Michael Franti in conversation with Joshua Berger

In the ten years that have elapsed since Michael Franti first picked up a bass guitar, he has started three bands, the Beatnigs, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopcracy, and now Spearhead. Within a community of artists and for a growing audience, he has created a diverse body of socially concious work. Evolving musically and personally, he continues to offer a view at once hopeful and critical of American culture.

Joshua: Can you start by telling me how you got musically involved, what were your sources of inspiration...

Michael: That was the same time I met [San Francisco-based performance artist] Rhodessa Jones. I started writing poems, short essays, stories, drawing pictures. Then, I started putting my words to drums. I was doing this workshop with some of the guys from the Beatnigs. We brought all these drums in, and Rhodessa would lead everybody in doing movement that meant something, that was significant. We'd combine the drums and words and music. It was all men in this workshop, just homeboys, it wasn't like (laughs) dancers and stuff. So, it was pretty heavy. Then we started finding other things to make sound with, like garbage cans, old gas tanks, all kinds of things. That became the Beatnigs, and I started playing bass then, too. I was working with Mark Pistol and all those guys from Consolidated. The Beatnigs shared a rehearsal space with them, and they had samplers and drum machines that they were really getting into. Mark started teaching me how to use that sort of equipment. That became the Disposable Heroes and was inspired by that mix of junk, music, and drum machines. On this record, I really wanted to communicate in a different way.  I wanted to make music that was soulful, that you could just listen to and enjoy the groove, but if you wanted to listen to the lyrics, there were jewels that you could find.

Joshua: You learned to play music from people that you were interacting with, you never took music classes in grade school or anything?

Michael: I never took any music classes in my life. In 1986 I bought a bass and I just started playing. With the Beatnigs, I played bass and did vocals at the same time, but I wasn't a good enough bass player to keep playing and say the things that I wanted to say in my lyrics. So I just concentrated on being a vocalist. I learned music from listening to songs, just listening to what I liked. I've found people to help me put things together. I'll say, "Let's make a piano chord that gives me this feeling," or "Try that chord, try that chord...nah, I don't like that one, try this one." That's how we do it.

Joshua: Could you talk some more about the progression, musically, between using found industrial equipment, circular saws, and things like that with The Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes, to the reggae infused sound of Spearhead?

Michael: One thing that I used to do with the Beatnigs was find things that have an interesting sound and tap on them, like a tin can [picks up soda can, taps on it] or tin foil, whatever, and use them to emulate ideas. You could say, "This sounds like a horse walking on a road." Then, you could make a little beat that sounds like a carnival with all these different things happening. Now let's do something that's inanimate, like truth. What does truth sound like? And you're trying to make truth come out of the way that you play a tin can or the way that you play anything. What does obedience or ecstasy sound like? When you're just using tin cans, or you're just using drums, or things that are one-dimensional in their sound and hard to get a variety of sounds out of, it becomes very difficult. It's very pure, but it's very difficult. That's why I started looking to the bass. Then, from the bass to the piano and how you could change one note in a chord, and it's going to make you feel real sad or real happy. I started learning more about music, and the more you know, the more you are able to get your emotions across. The same things go with your voice. When I first wrote the song Positive, I was shouting it. When I got in the studio, Joe the Butcher was like: "Yo, this song's gotta be delivered on a different emotion. It's gotta be like you're just whispering in my ear." So, learning to emote, whatever instrument it is, your voice or a tin can, it's just experience and experimentation.

Joshua: How do you see your lyrical evolution in terms of the music as medium for your messages?

Michael: Well the messages...that's where I started, writing about things that I cared about, things that made me mad or frustrated. As time went by, I started learning how to say them. In the past it was like, "television-drug of the nation." It's real obvious, in your face. You put that down in front of somebody who watches TV all the time, or somebody who really doesn't give a fuck, and they'd be like, "I don't want to hear this shit." But if you tell somebody a story, and they are intrigued, as the story builds and it comes to a close, they go, "Damn, I thought I was just listening to a beat."

