Do You Love?: An Interview with Michael Franti
David Kupfer: How do you maintain your pace and energy level without burning out?
Michael Franti: I practice yoga everyday, and sleep. That is the most important thing. Eating well, and mainly making a lot of music and keeping a positive intention.
You've been a yoga practitioner for quite a while, have you been able to integrate that into some of your performances or performance spaces?
I have led a class, playing guitar and doing movement, with another teacher, with asanas, for 1,000 people. It was really cool. When you do that, combine the musical and lyrical experience with an opportunity for people to go into a deep place and work hard, people hear things in the songs that inspire them to go beyond where they would otherwise. To do that with live music is even better, because I can see what is happening with the intensity of the audience, and because I practice, I know which poses are really hard and require a lot of concentration, and I can tune the music into that, give it a little more juice, give people the encouragement when they need it.
There seems to be an extraordinary positive feedback loop between you and your audiences, which must be energizing.
Yeah, but I do not depend on it. I feel like if I am going to the audience to sustain me, that's not going to work. If I have to go to the well, it's not going to work. I try to just deal with the overflow, that's the energy I give. Sometimes you really feel it from the audience, and sometimes you don't.
As you travel about, domestically and internationally, what new consciousness are you are picking up on from the people in the communities you are visiting and performing in?
As I have traveled across this country in the last four years I have seen tremendous change. I went to Iraq in June 2004 and after I came back the country was still polling 70-80% in favor of the war. People kind of know where I lean in terms of the war, that I am opposed to killing, and I don't mince words about this. There are better ways of solving our conflicts. Still, I would speak about the war and the experiences I had over in the Middle East, and it was a challenging time for me. I have seen since then, especially in the South, Texas, Alabama, Florida, this new consciousness. People were coming to shows specifically because they wanted to be around music that is speaking to these issues.
I see new consciousness in the food people eat; I see it in the grocery stores, the sales of natural foods. And now with fuels prices being so high, it is on the lips of everybody -- how can I save gas? How can I save money? In New Orleans, we just played a show, and there are still people who have not had their homes rebuilt. I saw people down there that said we voted for Bush and we are still waiting for his help.
On a worldwide level I have seen how America's perception around the world has gone from us being this shining light on a hill of prosperity, compassion, and goodness, to being seen as a nation that has only its own self-interest in mind, and is violent, militaristic, and our politicians preach fear. But I have seen in the last year, since this election has come up, people have gotten very excited about Barak Obama being an international leader, with a Christian mom, a Muslim father, a white mother, a black father, he is from a broken home and grew up part of the time in Indonesia, so he has seen America from the outside. His political life came to being Chicago, which is the middle of America. He is really a model of a 21st Century leader.
How did growing up with two white parents in the white progressive town of Davis, California -- how did that impact your social and political self?
Before I was aware of the town around me, I was aware that I was different in my own family. I never really felt comfortable in the family and the community that I grew up in. I always felt like an outsider. So I always identified with people who feel like outsiders. That extends politically, on a social level in terms of ethnicities and religious and cultural similarities and differences, those are things that I try to embrace. But it is also just that feeling that it could be in anybody. I am different and my difference is not being honored or respected. Some people find new family groups to do that in, and that is why I like the music community. Especially the Festival community, it has always been one that embraces difference and celebrates difference. So I feel grateful for music and the Festival community for really holding up that value.
Can you point to the roots of your political activism? is there something that happened early in your life that really set you on this path as a cultural social change activist?
I do not think there is one thing in particular, but I remember as a kid, always reading autobiographies of people who had gone through difficult circumstances, everything from Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad up through the Civil Rights Movement, and the woman's right to vote. When I moved to San Francisco in 1984, at that time the AIDS crisis was really hitting it hard and I would meet people in the music and arts community that were gay and they would say to me "when I came out my family abandoned me and now I have AIDS and my family does not want to have anything to do with me." I was thinking, God, they are your family, how could they turn their back on you when you are dieing? I wrote this song, Do you Love?, and the lyrics say "It's not about who you choose to love, it's about do you choose to love. Will you choose to love?" I think my political views always come within that framework, Its not about left or right, its about, are people's needs being taken care of. Or the needs of the natural world.
What was the reaction of you traveling around the Middle East barefoot with a guitar in your hand? How disarming was that?
I think being barefoot was more alarming then just me being there. (laughs) When I would play in an Iraqi neighborhood where people had been bombed, I would go in and just start playing my guitar, people wanted to hear music. They just wanted to come out and clap and dance and sing. Then they would find out I was from North America. They all thought I was from Africa. They were shocked and amazed.
