Fire in the soul

Hip-hop philosopher Michael Franti took his guitar and a film crew to Baghdad to get a first-hand look at the war. He returned with the documentary I Know I’m Not Alone. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a punk club in Berkeley, California, or in a basemen

photo Anton Corbijn

Photos of celebrities posing in famine-stricken deserts or wading through hurricane debris are as easy to spot as the white plastic bracelet landfill from last year’s Live 8 concert. Philanthropy’s fashionable status could be dismissed as a crass publicity stunt—unless you’re dealing with hip-hop singer Michael Franti, whose documentary I Know I’m Not Alone follows his modest journey through Iraq, Israel and Palestine in June 2004. The lead singer of Spearhead will be in Halifax for a screening of his film, followed by a Q&A and a solo acoustic music set, March 18 at the Rebecca Cohn.

If Madonna were to reveal that she made a decision to visit Baghdad while at yoga class, we’d send her and her Kabbalah bracelet packing. But that’s exactly what happened to Franti. He speaks of his trip over the phone from his home city of San Francisco with such low-key sincerity—in the same articulate manner that makes him an excellent film narrator—there’s little doubt he’s motivated by curiousity and not photo-op possibilities.

Franti’s idea to visit the Middle East was conceived in March 2003, the day before the US Army was scheduled to bomb Baghdad for the first time. “At the end of the class I was lying on my mat. I just lay there and tried to imagine what I would tell my two sons if San Francisco was going to be bombed. How would I put them to sleep at night?” he asks. “I just started to cry, thinking ‘God, what are people going through over there?’”

Mainstream news coverage didn’t provide answers. “I never heard anything but generals and politicians explaining the economics of the war, the politics of the war,” Franti says. “They never talked about human beings, and so that’s what made me think that I wanted to go there and see what’s going on.”

Surprisingly, it’s not difficult to visit Iraq. With help from your wary manager, you purchase an airline ticket and make sure your will is in order. You arrange to have 12 like-minded musicians, peace workers, artists and filmmakers accompany you. Secure local translators (in Franti’s case, two cab drivers providing access to local neighbourhoods), and a hotel in the Red Zone—outside the heavily fortified Green Zone where the US embassy resides—on a route that you’re told has less chance of car bombs exploding.

Michael Franti was born in Oakland, California, to a single mother of Irish, German and French descent. His father was African-American and Seminole Indian. He was adopted and grew up with his academic parents in Davis, California.

The singer’s outsider status and rebellious nature both set him apart and opened possibilities. In 1984, Franti enrolled at the University of San Francisco where he discovered poetry and college radio. With a pawn-shop bass, he began experimenting with a mix of hip-hop, punk and reggae, and in 1986 formed the Beatnigs, musically battling some of the biggest “isms” of the day—Reaganism and racism. In 1992, he created the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy with fellow Beatnig Rono Tse; crafting political rap that was commercially ahead of its time. Singles such as “Television: The Drug of the Nation” established the group’s strong voice and industrial sound, attracting opening slots with U2 and Billy Bragg and a spoken-word album with William S. Burroughs.

Spearhead followed in 1994. A lighter mix of funked-up beats evoking Curtis Mayfield’s soul, Public Enemy’s intellect and Bob Marley’s spirit, the band gained an international Grateful Dead-like following of fans known as Spearits (even the most cynical patchouli-haters have been known to join frenzied Exspeariences). In 1999, Franti pulled away from commercial music, focusing more on political activism; he’s outspoken in his anti-war and anti-death penalty beliefs (he played a concert in support of death-row inmate Tookie Williams’ unsuccessful clemency request), organizing peace festivals and making appearances at concerts such as the 2004 Evolve Festival in Antigonish.

But Franti went to Baghdad to listen.

“I had all these preconceived notions about what it would be like going to a war zone. One of them was that the whole time that you’re there, there would just be gunfire and bullets whizzing past your ears and bombs exploding like in the movies, but it’s really, during the daytime, pretty quiet there,” Franti says. “But it’s very dangerous because you never know at any time, in a split second, gunfire could happen and someone could lose their life. So it’s really scary, but the other side of it is, I was really surprised at how easily I was able to take my video camera and shoot wherever I wanted to.”