That's a much stronger way of getting people's attention. I was just on the phone having a discussion about this new video that we're doing for Positive, and my initial and the director's initial way of dealing with things is always to be as direct as possible. But at the same time, the people that I'm trying to reach in this video are people who...they don't want to be slammed. They're 13 year old kids who are just finding out about sexuality, and everything that they're bombarded with is about irresponsible sex.

Joshua: They get not only very aggressive, but mixed sexual messages from advertising and videos.

Michael: You need to come to them knowing that they are watching TLC videos and other T & A videos all the time. That's what they're used to seeing as sexuality. You gotta find a way that they're not going to say, "This is a Scared Straight piece, or this is like my mom telling me don't have sex."

Joshua: Something that resonates...

Michael: You got to come at them with something that's gonna be like, "Fuck man, I could've watched Baywatch, but I'm watching this video about getting tested." You have to be able to make things sexy, and when I say sexy, I don't just mean sexual and exploited, I mean sexy in the sense that they're alluring and that they're seductive and that they're attractive, and that doesn't have to be body parts. Just like we were talking about using a tin can or a piano, it's finding those images that are really emotional and that are really going to intrigue people and draw them in. The artists that I've always respected and admired are the artists that are able to blur the lines between what makes something social and strong and meaningful and what makes something pop and fun and sexy and appealing. Being a "pop artist," I made a decision that I'm going to deal in that realm. There are other people, like Rhodessa, who deal in a different realm that's outside of pop, so she has a different way of communicating. She's gonna ask people: who's had their car broken into, who's been raped, who knows somebody who's been murdered, or whatever. You can't just do that at a pop concert because people would just be like, "What the fuck is going on?" But you can still find ways to get to those emotions through your music.

Joshua: Consolidated is one example of an attempt to breach that barrier.

Michael: To greater or lesser effect. I respect what they do because they really push the envelope in a whole different direction. They speak to a specific audience who listens to and respects them. Rhodessa speaks to her audience, KRS1 speaks to his, I speak to mine, and Chuck D speaks to his.

Together, I think all of us are trying to deal with what our perspectives are and what's going on in the world today, and get people to the point where they feel compassionate, where they feel responsive to what's happening rather than just passive. We're trying to get people to be emotional and to feel things, and then be inspired to take some form of action.

Joshua: In what ways does your cultural heritage affect your art?

Michael: Cultural heritage is part of who you are. It's not the only thing you are. In the Disposable Heroes song Socio-genetic Experiment, I say: "I'm not solely race, nor environment, nor destiny. I'm the human scientific process over and over again." The human scientific process is the idea of hypothesizing about something, experimenting with it, and then checking out what your results are. All of us have our own little scientific process that we go through. I feel that I've lived a different life than a lot of people have. I'm a black person, but I come from a multi-ethnic background. My mom is white and my father is black, but I never knew either my mother or my father until I was 23 years old.

Joshua: I was wondering, was there a point of revelation...

Michael: No, not a revelation, it's a revolution. It's not like one morning you wake up and go, "Ahh, [snaps his fingers] got the answers." It's constantly in revolution. Everyday you look around and see what's going on, and everyday you take that in and you absorb, and it goes through your system of already established beliefs, whether they're cultural or religious or just your own personal philosophies, and then it all filters back out somehow. Everything I do comes from myself, from my heart, and from the creative spirit passing through me. I can't really pinpoint any specific point of change in my life. Definitely, having a kid was a moment where I had to think about a lot of things differently than I ever had before. Meeting my birth parents for the first time was, too. That happened during the Disposable Heroes years. You always have your own ideas in life, but I think as you get older and more mature you realize that what you're doing is okay, and it's alright to take certain chances. We had some time off between being on the east coast and being on the west coast, and the Foo Fighters invited us out for several shows. So, we came across country with them, and it's like being in front of this, somewhere between metal and punk rock audience, you know, stringyhaired white kids. And here comes Spearhead with our show, doing our thing, and we were wondering what the audience was going to do. We'd be in places like Salt Lake City, Boise, Dallas, really conservative places, and the kids responded. Not because it was black or white, but because for one night Spearhead and the Foo Fighters were telling them that even though your dad beats up your mom twice a month, and even though your mom yells at you for not doing your homework, and your teachers think you're a fuck up and don't want to pay attention to you, and the police tell you to go home at night, and you can't go to a punk rock show on the weekends, for one night these two bands are going to say to you that you are okay, and there's nothing wrong with you. If this is the way you choose to live, this is what you choose to do, and it gives you comfort, then that's good. I think that's really the appeal of music that goes against the grain, goes against the system, goes against the norm. Hopefully that's what my music brings to people.

