Bay Area musician and activist Michael Franti of Spearhead braved Baghdad two months after its fall. Then it was off to Israel and the West Bank. Now, the story can be told in the documentary 'I Know I'm Not Alone.
BEFORE THE twin-engine plane from Amman to Baghdad took off, passenger, musician and activist Michael Franti got the first of many reminders of the possibility of death during his 2004 trip to the Middle East. The pilot—blessed with a deceptively sweet British accent—explained how the plane would drop from the sky in a spiral dive before arriving on the landing strip. This maneuver, the pilot elaborated, is effective in avoiding the risk of surface-to-air shoulder-launched missiles and small-arms fire hitting and destroying the airplane.
Michael Franti, who leads the band Spearhead, has inhaled tear gas on the front lines of anti-WTO rallies and lent his time and talent to support anti-death penalty legislation, marijuana decriminalization, conscientious-objector groups and pro-peace units Not in Our Name and his own Stay Human and Power to the Peaceful organizations.
But this trip—him, a guitar, a film crew and no USO or military guides or sponsorship—found the Bay Area artist entering the most dangerous place on earth, a journey unlike anything he had experienced before.
"I was scared shitless," Franti says, from the safety of his serene loft space in the Hunters Point section of San Francisco. "We had planned this trip, and as we planned it, there were all these fears. 'What if we get kidnapped? What if we get shot?' On the other hand, you get targeted by the CIA because you're sniffing around where you shouldn't be. Then you put all that aside and get on that plane finally, and you go, 'Fuck, I'm flying into a war.' The pilot's routine [attitude] part put me at ease but part put me straight: this is the reality. This is what this guy deals with every single day."
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A Kick to the Talking Head
Frustrated by the talking heads constantly reporting on the economic costs of the Iraq war, Franti wanted to document the effect on Iraqi civilians and culture. In June 2004, Franti traveled to Baghdad two months after its fall and met with locals, hospital workers, musicians, poets, military personnel and children. He tagged along on a trip to Israel and the West Bank to see the effects of long-term occupation. The story of his journey, and how he used music to open doors and dialogue, is detailed in the 93-minute documentary I Know I'm Not Alone.
Franti turns 40 this year. He has two sons, 18 and 6, and he juggles the dual responsibilities of bandleader and parent. Over a cup of hot tea, he speaks in a low register, as if still trying to decipher the dichotomy of playing for children in hospitals and for military cats gripping M-16s.
"They are such touchy subjects," Franti says. "The Iraq war, the situation between Israel and Palestine. I didn't wake up one day and say, 'Boy! I want to jump into the middle of the conflict of Israel and Palestine!'"
Death Is Everywhere
After the safe landing in Baghdad, the car ride began with a sobering lesson in what they could and could not film.
"When we pulled out of the airfield, the first thing we saw were two cars that had been blown up on the road coming into the airport, and there were people still in the cars burning. American soldiers were in ready position around the car. We started to film that, and our driver grabbed the camera and pushed it down to the floor. The soldiers have orders to shoot on sight anybody taking pictures or filming. I figured we had to be cautious of what we shot and ask permission, but I never knew it would risk our lives."
What viewers see in the film is an Iraq numbed by mortar shells and disheveled by poverty, unemployment and a feeling of uselessness and fear under American rule. One of his interpreters, Maher Al-Wahhash, drops insights on life after American occupation. Everyone has guns with nothing to do. The Marines treated civilians with respect but the Army was the complete opposite. "It was bad under Saddam," he says, "but it was not this mess."
There are many tense scenes in I Know I'm Not Alone, but one of the most chilling is when Franti performs in the relatively safe confines of the Sheraton—a haven for foreign journalists and U.S. troops—inside its makeshift bar.
Franti sang three songs and performed a spoken-word piece. The camera catches Franti singing the peace anthem "Bomb the World" to men fingering the trigger. Sensing the tough crowd and confrontational nature, he changes the "Bomb the World" line "We can bomb the world into pieces, but we can't bomb it into peace" into a question: "We can bomb the world into pieces, but can we bomb the world into peace?"
In the voiceover, Franti calls the four-song set the hardest show he's ever had to do. The exchange is captured on film, and its resolution is surprising in its truth and frankness.
"I did change the lines," he admits. "There's also the line 'Power to the peaceful." I felt like it was rubbing it in too much. To say this to guys who are carrying M-16s—do we count them among the peaceful?"
