On Spearhead’s 2003 release, Everyone Deserves Music, the hip-hop group’s front man Michael Franti sings, “I wanna rock the punks because I love punk rock/ I wanna rock the hips because I love hip-hop/ I wanna rock my peeps all around the block/ If I were in Baghdad then I would rock Iraq.”
And, a year later, he did just that.
I have this mental image of Franti striding fearlessly through those war-torn streets: The singer-songwriter towers well over six feet, with tribal tattoos decorating arms and ankles and dreadlocks hanging below his shoulders. He walks barefoot, unarmed but for an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulders. I imagine M16-toting soldiers halting and guerrillas fleeing as Franti advances, while the children of Iraq surround him, clamoring for a song.
And if this sounds too surreal to be anything but a scene from a movie, well, it is. Last year, Franti and a small crew took a trip to Iraq (as well as Palestine, Israel and Jordan), where they played music for U.S. troops and wounded Iraqis in the hospitals. They talked with artists, poets and musicians and appeared on Iraqi TV — and they captured some 200 hours of video footage.
Edited down to a poignant 95 minutes, the film, christened I Know I’m Not Alone, was featured at the Sundance, Slamdance, Brisbane and Bend film festivals this year — and will be screened at the Lake Eden Arts Festival Oct. 16.
OK, so the insurgents didn’t exactly beat a hasty retreat in Franti’s wake, and the singer doesn’t front like he was fearless. “This trip had a really profound impact on me,” he admits during a recent interview between engagements. “This was the first time I’d traveled where there’s a war going on.”
On the musician’s Web site (www.spearheadvibrations.com), he candidly blogged his travels. “We were instructed at the beginning of the flight that we would stay high, 23,000 feet until we got directly over the airport, at this time we would go into a fast dive over the airport and continue corkscrewing down at 45 degrees until we landed right on top of the airport. The pilot told us that this was the safest way to avoid surface to air missiles and small arms fire,” Franti wrote on June 5, 2004. ” … We saw 2 cars exploded and on fire going the opposite direction on the road into the airport. All the traffic was backed up behind it and soldiers and a fire crew were surrounding the vehicles. This was incredibly sobering … “
He adds by phone, “It was incredible to see all that type of destruction, but to also witness the resilience of the people — they can endure all of those circumstances.”
The 38-year-old singer had worked in film before (in addition to his extensive, two-decade-spanning career with such bands as the Beatnigs, the Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy and Spearhead) — but Not Alone was more about having (and giving) voice than making art.
“It came from my experience of feeling isolated,” he explains. “I would sit at home and watch TV and read the newspaper and hear politicians and generals explain the economic cost of war without addressing the human cost. I wondered if I was the only one who thought it was crazy to drop bombs — I felt alone.”
Hence the name of the movie. “[While traveling], I realized I’m not the only one who thinks that killing people is wrong.”
The view at ground level
But Franti’s film is about art. How could it not be?
True, this is a guy who’s devoted his life to calling out injustice where he sees it and raising awareness to political causes he deems important: He started the annual Power to the Peaceful festival in 1999 (originally to draw attention to the long — and, it is widely believed, wrongfully — imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal). He invites military personnel to his shows — where he offers them respect while simultaneously speaking out against war.
But all of these lofty ideals are channeled through urgently danceable songs.
So, when Franti set his bare feet (he allegedly hasn’t worn shoes in five-and-a-half years) down in Iraq, he focused his video camera on Iraqi artists. Like a metal band called the Black Scorpions. “They rehearse in an underground basement of a large building … it is completely black and they have to run a gas generator in the room with them to have light and power because the electricity in Baghdad rarely works,” the musician blogged.
His previous work scoring the film Always Outnumbered led Franti to the understanding of how music and images together could impact an audience — a thought that returned to him as he viewed television coverage of the Iraq war.
“I wondered why CNN wasn’t showing what’s on the ground,” he says now. “So, a lot of my film is just showing [that].” The music and images reveal the lives of ordinary people — soldiers, school children, tattoo artists and taxi drivers — just trying to get on with business as usual.
Not that there was much normalcy to be found. Writing from Hebron, Palestine, Franti reported, “I carried my guitar and along the way a crowd of about 20 young children began to walk with me as I sang and strummed. … We were about to walk into the curfewed street but the children shouted for another song. I started playing and they clapped and sang. I looked over my shoulder and saw a group of soldiers coming toward [us] … as I crossed the lane gunfire broke out behind me and I heard children and adults yelling and running as the soldiers ran into the intersection and the market, which was filled with well over 1000 people, [emptied]. The soldiers leveled their M16s and shouted in Hebrew as we all took cover in an alley.”
Still playing with fire
Much has changed since the singer’s 2004 trip — including the recent withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza Strip. So, how has this changed the situation of the lives Franti captured on film?
“I just spoke a few days ago with a woman who’s been a leader in the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace movement for over 30 years,” Franti reveals. “She says there’s been a new sense of hope she hasn’t seen in all her years of peace work.”
He continues, “Even six months ago, when I was last in Israel, people didn’t believe in the possibility of a pullout. But has life changed dramatically for people in Gaza? No. Seventy percent of people there live on less than $2 a day.”
But the Spearhead front man is too savvy to place blame. “My first thought is that I empathize with everyone. There was a time when Christians, Jews and Moslems all lived together in peace [in the Middle East]. There has to be a way we can create policies that can facilitate people living next to each other. Once people live together, we always get along.”
Wise words — but don’t expect Franti to be permanently adding politics to his resume. He’s busy with music, touring and making the rounds of film festivals. This fall, he performed with hip travel-guide company Lonely Planet’s “Passport to the World” festival.
“We have several new projects coming out,” he notes. There’s the just-released album Love Kamikaze (Boo Boo Wax), which the singer describes as “all songs about love and sex.”
There’s a live album in the works, and then a studio release titled Yell Fire, slated for March.
“The name comes from the expression that you shouldn’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater because you’ll cause alarm,” Franti explains. “But I think there are a lot of fires today that no one’s saying anything about — and we should.”
Watch I Know I’m Not Alone 2-3:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16 in the Lake Eden Cabaret Hall at the Lake Eden Arts Festival. A Q&A session follows. Michael Franti performs an acoustic set later that day (5-6:20 p.m.) at the Lakeside Main Stage.