension.

“The fight is a spiritual [one],” Marley said in another recent phone interview. “Material things are one thing, but it’s really about a spiritual existence. My struggle is not with food or money; my struggle is with spirit — to get people to love one another. That’s primary. That’s where I am.”

In his song “In the Name of God,” Marley states, “All religion should be wiped out/ so the people may just live.”

“To believe in God, you don’t need a religion,” he explains now. “We just need to love each other, and by doing that, we’ll know God. Babylon falls every day; the fall of Babylon is for us to love each other — when [they] can’t make us fight each other anymore. People think to love each other is some kind of [psychobabble], but it’s real.

“Spirituality,” he adds, “it make you not be hungry, not be greedy.”

Beats not bombs

The 12 tracks on Franti’s Everyone Deserves Music (Boo Boo Wax, 2003) are evenly divided between commentary on current events (“Bomb the World,” “Crazy, Crazy, Crazy”) and declarations of hope (“Never Too Late,” “Love Invincible”). From opener “What I Be” — think of it as the funk-soul-brother answer to Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” — Franti offers danceable world-beat grooves, mind-reeling rhymes and melodies that just won’t quit.

The album is being touted as the singer’s most fully realized work in a career spanning two decades.

“The responsibility of any artist is to make great art,” Franti muses.

But not just art for art’s sake — relaying some kind of message, Franti implies, must be paramount: “Intrinsic in making great art is to find truth — spiritual, romantic, political.”

Little surprise, then, that he proclaims political content as central to good songwriting. Franti is, after all, founder of both the ’80s industrial-punk outfit The Beatnigs (a protest of Reagan-ism) and, with jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, the Public Enemy-inspired Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

He’s since gone on to form the big-label-courted Spearhead, which delves into the black roots of reggae and funk. By the end of the ’90s, though, he’d left Capitol Records and formed his own label, focusing again on politics, and taking up such causes as abolishing the death penalty and ending corporate globalization.

“As an activist, I found when I first started writing songs, I wrote angry [ones] because I’ve felt powerless,” the musician remembers. “Since I’ve done more off the stage, that changed.”

While on tour, Franti meets with voter-registration groups, focusing on absentee voters. His organization 911 Power to the Peaceful holds a festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park each summer, raising funds to “encourage the government to find other ways than bombing to spread our good will around the world.”

And with Spearhead, he frequently plays shows for prisoners.

Sounds like a lot of bands that find warm audiences here in Asheville. But check out the local club listings, and you soon realize that the majority of acts pandering to the politically minded are folkies and singer/songwriters who mostly also happen to be white.

Which makes the Marley-Franti bill something very different — though Franti has no interest in dividing activism along racial lines.

“It’s difficult for any activist today to be political and still have records in stores or on the radio,” he declares. “The music industry has changed, and globalization has changed the music produced today.

“[Musicians] are no longer responsible to the Goddess of Music,” he points out. “They’re responsible [instead] to corporations. All my favorite artists would’ve been booed off American Idol.”

“I am reggae”

Marley, too, easily applies his political activism to matters of art.

Last year, he broke away from his brothers and sisters to create his solo debut, Dragonfly (Private Music). The CD is both an artistic exploration of new territory and a bold statement about world issues, from the title track’s warning of ecological disaster to “Shalom Salaam,” which tackles the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Gone is the hip-swaying Jamaican skank — although a sultry, island-feeling rhythm remains at the music’s root. In come strains of R&B, cello arrangements and an exotic taste of sitar.

Marley defends his definitive step away from what remains reggae’s greatest legacy.

“Reggae didn’t start as reggae,” he explains. “It evolved [from other forms of music]. So why should I stop growing?

“I am reggae,” he boldly declares. “I decide what reggae is, because I create the music. I’m keeping the music alive, moving forward. That’s the evolution and the revolution.”

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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