Photograph by Anton Corbijn
Choose Your Weapon: Franti calls the four-song set he did for American soldiers in Iraq the hardest show he's ever had to do, and he even changed the words to his antiwar anthem 'Bomb the World': 'The line "Power to the peaceful," I felt like it was rubbing it in too much. To say this to guys who are carrying M-16s—do we count them among the peaceful?'
Among the people I Know I'm Not Alone shows are children and families rocked by war, insecurity and lack of electricity, medicine and drinking water. Franti meets with death-metal band Black Scorpion, a poetry group and a tattoo parlor proprietor. His trip to an Iraqi hospital shows a young boy whose leg is set for amputation the next day because antibiotics weren't available.
"That was the most shocking thing, because if I need antibiotics, I just go get some Amoxicillin from Walgreen's, you know what I mean?"
What surprised Franti most was that Iraqis understood that not everybody in America supports the president's views, just like not everybody in Iraq supports Saddam or the current government.
"But this was in 2004, before Bush's re-election," he says, "so they're like, 'If you elect him again, we're not going to give you the benefit of the doubt anymore!'"
The second half of the film is equally intense, as it explores the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians from a variety of voices usually buried behind coverage of suicide bombers and rock tossers.
Strumming a guitar, Franti attempts to mediate a discussion between Israeli guards and Palestinians at a border crossing. Through these perspectives, Franti learned a valuable lesson about his views. He isn't pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-America or pro-Iraq; he's pro-peace.
"Before I left, I thought I was a real compassionate person," he says, "but in order to really practice compassion, you have to extend love to people who you think you don't have compassion for. We have to find a solution, a space for everybody."
Considering the amount of death, violence and suffering he witnessed, it's no stretch that Franti's home base is a haven of peace and tranquility. The bottom floor is a combined living room/kitchen/yoga dojo. Three acoustic guitars are mounted on the wall across from a blown-up photo of a young Jamaican boy holding a ring fashioned from a car engine part (he took the photo in Jamaica when he recorded with Sly & Robbie).
Franti says the stares he gets on the streets of San Francisco as a black man with dreads are totally different from what he received in Baghdad and Gaza City.
"In San Francisco, I still have relative anonymity. There's people who know me if they see me around the Mission or Haight. But most people around here—Hunters Point—don't know what I do. They don't know I'm a musician. In Baghdad, people looked at me like I was from outer space. They had never seen dreadlocks before. Bob Marley is not really known there, so there is no reference in terms of Jamaica. When they found out I was American, they were even more curious."
When he returned from the Middle East, Spearhead played a gig with the String Cheese Incident in Oregon. The difference was felt immediately.
"All through my trip, I was so used to getting stopped, searched, going through checkpoint after checkpoint, getting my passport and papers checked by some nervous kid holding a gun. So we go up to the gate of the show and this young hippie kid says, 'Do you have a wristband?'"
Michael claps his hands at the memory and lets out a ridiculous laugh. "I'm like, "What are you going to do if I don't?"
The film is a continuation of Michael Franti's lifelong dedication to making politics personal. He began in the late '80s with the Beatnigs, continued in the early '90s industrial hip-hop forum Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, eventually arriving at the politically astute (yet party friendly) Spearhead.
The name Spearhead is derived from King Shaka, the Zulu chief who led that nation's march to greatness in 1816 by breaking the conventional spear in half and enlarging the head. Shaka's militaristic transformation also represents Franti's own mission to arm his listeners with mental ammunition.
Spearhead was signed to Capitol in 1994, but its mix of soul, reggae and hip-hop didn't jibe with the label's expectations of big sales. The group was sent on the road with acts like the Foo Fighters, Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys, along with more like-minded souls like Digable Planets and Ben Harper.
Spearhead suffered on mainstream radio, excused with the familiar refrain that bands like Fishbone and the Roots know too well: Spearhead was "too black" for modern rock radio, "not black enough" for urban radio.
Franti recounts the 1998 tipping point with Capitol. The band's point person was fired in a label reorg. A new representative was appointed, and Franti went in to hear his ideas about where he thought Spearhead should go.
"The first thing he wanted us to do was a record with Will Smith," Franti says. "I said, 'Maybe I'm not communicating more effectively what I want to do.' It took nine months just to get out of our contract. And during those nine months, I vowed to make a record about issues that I found most important."
That record, released in 2001, became Stay Human.