I was the first North American they had ever seen who was not carrying around an M16 rifle. They wanted to know about me, they'd ask a lot of questions. Through an interpreter I would share things about my life. And then I would turn on the camera and say, tell me about your life. They would take me into their homes where they hid during the bombings, to their hospitals, mosques, and to meet musicians, performers, writers.
And I really in making this film, I Know I am Not Alone, I tried not to talk anything about the politics, I just wanted to know what life was like for them. I felt like that was the story that wasn't being told. It was the same thing with the soldiers. I didn't sit down and go, tell me about what you think about the war, Bush right, Bush wrong, all that stuff. I just asked, what's your daily life like? It was the same approach when I went to Israel and Palestine. I said I want to know what it is like to live life thinking a suicide bomber is going to come into your neighborhood in Jerusalem? And I want to know what it's like to live every day where these groups of Israeli soldiers are breaking into your home night after night after night. And you have no rights in the community. At the end of my trip I came away with this feeling that I am not on the side of different groups of people, I am on the side on the peacemakers. And that within Iraq, and even the U.S. Army, the Israeli Defense Force and the Palestinian people, there are people willing to take incredible risks to create peace.
What did you learn about how the Iraqis and Palestinians use music and art and humor to overcome the stresses of the war, the occupation in their respective countries?
I learned that the Iraqi and Palestinian people do it in the same way the US soldiers and Israeli people do it. You have to make fun of the situation. They have to laugh; they have to make light of the absurdity of the war, because it is so hard, it is so hard every day, especially in Iraq where people have no drinking water, no electricity. Food one day might not be there the next. One day they are living in peace and safety, the next day there is an incursion into their neighborhood and 15 people are killed. And they haven't finished mourning the last group of people who died. So through laughter, through dance, through smiling and also through being together. I never have felt anywhere in the world the sense of communion I had when I walked into a neighborhood like Jayus, which is a small community in Palestine, and these are people who have nothing, poor, poor people. I walk into their homes, and they have heard that I am coming, and they have put out a spread on the table that could serve 30 people, and there are five of us coming. What they have done is gone to each person in the neighborhood, and one person brought some hard boiled eggs, and another person brought some bread, another person made humus, all this food that they would never imagine, more then they would see in one sitting. Then they would stay up all night with us talking, singing and playing. The same thing in Iraq, people were willing to extend themselves
It is a completely different experience here in North America. We lead these lives that are really insular. We don't share that kind of community spirit as much. It was the thing I felt, and a sense of a little bit of longing for when I left. The sense that, wow we have some things going great in this part of the world but in terms of our community, it's really broken down. I think that is why people come to Festivals year after year. They want to feel, even if it is just for the four days of that weekend, they want to be around other people who want to help each other, share community spirit.
What did you do with the rage you felt about the injustices you witnessed and experienced in Iraq, Israel, and Palestine?
It was hard. I remember leaving the experience and feeling there is no justice in war. Speaking to people on all sides of the situation who had suffered incredible loss, and I wrote a song about it called Nobody Right, Nobody Wrong. Because it is very easy to choose sides and say, I am on the side of these people with these views. As soon as you do that you make enemies with the other side. The thing is that we are not going to come to solutions in the Middle East by choosing sides and drawing lines in the sand. We are going to come to solutions for the problems there when we consider the needs of the other side.
Especially in Israel and Palestine. Israeli people have to understand that Palestinians need to be treated as full citizens, they need to have human rights, they need to be embraced by the larger community, and have their own state perhaps. Palestinian People have to realize that Israeli people have a right to live there, just like they always have for thousands of years, and a right to live in peace and prosperity. The great thing was that as much as you hear on the news hear about the bombings, when you are there, you hear about all these great groups that are coming together, meeting and creating this dialogue, one on one on the street, beyond the politics, beyond what is on the news, beyond the violence. You see people on the ground who are doing these amazing peace-building things. Ultimately, when I left, that was the feeling I went away with. I didn't feel helpless or hopeless, I went away feeling like, man, I have just been at the birthplace of this beautiful evolution. It made me go away thinking I want to encourage that as much as I can.
What was it like using the new for you medium of film to convey ideas?
It has been exciting learning how to use film. I had made a few music videos in the past, but to take 200 plus hours of video footage and distill it down to 86 minutes, and then go on the road and talk about it. We recently showed the film in Dubai, and it is amazing, the power of film, you can go with your home cameras, edit together on your laptop, and now the film is in Dubai. It has shown in Japan, China, Indonesia, and Australia. It is going to be broadcast in many places in Europe, in South Africa. The power of film is so amazing. I compare it to the live show experience.
