Michael Franti is a musician, activist and filmmaker dedicated to making the world a better place. An inspiration to anybody that comes in contact with him, we were lucky enough to grab an interview while he was in town for the World Wellness Weekend . Here he talks about the spirit that drives him and how he has dedicated his life to communicating it.
AUSTIN DAZE: Tell me about the Power to the Peaceful Festival. What is your philosophy on that? How did you get involved?
MICHAEL FRANTI: In 1999, I started this event called Mumia 911. It was 150 artists around the country and we did this day of art and action for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is a man on death row. So we decided to do this concert in the park and called it 911 because of the emergency number. So we did it in ‘99 and 2000. And then in 2001, the attacks of September 11th occurred, and suddenly this concert that was about Mumia and the prison industry and the death penalty became this day of remembrance for the attacks. And what we said in our community was that we wanted to remember not as a day to call for war and more violence but a day to call to end all political violence. So we galvanized support in our community amongst spiritual leaders, people that work with domestic violence, gang violence, veterans groups and we put on this big Power to the Peaceful movement. It’s now grown to 50,000 people. It’s predominately a day of awareness about ending violence – not just with people but also with the environment. So we have over a hundred and fifty social justice organizations come and environmental justice organizations come and speak and we have bands play in between.
AD: It’s started in one place and now it’s where?
MF: It started in San Francisco and last year we did the first one in Brazil. That one was a little bit different because in Brazil the issue is really social violence. In the Favelas, the poorest parts of Sao Paolo, there are wars between the police and the gangs over drugs, there are wars between the different drug gangs, rich people and poor people. We did one concert that was a concert which was to raise money for to teach kids art and music and get them out of the drug trade. This year we are doing one in Tanzania and then we will also be doing another one in Brazil in January.
AD: When you were young, do you remember being aware of what was wrong with the world?
MF: When I was born I was given up for adoption–father is black and my mother is white—and was raised in a family of white parents. They adopted me and another black son, and I always felt like I didn’t fit in, like I was an outsider. My father was also an alcoholic, so there was always a lot of turmoil in the household. So I always had this feeling that I wanted to speak up for the underdog – whoever it is, wherever they are. That has always informed my music, my politics, and my compassion. And to this day, it’s really the same. I just feel like wherever I go in the world I gravitate towards the communities and the people who don’t have a voice. I try to bring my love and spirit to the music and listen to their concerns.
AD: Was there something about music that you were inspired by that helped you do this?
MF: When I was a kid I had a crush on this girl in the fourth grade. And there was this song, “My name is Michael, I’ve got a nickel, I’ve got a nickel shiny and new.” If I didn’t have that song, I never would have been able to get out my feelings for that girl in my fourth grade class. I was so in love with her. Through all these silly love songs, I was able to express what was inside of me. I couldn’t talk to my parents, I couldn’t talk to my teachers, and lord knows I couldn’t talk to her about it, so those songs meant so much to me–that’s really when I found the power of music. Also, in church, my mom played organ and I remember there were certain songs that made me cry and open up my heart in a way that I had never felt before. In church, I was the tallest kid in the choir, so I stood in the back and I didn’t have to sing–I could just mouth the words. This is what I did. Which is good training for begin a lip synching pop star in the future. I’ve always loved music. When I got to be a teenager I started to hear music that had a political voice to it—Bob Marley, the Clash, early rap songs that had the message like Grandmaster Flash. Those started to really mean something to me because it was given this voice. I was feeling these things and then there were these artists that were singing about it–Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. And then when I started playing music myself, I was writing lyrics before I was putting music to them–just writing poetry.
AD: Can you tell us about your experience making the movie, I Know I’m Not Alone?
MF: One day I was watching the news on CNN with this friend of mine, and I was listening to this general talk about trying to find Saddam. And the newscaster said to this general, “Well what if Saddam is hiding underground? What are you going to do to find him?” And the general says, “Well we have these bombs called Bunker Busters, and we know that Saddam has these bunkers hidden around Baghdad and we know where they are and we are just going to bomb them.” And I thought, “This bomb is so big. It’s five tons and can blow up five stories below the earth.” God, if I was in San Francisco where I live and somebody was coming to drop these bombs on my city, what would I tell my kids? At the time my youngest son was 5 and my other son was 16. And what would I tell my 5 year-old who doesn’t know anything about war? Would I say, “You are just going to hear loud noises that are fireworks”? You know, make up some wild fantasy story to put his mind at ease. And then what would I tell my 16 year-old, who knows all about war? We have to prepare. I just started thinking about these families and these kids in Baghdad; I had this curiosity about them, how they were handling it. A year later I took my guitar and a video camera and I just flew to Bagdad and played music on the streets. I asked three different people that I had played music for to take me to their houses and tell me where they hid during the bombings. I remember the first family said they got everybody in the middle of the room, away from the windows, and put blankets on top of everybody and just laid there and prayed that they wouldn’t be hit. Baghdad is a city of five million people. How can you not be blowing people up? And that’s what our government was telling us: they are smart bombs and they just avoid people. They are OK. And then I got there and found out that in the first wave of bombing there were over 150,000 people killed in Iraq. I was just devastated. So I was filming everything and I didn’t really think I’d make a movie. I just thought that I would film this and show people back home. But we ended up having so much video footage that we decided to put it together into a film.
AD: We interviewed Phil Donahue for Body of War and understand you contributed a song to that film.