The Next Level
In hip-hop, trends sweep in and out with the casual freedom of glory-hole regulars. Whether it's crunk, hyphy, grime, indie, undie, crack rap—the driving motivation of escapism (bundled in materialism, sexual conquest and aggression) has only become more entrenched in the hip-hop landscape.
For an artist to tackle hard topics—in this case: the death penalty and marijuana legalization—is to commit commercial hara-kiri. Stay Human's concept was based on a pirate-radio station covering a governor's race. The main character is a medical-marijuana advocate framed for a double murder she didn't commit, and the evil governor is trying to execute her the night before the election so he can be a shoo-in for victory.
In July 2003, the band released Everyone Deserves Music—a less thematic read, although a more precise and acoustic look into Franti's mind.
The next Spearhead record will be a double release. Titled after the documentary, Franti says I Know I'm Not Alone will have more funky, rocking and reggae moments (courtesy of producers Sly & Robbie, Mario Caldato Jr. and Chris Blackwell). A second disc of acoustic numbers will be released and the DVD of I Know I'm Not Alone as well.
All three will be out in June 2006 in a collaboration between Franti's Boo Boo Wax label and the growingly progressive Epitaph Records (now home to Tom Waits, Dangermouse, Blackalicious, Atmosphere and others).
Franti's growth from punk to hip-hop head to activist doesn't come without attrition of an audience that wants to lock him into a Polaroid freeze-frame time period of its liking. Fans who saw him rock stages with the Fugees or Busta Rhymes and haven't checked for him since would probably charge the Franti of 2006 with mistaken identity. Spearhead tours on biodiesel buses, and onstage water bottles are exchanged for reusable jugs.
Along with the band, Spearhead shows (dubbed "exSpeariences") have been marked by a motley caravan of speakers, poets, fire dancers, massage therapists, yoga instructors, puppeteers and DJs.
Franti's interest in Maori body modification is permanently etched across his body and on his forearms. A tattoo of birds becoming fish becoming prayers rises from both his elbows to his pinkies. The meaning, says Franti, is to allow birds to be our guide, for through them one shall find nourishment and prayers. He clasps his long arms together to form an impressive namaste mudra.
Yet with all the New Agey ideologies floating around, hip-hop remains his foundation. Shows are marked by plenty of call and response, requests for noise and hands in the air (to be waved like you just don't care).
Street Poet to Higher Ground
To comprehend Franti's evolution from street poet to performer pushing a higher plane of consciousness, examine his relationship with two leisure activities: basketball and yoga. At 6-foot-8, with long arms, Franti hooped early as a child and long into his adulthood, even made it to the collegiate level playing two years with the USF Dons. He rode the pine most of the time, but was brought in as an agitator—to get rebounds, force turnovers, get the star player in foul trouble, scramble on the floor for loose balls. His love of the game is recounted in Spearhead songs "Dream Team" (where Angela Davis breaks backboards a la Shaquille O'Neal) and "Why, Oh Why" (a solemn tribute to fallen playground legends with the exquisite line "Pop a three from the top of the key in their memory").
Yet today, Franti says he doesn't shoot around much since embracing the physical and spiritual benefits of yoga four years ago. Yoga is a daily regimen. His living room is filled with natural light and in the center is a large woven rug. Yoga gurus Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane led sessions on past Spearhead tours while Franti accompanied downward doggie poses with acoustic guitar. On New Year's Eve, Michael performed at a yoga workshop lead by Modestini and Doane at their yoga retreat in Maui.
Asked if he misses the competitive nature of basketball—the sweaty picks, the fast breaks, the elbows, the jostling down in the paint—Franti says no. "I'm turning 40 this year," he reasons. "I don't even miss working out because I practice yoga so much. I feel inner development and skill development."
I joke that Kobe Bryant showed plenty of inner and skill development the night he dropped 81 points in a Jan. 22 game against the Toronto Raptors.
Franti shakes his head, chuckles and pauses. Suddenly, a long-suppressed gym rat peeks out from under the black hemp-cloth exterior. "When Kobe scores 81 points," he says, after a beat, "those are the days when I go, 'Shit, I want to go out there and shut him down.'"
Yoga isn't making him soft—it's just sharpening his focus. A competitive streak still rages deep within Michael Franti. Whether flying into the jaws of a military zone with a guitar and good intentions as armor or making politically progressive music for a living, Franti is walking proof that it's not the size of the dog in the fight—it's the size of the fight in the underdog.