What does somebody want to experience when they go to a show? Do they want to hear the song just like they heard on the record? No, they want to see Dave Mathews walk away from the mic and scream into the air. Or they want to see Bob Weir just take off on something he just heard the drummer play and go into this whole other little thing that is brand new right in the moment. They want to see the artist go onstage, and maybe they are angry that day, maybe they kind of freak out a little, or maybe they are really happy that day, they want to experience that intimacy that you just don't get from a recording. It is the same thing when you capture something on film. If you capture actors on film, maybe they can deliver these really great performances with a great script. But if you can capture somebody who is telling their truth about what they have been through on film, you see them laugh and cry, and you hear their story from their own mouth, its about establishing that intimacy. That's what we did with the film, is try to really stay away from telling the story, and just let the story be the emotions of the people.
Don't you have a new film project that is underway that aims to engage citizens in different countries?
We have two of them actually. One called Stay Human that I have been working on for years. I have been interviewing people around the world about what does it mean to be human, and how do they stay human, how do they hold onto their humanity. I have interviewed people on the street; I have interviewed people in the midst of war, musicians, scientists, doctors, and taxi drivers. Last year I went to Hiroshima and interviewed members of Hibakasha, survivors of the US atomic blasts.
The next thing that we are doing is a film project in Africa. We have been working on a Festival that we are putting on in Tanzania, a Power to the Peaceful Festival. It has taken several years, things work very slowly when you are working with business, government, musicians, producers, promoters, to put on a Festival, but we have a date of February 2009.
Is there a downside to wearing your politics on your sleeve?
What I try to do is not wear it on my sleeve. I try to let my songs speak for themselves. When I have a conversation like this, I am open about it, but when I play, I try to just connect with the audience, I want to see people laugh dance smile, sing. It's really like the politics of attraction. It is like you see somebody having a great time and you wonder, what are they on? I want some of that! That is what we try to do is make it be this great experience and then they want to find out more.
I used to get a lot of questions especially coming back from Iraq, when I would go through airports. But having spoken to musicians in Iraq who have had to flee the country because of their political views, or there was the one band who had to write songs about how great Sadaam was in order to make music, then when Sadaam was gone, everybody remembered them as the band who made songs about Sadaam, and they were like, we didn't want to that, we just wanted to rock out. And now they are facing death by another group of people. I haven't led that life at all. Sometimes people don't like our content and have disagreements with us, for the most part, what we try to include everybody.
What's the experience been for you to bring your music into prisons?
That has been one of the greatest gifts that music has blessed me with. I was watching TV MSNBC yesterday at 3 a.m. and there was a report on San Quentin Prison. I recognized these dudes on this TV show, I recognized the warden, the guards. Of course the TV show highlights all he worst aspects of violence in prison, how they make weapons and stuff like that. But when you go there you really see the humanity. You see people who look just like you or me. Its like, man, but for the grace of god, had I been born in a different situation or something happened to me where I made a decision a wrong way, I could be there too.
When you first walk in, you've got the men in their prison uniforms, you've got the guards in their uniforms, the warden and his three piece suit. But then as soon as you start playing music, all you see is eyes, you see smiles, you see the warden start to clap. You see his wife come and visit the prison on that day when you are there, and it's like this special thing, and everybody is dancing and singing. The song that got them, everybody in the yard to sing was the theme to Sesame Street. (laughs) We played that, everybody knew it. It sounds like a funny thing, but for me it was like really a revelation. You know what? Everybody here was a kid.
At some point we all watched this silly show with puppets and we all had these dreams of whatever it was in our lives that we wanted to be. Somewhere along the way, these cats ended up here and I ended up where I am. It really makes you realize that some people are set up by the conditions of the community that they grow up in to end up there. In California, we plan for prisons to be built 12 18 years down the road. We are building those prisons not for the criminals of today, we are building them for the kids who are five years old.
To me the priority should be education, jobs, and healthcare. Providing people with every incentive to not have to make those decisions that end them up in those places.
What are your thoughts as to what it is going to take for this country to heal the wounds that have been created from our creating a war against the Iraqi people and supporting despots around the world?