Joshua: I read an interview a few years ago in Mondo 2000, where you said that capitalism is inherently racist. I'm wondering if you would elaborate.

Michael: The system of capitalism, as we know it in America, is based upon having a cheap labor source to exploit. You have to have people who are, like um, the Rockefellers. People who think they're deities and that there is a certain group of capitalists who are meant to rise above everybody else and control the strings for the rest of the world. Then, you have to have consumers and people who are the workers who make shit for no money, so you can keep the price down for the consumers. In order for this system to exist you need to have a cheap source of labor. The easiest way to keep people poor and to keep them oppressed is by basis of race. It's the easiest way to divide people up and say: those fuckin Mexicans, they can work in this country if they pick beans and tomatoes in our fields, but if they step out of those fields and try to get jobs, we're gonna say Proposition 187, and we're gonna send them across the border. And if they try and vote, we're gonna say, "you can only have English on the ballot." It's alright for them to wash our clothes and clean our houses. The same thing in the agro-economy in the South, it's all based on having a poor black population to do the work. In order to keep people down, you have to have a system of race. That's how this country was started. The same companies and families which are running things throughout the world today are the same companies who were making money 150 years ago off of slavery. That's how they got their initial capital. European companies would send arms and trinkets and jewelry down to Africa to trade for slaves, then they would send those slaves to the Caribbean and to America in exchange for cotton, tobacco, sugar, coffee, and then they'd send it back. So the same people who were in Europe could drink coffee and put sugar in it and wear nice white cotton linen.

Joshua: Do you believe that now this has become more of a class issue than a race issue?

Michael: Class is part of it, but I think it's really important to identify race and racial hatred as part of capitalism. You cannot separate them. You can say it's just a class thing. The fact is, black people were stolen from Africa and brought here to work as slaves. I heard somebody the other day describing themselves as a nigger, as an acronym, a non-immigrant gaining and growing...and it makes sense. You are a non-immigrant, and people don't ever look at it that way. People say you are African-American. I'm not some African who came to America because I was looking for prosperity. I was fucking brought here against my will, and my family worked their asses off for nothing, and we don't have anything now. I think it's very important to make that distinction. You can talk about capitalism and class and everything else, but the bottom line is this country was built by the power of black people, of Chinese people, of Irish immigrants, who were treated like shit. But throughout, black people were the only people who were slaves, who had their culture removed from them, who were stolen, and suffered that final degradation. The things that we're talking about today, like affirmative action policies...there hasn't been an even playing surface in this country. We're telling people to start a race, and they don't have both legs. I'm not talking about giving people jobs who aren't qualified. I'm talking about allowing people to apply for jobs. Hasn't even been until the 1970s when people were able to apply for jobs, or could go to the same schools, and we think that everything's going to turn around after 400 years of slavery. Everything's just suddenly going to turn around overnight because we had a civil rights movement 20 or 30 years ago.

Joshua: It's a long process. We need to think of it in terms of the larger picture and the small steps it takes to move forward.

