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During a President's Day weekend show last month in San Francisco, Michael Franti and his band, Spearhead, temporarily ceded the stage to a handful of fans who had won a "Letters to the President" contest sponsored by the group. There was plenty of vitriol in the air, and one letter, in the form of a poem titled "Admit Your Guilt," contained the line, "Our president's a whore; he fucks us every day."
No real surprise there. Franti's an impassioned lefty who's spent his two decades of music-making and activism railing against perceived social, political, and economic injustices. Hell, he hasn't worn shoes in nearly seven years, a show of solidarity with exploited workers in foreign countries who make footwear but can't afford to buy any.
But when Franti stepped back up to the mic to share his favorite letter of all, he didn't spew anti-Bush invective. Rather, he read the innocent and polite words of a second-grader named Justice: "Hi, President. How are you?... If you believe that we must have war, I was thinking if the people in war could use water guns (those really big ones), it would be better. And whoever gets soaked is out. The other team wins. I'm just thinking, and I am still a kid. If you don't like the idea, that's fine with me. I will understand."
The fact that Franti preferred those sentiments above the others says something about where his mind is these days. Realizing that raging against the machine can get you only so far, his tactics now are much gentler than in the past.
"When we approach things from a place of anger or if I go to a place that's defensive and try to argue that 'I'm right and you're wrong,' it turns other people off there has to be a better way," the friendly singer/guitarist says over the phone from a Spearhead tour stop in San Diego.
A native of Oakland, California, Franti will turn 41 next month. He and his music have mellowed some with age, though he notes that his temper does flare up from time to time. Still, he credits constant touring as the source of his new attitude these days. Spearhead has spent a grand total of about a month off the road over the past year and a half and encounters all sorts of people, who Franti says help him pursue his quest for inner calm.
"When I meet people, I ask them, 'What do you do to overcome the situation that you've been in and get rid of all the anger?' Recently, I was in Hiroshima interviewing atomic bomb blast survivors, and I asked them that question, and when I was in Northern Ireland a few months ago, I asked some people that, and I'm going to South Africa in September, and I'll be asking people there the same thing. And I guess the common thread is, people just find a way to let go."
Perhaps his most enlightening journey to date occurred in the summer of 2004, when he traveled to Iraq, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories with a camera crew to discover the realities of life in the Middle East during wartime. He went back again in 2005, and both trips provided the footage for last year's 90-minute documentary I Know I'm Not Alone. For the film, he ventured into active combat zones to speak with citizens and soldiers from all walks of life, and he played music for them. There was no military escort just himself, a couple of friends, a small film crew, and various interpreters, all putting themselves in harm's way. And to say that Franti stood out is an understatementa six-foot-six, barefoot black man with long dreadlocks and an acoustic guitar strapped to his back, being trailed by cameras, doesn't blend easily into the streets of Baghdad.
"Tough guys come up to me at shows and go, 'Man, you got big balls to go over there,' and I'm like, 'Well, my big balls were shaking like leaves when I was over there!' I didn't feel too brave," he says, chuckling.
The crucial lessons he learned, however, made the risks more than worthwhile. "The single most important experience I had was when I met these Palestinian and Israeli women who started this circle of families who were in bereavement over the loss of their family members. That's when I really understood that you have to forget about all the anger and the divisiveness, and you have to find solutions that consider the other side, not just your own."
Still, Franti says, there were moments of despair that he had great difficulty processing in the moment. "There were a lot of times when I'd go to bed, and as I was falling asleep, I would find myself crying, you know, after visiting hospitals and looking in the eyes of U.S. soldiers who were like, 'Why am I here?' But then when I was back home reviewing the footage, I'd pick up my guitar and write songs about it."
Those songs appeared on Spearhead's latest album, Yell Fire!, recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, with the help of riddim legends Sly & Robbie and released last summer. Mainly steeped in reggae textures and Ben Harper-style jam rock, Franti's tunes turn his harrowing memories into joyous, life-affirming numbers that yearn for, and believe in, peace despite the odds.