It is going to take decades, but first they have to take that intention that that is what we want to do. That's why as I have traveled around the world I see the campaign of Barak Obama as being so important. If he is elected he will be the biggest star on the planet. He will be the celebrity in the world that everyone will know his face, more then any athlete, entertainer, any figure today. He is someone who represents that hope for people, and I really feel like the damage that has been done through Abu Grabe torture, Quantanamo, all the other secret prisons we have had around the world, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, has been so much to highlight the greed and militarism of the American government that it dimishes what I feel is the truth about this country, which is that we have a few leaders who are really greedy, who want to hold on to that. But the masses of people in America are really good people.
I was in Michigan yesterday and met the nicest people. All over the country, you meet beautiful, nice kind people, who if they saw with their own eyes what was happening in Iraq, in Aphghanistan, these places, they would understand it, because they understood it when it happened in New York City on 9-11, and they felt it. Imagine, that was one day of bombing. Imagine the last seven years of bombing every day, the type of anger and hostility that leads to.
It is going to take a leader with a vision, it's going to take a nation that supports those ideals. It is going to take reaching out to different nations around the planet and saying hey we can't do this alone, we need everybody on board. I think maybe the most important thing is the idea of giving. We don't want to be seen as a nation that is always taking, taking, taking, and never gives. We have to be viewed as a nation that is giving first.
How has your idealism evolved as you had kids, seen them grow and leave home, enter middle age?
I think I am more result oriented then I was. What I mean by that is I have been a vegetarian for a long time, but if I were to go around the world trying to convince everybody that they should be vegan, because the meat industry contributes so much to global warming, and because of cruelty to animals, and all these other reasons, I could convince maybe one tenth of one tenth of one percent of the population to become vegan. But in terms of how that would affect the climate, and all these other issues, it wouldn't have any effect. But if you could say to people, hey, perhaps consider eating less meat, and see what that does. If you don't eat meat for one day of your week, what does that do to your body, how does that affect your bank account, and consider if everybody in America did that, that would reduce the waste from the meat industry by 15%. And that is significant. The same thing goes for energy consumption. If we can all just lower our consumption, it doesn't mean everyone has to stop driving and get one a bike and go live in the woods and eat berries and nuts. If everyone can just lower their consumption, 10 or 15 percent, we can slow down the pace to delay that point when we eventually will have no oil left, and hopefully within that time of slowing it down we will have more time to find solutions tot he energy needs of this rapidly growing world population.
Do you see yourself as a patriot?
Yea, but I am a patriot of this planet as much as I am of my country. I even wrote that on my passport, below my signature it says love the world as much as you love your country. Sometimes I get hassled for that. I told them that is my signature. I have seen as I have traveled around the world, that America is really an amazing experiment. We have so much abundance here, so much creativity, talent, natural resources that other places don't have. We have a lot to be grateful for.
Other nations really look to us to be a leader, and I feel like sometimes we don't take that role seriously. It is kind of like being a big brother, and instead of showing your little brother the ropes of how to get through life and helping him when he meets problems, you just spend your whole time taking advantage of the fact that your brother is smaller then you, and picking on him whenever you can. That's kind of like what the leadership of America has become. We need to become that big sister, that big brother that looks to our other brothers and sisters around the world and says hey, how can I help you, how can I guide you, how can I show you. And then also look to them and ask what are you doing in your country that can help us to be better?
Do you see more acknowledgment of the past wrongdoings are retelling of truths so people can say, OK, my pain is acknowledged and now I can let it go, thus allowing us to evolve as a species?
I see it on one on one levels, I see and hear people talking about it al the time. I really have yet to see it happening politically on the large scale. I think that is why a lot of people are putting so much effort into seeing Obama getting elected. He represents a newness that people want. Whether he can live up to that, whether he can unite the Senate and the Congress to get behind some of these ideals has yet to be seen, you never know what is going to happen if he gets elected. But, the fact that people are seeing that there is a light, seeing that there is an opportunity. That is huge, because for so long people were feeling, why bother. We'd go out on the street, we'd raise our voices, 30 million people protested against the war in 30 cities around the world, or more perhaps, and the war is still going on. People feel frustrated, they feel like, my voice is so insignificant. That is what leads to voter apathy. I really think that even worse then an election stolen by electronic balloting or stolen by the Supreme Court is an election that is stolen by citizens. Now, people are feeling like we now have a leader who is coming up who can shake some of our senses.
What does it say about the musical artist who plays a festival and after the show jumps into the audience and spends 90 minutes picking up trash?
That we should have communicated better not to put trash on the ground to the audience, and I have a long way to go as a communicator.
Photo by Foxtongue, courtesy of Creative Commons license.