December 11, 2001
On November 30th, Nell Geiser and Jessica Kinerson sat down with Michael Franti , the lead singer of Spearhead on KGNU Radio.
Q: You speak about the importance of the right to dance. What implications does the new PATRIOT Act have for that and other basic rights?
Michael Franti: First of all, regarding the right to dance, I believe that music is a healing art. The healing takes places on an emotional level, a mental level, and on a body level, a physical level. So when we dance, it helps brings all those three things together, and those three things are what I call spirituality: the mind, the body, and the emotions. So anything that stifles that, or anything that attempts to clamp down on the healing power of music is wrong, is scary, is something we need to recognize when they start throwing these words around like PATRIOT Act. Its really more like a Fascist Act, it has nothing to do with patriotism. I think it's important that we understand whats going on with our civil rights.
Eventhe so-called "Founding Fathers," they wrote the Constitution during a time of war. The Constitution was written during a time of war and said, no matter what happens, we still have the right to free speech, right to assemble, all these different rights. So I think music is something we need to protect. But we don't protect it by building a fence around it, we protect it by allowing it to blossom and grow, flourish and spread far and wide.
Q: Howard Zinn has said that the role of artists and musicians is to transcend the propaganda and lies of the times. What do you see as the role of artists and musicians in these times?
Franti: I think the role of artists and musicians is the same no matter what, no matter what time youre in. Because an artist or musician is no different than any other person. As human beings, we have two things that we are responsible for. We have to be responsible for taking care of the planet. And then we have to be responsible for taking care of each other, to help bring happiness to other people. I'm reading this book called Anger by Thic Nat Han and in the book he says, "Happiness is a relief from suffering." We try to find a relief from suffering in our own hearts, and then we try to help other people, and bring a relief from suffering.
Art is a very powerful way of doing that, especially in a time when we are fighting multinational corporations that are running the media. It's important that our art exists beyond that. It has an opportunity to reach people in a way television, even radio, the internet cant. We have to find ways that art can reach people directly and help to relieve suffering. Mumia Abu Jamal has a great description. He says that the role of a musician today is to "enrage, enlighten and inspire." And I added one part to it, which is to enrage, enlighten, and inspire people to become more compassionate.
Q: Well the war that were engaged in now of course theres been a war in our streets for a long time as you speak about in your songs--but the new war involves a PR hack being hired as undersecretary of state, it involves Dan Rather saying that "If the President asks me to get in line, I'll ask where." Whats you're take on this war, which has been hailed as a just war: how our government is dealing with it, and how we should be responding to the events of September 11th.
Franti: Its an oxymoron to say a "just war." I don't believe there is a just war anywhere. And I believe that all bombing is terrorism, no matter who does it. The way that this consent was manufactured, the way this whole thing was constructed is amazing...Back here they report it as, "were doing this surgical bombing, these little attacks." We see these "night vision" explosions. We dont see peoples limbs being ripped apart, we dont see flesh burning.
This whole thing is something that ultimately all of us are responsible for. As this war becomes increasingly unpopular, its up to us to embrace other people into peace, not go out and say "you guys are all wrong for believing what you believe" and "you guys are all wrong for waving the flag." Its easy to point the finger. Its a lot harder to hold love and compassion in our hearts so that when people do start to think about what's happening with this war, that were able to embrace them on the side of peace, and that we grow a larger and lasting movement for peace. Because this war isnt going to stop with Afghanistan, its going to go to Iraq, it's going to go into the living rooms where people are holding meetings trying to figure out whats happening with the forests or to prevent more corporate tyranny, WTO-style. Theyre saying that in the name of terrorism, they can basically get rid of anyone that they think is a terrorist.
Q: Talk about your new song dealing with these issues.