MF: Right before that I had been to Walter Reed hospital, that same week, to play music for guys that had been injured. When I was in Iraq, you meet kids that have had their arms blown off and their legs blown off and then later that night I would go play for the soldiers – and they had been the ones who did this to these kids. And I’m thinking, “What can I say to these guys?” I’m angry, I’m hurt, I’m scared, I’m worried they are going to fucking shoot me if I sing about something they don’t like. And a friend of mine who is older and wiser than me said, “It’s not important what you sing or what you choose to say. It’s that these guys know you came all the way over, 15,000 miles, just to be with them right here, right now.” I think that was the biggest lesson that I learned: it’s not always about going to a place of judgment; that I don’t always have to be proving that my opinion or somebody else’s opinion is right just because I’m trying to prove that somebody else’s is wrong. As a matter of fact, you get a lot closer to understanding, a lot closer to eventual peace, if we just reserve judgment. That’s the same thing when we went to Israel and Palestine and spoke to both people there, and then coming back to America and touring around the country at a time when the war was still quite popular. I would show this film and play and then afterwards I’d have people yelling at me and screaming at me, really from their heart, about what they believe. I just had to learn to hold space and not try to say I’m right or you are wrong.
AD: It’s interesting because when you talk about that underdog instinct, there are all these innocent people in Iraq and then at the same time you see a film like Body of War and you can’t help but feel compassion for the soldiers.
MF: It’s complicated. When I went to meet with soldiers, active soldiers, they are in a bar with a beer in one hand and their M16s in the other hand, and here I come with my little folk guitar to sing songs about peace and love and they are looking at me like, “Who the fuck is this motherfucker?” But I sang this song, “Bomb the World” which says,
We can chase down all our enemies
bring them to their knees
We can bomb the world to pieces
but we can’t bomb it into peace
And after I sang that song I was thinking, these guys are going to string me up. But something really miraculous happened: they opened up to me. They said, “You know, I’m from San Jose, California” ,“I’m from Birmingham, Alabama”, “I’m from Albany, New York.” They said, “I came here thinking we were doing something good and I find out Saddam’s not involved in 911 and he doesn’t have weapons of mass destruction, and now I’m here breaking into families’ homes and just feeling like a sitting duck everyday just waiting for a grenade to get thrown in my lap or to get shot on the streets. More than anything else I just want to get the fuck out of here.” And I had never heard that before. I had heard the Administration saying, “We have to support the troops. If we say we are going to withdraw, it’s going to blow their morale.” And these guys are like, “Are you kidding me? If they said we were going to withdraw, we would have the biggest party ever. We want to get the fuck out of here.” Then going to Walter Reed I met this kid from Tennessee who I had to talk to through his laptop because his entire jaw was blown off. He just had his tongue hanging out and he couldn’t speak and could make a little bit of sound. I asked him what happened and he told me he got shot in the jaw and it just blew it off. And I asked him if he felt glad to be out of there now and he said, “Yeah I feel glad to be out of there now but this is the second time. The first time I got shot in the back of the neck and the bullet went in my jaw and broke it but didn’t knock it out. I healed up and then they sent me back.” He said at the time he was ready to go back and felt patriotic and wanted to go back to his homies. Now he said he’s married and he has a little girl and he can’t talk to her. He doesn’t know what his wife is going to do with him. . . . Just to see the severity of it. Every soldier has a Kevlar vest and helmet. If it was Vietnam, they would have been dead but now it’s just these horrible injuries. These guys are still totally spirited. They support America and “we have to do our job over there.” Another one says they would do everything they can to stop this war.
AD: We need a regime change. What do you think is going to happen?
MF: Well I’m very excited. I’ve never ever endorsed a candidate and I probably never will. But I always endorse ideas. And the idea that I endorse is to bring our troops and our tax dollars home as soon as possible. That to me is not a partisan issue. Even Scott McClellan came out and said, “Hey, they are fucking lying and I was the one that was the mouthpiece for it.” So what more do we need in this country to hear when he says that? I think there is an incredible time that is happening right now. If it had been four years ago there would have been no chance in hell that Obama would have been elected. And maybe four years from now he may not get elected. And the thing that I like about who he is, that he is the mold of a 21st century candidate: white mom, black father, Christian mom, Muslim father. He lived in Indonesia for part of his life. He’s from a broken home, so he didn’t have the best things his whole life. He’s not from an oil family. And there’s something to be said for that. What I think his candidacy has done is symbolize something to a lot of people. It says, “We want something different.” He’s not going to be the ideal candidate for everybody, but he’s going to tell people in the rest of the world and in this country that the way we have been going so far is not the way we want to be going anymore.
AD: What’s next for you?
MF: We have a new record coming out called “All Rebel Rockers,” and it’s really an invitation to dance in this world that feels so full of chaos. What I mean by dance is not to just forget about your troubles but for people to find that inspiration again, that playfulness, that joy, that excitement, that youthfulness to stay in this fight. There are so many things that you see on the news everyday that just get us down and make you say, “Man, it’s not worth it.” But I really believe that if the system is bringing us negativity, war, and environmental destruction, then to be a rebel today is to bring positivity, to find solutions to war and sustainability. It used to be to throw a brick through a window at McDonalds and that’s 1.0. Now it’s 2.0—we have to find these solutions. That’s what this record is about.