Michael: Remember in 1976 we had the bicentennial, and the whole country celebrated this thing? From 1975 all the way through 77, we were celebrating. I think that when the year 2000 comes about, it's not just America celebrating 200 years. The whole world is going to be looking at this certain point in time. Not that it's like a precipice, like once we reach it, we're going to fall off and everything's will be different. But it's going to make everybody be reflective on what's happened over the last 100 years: the atomic bomb, computer, the automobile, the airplane, Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War, media, the internet, man on the moon, everything. All these things have happened that are incredible technological escalations. But it's not just the last 100 years. We're turning the millennium. It's the last 1,000 years. It will be manipulated by the media. There will be people who say it's the year 2000 by the t-shirt, but at the same time I think that the whole world is going to be celebrating. When you have the collective consciousness of five billion people imagining and thinking about what the future's going to be like, and what's happened in their country over the last 100 years, what's happened in the world in the last 1,000 years, it's a deep thing. Whether you believe that it's spiritual or whatever. Just by virtue of the fact that this many people are contemplating is going to be a powerful energy on the planet that I feel like we've never seen before. I think it's a great opportunity for people to cleanse themselves, cleanse the community, but also start looking at what we are going to do to help other people. What are we going to do to develop compassion? What are we going to do to develop justice in the world? It's not a precipice, like I was saying before, it's a revolution. It just keeps going around. We're just reaching a point where everybody's going to have to stop and think about it.

Joshua: That gives me something to look forward to. You mentioned media manipulation. As an artist, have you made a concious decison to disseminate information, and if so, why have you chosen the channels that you have?

Michael: I'm not really that into disseminating information, because I don't get a lot of information. I do think it's really important that we have storytellers, that we have songwriters, that we have poets, and that's why I'm really sad about all this NEA bullshit. I think that we're really doing a disservice to our country and to our communities by not providing people with the opportunity to be creative. I remember when I was a kid, we at least had paintbrushes and paint in the schools. Now, they're talking about not even having museums.

Joshua: Cultural expression is being criticized from all angles. I read the letter that you wrote and was published in Billboard Magazine about Robert Dole's tirade against rap music. We've got politicians targeting art funding from one angle as a political vehicle for themselves, then working to zero it all out, no Corporation for Public Broadcasting, no funding for the NEA. We did an interview with the Guerrilla Girls (Plazm 10), and they brought up that there's more money spent on military marching bands than the entire NEA budget.

Michael: I look at cultures, like Holland, that do find money for things like that. The gigs that we play there are sponsored by the government. They have these halls where the kids come, and the ticket prices are real low. The bands are able to afford to go there because the government subsidizes it. They realize that if we pay for music and if we pay for kids to have a safe place to go and to watch shows, at the end of the day we are going to pay less to incarcerate people, we're going to pay less to keep people off the street, we're going to have happier young people, more productive people, and it just works out better. The prison industrial complex is really fucking scary. We were in Boulder, Colorado the other day. They send their prisoners to other states that have beds for them. There's a private company that finds beds for prisoners, and they get a percentage off of each prisoner they find space for in another state. They get a percentage for each day that the prisoner stays in the cell. What's the use of letting people out of prison when they're out of sight out of mind, and somebody's making a profit each day that they're in there? To build prisons is a big economic boost. People who don't have the GM factory because it moved to Mexico, they're like, "Well, we don't really want a prison, but as long as it's 20 miles out of the city, fuck it, we'll take the work."

Joshua: There's one line from Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury that has always stuck with me: "It's tough to make a living when you're an artist, it's even tougher when you're socially conscious." What kind of advise can you give people who are starting today, that want to do their thing, whatever it may be?

Michael: If you want to make money, then corrupt your morals. (laughs) That's the best advise I could give you. I think you just have to really stand firm and understand that if you're socially conscious, the issues that you are dealing with in the world, they're not fun. It's not fun for people to be broke. It's not fun for people to not have health care. It's not fun for people to have AIDS. But at the same time, there's a lot of appreciation, and there's a bigger picture to

About This Story

  • Interviewer: Joshua Berger
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012