Franti: The song is called, "Bomb the World," and it says "you can bomb the world to pieces but you cant bomb it into peace." It just asks some simple questions. It says,
"Please tell us the reasons behind the colors that you fly, please tell us the reasons you want us to unify. You say youre sorry, you say there is no other choice. But how can you feel sorry when youre killing people with no voice. You can chase down all your enemies, you can bring them to their knees. You can bomb the world to pieces, but you cant bomb it into peace. We can even find a solution for hunger, and disease. Yeah, we can a world to pieces, but we cant bomb it into peace. The earthquake of anger, simply brings more of the same. The military madness, smell of flesh and burning pain. So I sing out to the masses, stand up if youre still sane. And to all of us gone crazy, I sing this one refrain, you can chase down all your enemies, bring them to their knees. You can bomb the world to pieces, but you cant bomb it into peace."So this song is really just questioning the flag waving that's taking place. The fact that it was the World Trade Center, was not just the American trade center, it was the World Trade Center. It was 82 nations that had people who died there, but all I see is this American flag being waved
Q: So, whats patriotism really about?
Franti: I feel like patriotism is a love for your country and support for your country. I believethat its not just about whats good for one country, its about what's good for the whole planet, not just on a human level, but on a natural level, everything working in concert. But if I do think of patriotism, I think that patriotism is when you have a critical analysis of your country, a critical analysis of whats happening. You say, "Hey, there are some things that are going good and some things that are going bad, and I'm going to support the good things and I'm going to speak out against the bad things.
People think youre unpatriotic, or you don't love your country if youre speaking out. I look at it as just the opposite.
Nationalism is when you just follow the government, and say: "the government is the government and whatever they say goes." Thats what I'm really afraid of more than patriotism. But we can move beyond patriotism, patriotism isnt enough.
Q: You often criticize the corporate media in your music. Youre also with an independent label yourself and talk about the value in community media. Stay Human, your new album, is all about this story-line of a community radio station covering an impending execution and the governor's race. What do you see as the importance of community media, the role it plays, and how you and your music fit into it?
Franti: Independent media, it's all weve got. It's always been there. There's always been people who have spread leaflets, or published their own newspaper, or done flyers, or whatever it was, to keep the word alive, the unpopular word, but often times the word thats following the heart rather than just the dollar. Independent media is important today more than ever.
It takes a lot of courage to do independent media, and to do it well, to do it honestly, to do it over an extended period of time. It takes a lot of heart, some resources, and its important that we support it. For me, when I was a kid, I used to listen to community radio stations, because they played stuff that I didn't hear anywhere else. Then as I became an artist, those were the stations that became important to me because they were the ones that played my music. So I'm grateful, I'm indebted to community radio.
Q: I wanted to ask you about that commercial music world which youre not really a part of. How you get out to people, get out to the masses, provide that positive context to people when you dont have the massive resources, the backing of the commercial music industry, and you dont get the play on the mainstream, Clear Channel stations. How do you get around that?
Franti: You have to think in your mind, what your motives and intentions are as an artist. If your goal is to sell a lot of records, and the intention behind what you do is that you want to get rich and retire at a young age, thats one way to approach it. And you'll probably have a very difficult time. It's hard to get rich playing music, but youre definitely going to get retired at some point, whether you like it or not. So at some point along you journey, you may as well write something thats meaningful to you. Make something that means something to you and means something to other people.
As I've grown as an artist--I've been making music since I put out our first record in 1987--I've sort of honed what it is that my goal is. My goal now is that I want to try to relieve suffering in peoples lives, because I've seen that happen with music. And so it doesn't really matter how many people I do that for, what matters is just that I can do it, or try to help do it, because it gives me a lot of relief from my suffering too. To write about things that are really hurting me, things that are sad or frustrating to me, and then to be able to stand on stage and share it with other people, it really helps me out a lot. It gives me a really meaningful sense of purpose to what I do. So yeah, I don't really worry if we get played on the air or not. Sometimes I worry if were going to be able to pay the bus bill when we get home, but it always seems to work out.
Nell Geiser is a senior in high school from Boulder, Colorado. She is editing a book of interviews called Making Trouble: Voices From the Youth Activist Front. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.