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If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy, Sing His Song: These days Michael Franti is less about anger and more about activism.

Are You Exspearienced?

Michael Franti and Ziggy Marley unite to form the flat-out healthiest tour this world has ever seen

By Mike Connor

He was once considered as angry as activist/songwriters come, but "angry" is no longer the adjective that best characterizes Michael Franti.

Bay Area residents in particular now know Franti as the leading figure in Spearhead, the funk/soul/hip-hop/rock outfit with the ever-positive message--or as creator of the annual "9/11 Power to the Peaceful" festival that draws tens of thousands of people to Golden Gate Park every year to revel in peace, love and like-minded activism.

Now, on tour with Ziggy Marley, Franti's yoga teachers help members of both bands work out their road kinks while helping them to balance their minds, bodies and souls amid a hectic schedule of touring and activism.

"Everyday I set an intention before I practice," says Franti by phone from Minneapolis, "so I'm clearer in my focus of what I want to be doing and contributing to the world right now, and I really want to be the best communicator of peace and social justice and environmental justice that I can be. My yoga practice is part of me becoming that communicator."

Indeed, a line from the ironically titled "Bomb the World" captures in one sentence what peaceniks have been chanting about for years--"We can bomb the world to pieces," sings Franti, "but we can't bomb it into peace." A typical Spearhead "exspearience," as the concerts are called by fans, often involves freaky costumed stilt-walkers weaving through the crowd while Franti & Co. chant lines like "all the freaky people make the beauty of the world," inviting the misfits to celebrate themselves with funky, booty-shaking abandon.

Franti's gigs weren't always like this.

Anger Management

His earlier work with the Beatnigs back in '87 combined angry poetry with punk-inspired industrial percussion. Their politics were more Malcom X than MLK--about as angry and radical as they could get without going the way of the gun-toting gangsta rappers taking over hip-hop at the time. Franti delivered his opus in '91 with the Disposable Heroes of Hip Hoprisy. The album, Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury, still stands out as a heroically subversive and forward-thinking criticism of all the big liberal issues of the time, as well as the racism, misogyny and homophobia rampant in hip-hop culture.

Toward the end of the group's run, Franti worked with the infamous beat writer William S. Burroughs, a collaboration he remembers fondly.

"The stuff I did with Burroughs," says Franti, "like, as each year passes since I did it and since William died, I realize more and more how unique and special it was. When I talked to him about hip-hop and sampling, which was really big in the news at that time, he said that sampling is just what he had always done using his cut and paste technique of writing."

Hip-hop has certainly come a long way since then, but ultimately the genre is just one tool among many in Franti's musical bag of tricks. In contrast to the dark and sometimes threatening tone of the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes projects, Spearhead's latest album, Everyone Deserves Music, is relentlessly hopeful in its message, with a sunny, funky, Sly and the Family Stone vibe throughout. A line in the title track sums up just how far Franti--Christ-like--is reaching out these days: "Even our worst enemies, Lord," he sings in the triumphant upper-register of his otherwise rich baritone voice, "they deserve music!"

"When I started making music," says Franti, "I felt powerless--I was angry about the world and I felt like there was nothing that I could do to change it, except to scream as loud as I could and express my anger. As I've grown as a person and as an artist, I've gotten deeply involved in the issues that I talk about."

Essentially, he's put his activism where his mouth is, and the more he got involved, the less powerless he felt. And as a consequence, his music changed.

"I didn't just want to write songs anymore that were pissed off," Franti says, "I wanted to write songs that would help me and other people like myself to keep going with the work that we do. I travel everyday around the world, and people say, 'Man, I feel so frustrated by what's happening in the world,' and I want to make people feel excited and inspired and motivated to keep going."


Spearhead and Ziggy Marley perform at the SC Civic on Thursday, March 25, at 8pm. Tickets are $30, available at the SC Civic box office and at www.pulseproductions.com.

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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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