Moving through homes, businesses and streets, I Know I’m Not Alone enters daily Baghdad life—scenes you won’t see on CNN. Edited from over 200 hours of video footage, and even with a light touch on the narration, the issues are clear. These people are victims of their circumstances. They need security and electricity (there are frequent black-outs) to get jobs. Everyone has a gun, but no one leaves the house after dark because it’s too dangerous. “This is the new freedom,” one Iraqi says wryly, shrugging his shoulders.

Although Franti moves easily around the city, he wasn’t allowed to shoot US military activity around the Green Zone; they’re authorized to use lethal force if they see a camera. One of the film’s most anxious moments comes when Franti performs for a room of American soldiers: What do you play when most of your lyrics protest war?

“You don’t see it in the film—we had to shoot everything on the sly—but I sang a few songs of inspiration, keep your head up kind of songs,” Franti says. “But in the end I thought, ‘Fuck, I came all the way here and I can’t not say, don’t bomb the world.’”

The tension is palpable, but Franti, at least, appears calm. “That was one of the ways I really grew on this trip. Before I went there I was really outspoken about the war. To go into a hospital to see kids that were blown up, and to go meet the soldiers that may have done it. It was a tough thing for me to reconcile,” he says. His friend Barbara, who’s been to Iraq many times, offered Franti sage advice, altering the way he viewed the trip. “She said, ‘Michael, the most important thing is not the words that you say, or the songs that you choose to sing, it’s more important that these guys know that you came here just to be with them for this moment.’ …Maybe I can’t change the world, but maybe this next patrol this guy goes on, maybe if I treat this person nicely and with respect, maybe he’ll go out there with just a little more respect for the next person he levels his rifle at.”

Franti’s newfound empathy for the American soldiers helped prepare him for the next leg of the trip—observing conflict between the Israeli solders outside the separation wall in the West Bank and the residents of the Palestinian farming village of Jayyous. Since the erection of the illegal concrete wall dividing the territories in September 2002, the villagers must cross security gates and carry special work permits to work in their own olive groves.

One day, Franti observed a group of European political observers arguing with the soldiers. He didn’t feel good about leaving that tension, so he asked the soldiers if they could meet later in the afternoon; he brought some Palestinian youth with him. “This great dialogue happened where they both expressed how the occupation had affected them, and they both expressed the desire for peace, and came to the agreement that it was when fundamentalist religion moves into politics is when there is a problem, when everything gets messed up.”

The strength of I Know I’m Not Alone is due in part to Franti’s decision to not force a political agenda. The documentary, which also inspired a new Spearhead CD and book due out in June, is about a musician and his guitar—more road trip than manifesto.

“The guitar was like a key that would open the doors to hospitals, people’s homes, checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza,” Franti says. “Just by playing a few chords of the guitar, you can change the mood of any situation where there’s tension. That happened a lot in instances that we don’t have on camera with the soldiers.”

Music chips away at cultural barriers too. Franti’s simple sing-song “Habibi,” an Arabic term of endearment meaning “my sweetheart” or “dear friend,” lured crowds wherever he played. He says, “It’s a word that everybody uses. It’s just part of the culture, and I kept hearing people say it all the time. I thought it was a great, fun-sounding word, but I didn’t realize how strong a reaction people would have to it. It’s a magic song.”

He also sought out local musicians, including The Black Scorpions, a loud Baghdad metal band whose members were all born in war, and who salvage wire for guitar strings. Then there’s DAM (Da Arabic Microphone Controllers), a Palestinian hip-hop group who want to “bring the truth” to Israel.

“There’s a certain spirit of underground music,” Franti explains. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a punk club in Berkeley, California, or in a basement in Baghdad, or somewhere on the West Bank with the kids freestylin’ in a circle or a soldier playing a guitar, there is this spirit of grassroots movement in music. That is what I live for and that’s what I try to seek out. The amazing thing is that the kids who were doing it all seemed the same. The kids in Baghdad were like ‘fuck the world, we want to rock.’ The kids doing hip-hop in Israel and Palestine were the same way.”

As an artist, it’s a fundamental need that Franti understands. “We want to make our music. There’s a strong political statement within that, no matter how difficult the situation is, the reason that people want social justice and they want peace is so that they can live a simple life: Do the things they want to do, eat the food they want, hang out with who they want, dance the way they want to, celebrate without fear of death or political oppression.”

An Evening with Michael Franti, March 18 at Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University, 8pm, $24, 494-3820.

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