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Playing for a Cause

He stood tall, unmistakable among the crowd. At 6-foot-6 (“above sea level”, according to one of his tunes), Michael Franti stands tall among most crowds. His individuality was as much the case growing up as it was amid fans and friends on the night we spoke. He was a conspicuous presence in San Quentin the day before. Video confirms his scope and appearance to be no less distinct as far away as Iraq, Palestine and Israel. Michael Franti, mountainous and dreadlocked, frequently barefoot, and armed only with his words and his guitar, is quite the vision to behold, no matter your point of view.

I was excited to conduct what he told me was his first interview for a Davis publication. We spoke before he took the stage at a benefit concert on the second floor of a restaurant in downtown San Francisco, the city he now calls home. His manager found us a quiet room in which to talk, a rare entity in a restaurant hosting a rock concert. We began the conversation about his remarkable life at its inception.

“I think I had a pretty unique childhood,” Michael recalled. “I was born in Oakland and I grew up in Davis. My family is a mixed family. My parents are white. I have two sisters and a brother who are born from my parents. I’ve got another brother who’s black who was also adopted.”

“I was adopted at a time when America was still in the midst of the civil rights movement, in 1966.” He would later describe himself, at 41, as an “old man,” though his youthful spirit betrayed no sign of age. “Growing up, coming out of that experience, people in America were still trying to figure out some really basic things. Being a mixed family at that time wasn’t always easy.” Michael remembers “a lot of funny looks, a lot of people asking questions. After a while you just get tired of answering the same questions.”

He remembers thinking, “I just want to be me. I don’t want to be ’this thing’ that I am: the color of my skin. But I think that also led me to seek support outside of my immediate family. I created this network of coaches, teachers and friends. A sort-of outer circle of family.”

“My outlet was to play basketball.” he responded, when asked for a specific experience he had in Davis from which he still draws today. “It taught me a lot. I really love Les Curry, the basketball coach, who was also my history teacher. I learned so much from him about persistence. If you try, and you miss the shot, you shoot it again. If you’re slow, and you keep running and running, eventually you get faster. You get quicker, you get smarter, you get wiser about things. He taught me a lot about persistence, and I really have benefited from that teaching as a peace-worker in the world. Things don’t change overnight. It takes endurance.”

Endurance is a useful trait if one chooses Michael’s path. Consequently, it is one few have traveled. Michael delivers a message of peace and social justice with a ferocity itself exceptional, even when compared to his most outspoken peers. His medium is music. With Spearhead by his side, they blend a multitude of musical styles, including hip hop, reggae, jazz, funk and good old rock ’n’ roll. His growing audience includes fans at home, as well as those distant in every sense of the word.

In 2004, Michael added ’documentarian’ to his list of endeavors, and his path led him to the Middle East in search of “the human cost of war.” The result was a powerful film entitled I Know I’m Not Alone, in which Michael brings his guitar, a video camera, and little else, to the streets of Baghdad and to the border between Israel and Palestine. He visits families, soldiers, children in hospitals, those most affected by the violence that surrounds them. He speaks with them calmly, typically hugs them, and always sings to them. Michael’s recognizability is in full force, as children repeatedly flock to the gigantic man singing “The Habibi Song” and strumming his guitar.

“When I first decided I wanted to go, I called my manager,” Michael remembers,” I said, ’I want to go to Iraq.’ After she rolled her eyes and cursed when I got off the phone with her, she went about trying to figure it out.” What she found is that a trip of that kind is easier to undertake than one might expect. “As long as you have a passport, they’ll let you in. They don’t even search you for weapons. All they want to know is: Do you have any prescription drugs?”

“Prescription drugs are huge on the black market.” His tone acquired a heavier quality as he continued. “That’s like the most valuable commodity among everyday people there. So many people are sick…And people are dying of just basic stuff. Infections…stuff that you could just walk into Walgreen’s and get something off the shelf. Hydrogen peroxide or something. But people are dying or losing limbs from the infection. It was a painful thing to see but I also saw the resilience of the people.”

He paused a moment, and his expression regained its previous light. “Traveling throughout not only Iraq, but talking to people in Israel who have lost children as a result of suicide attacks, talking to people in Palestine who have lived under occupation for 40 years, who regularly have military incursions in their lives. I could hear how they have been able to… still hold onto faith, and love, and are still committed to peace when people around them are committed to violence.” He could not have given a better description of the documentary had he been reading from the DVD.

Those who live among violence are not limited to the geographically remote. Our conversation soon led to the previous day’s events. “I’ve played at quite a few prisons before,” he said, “but I’ve always wanted to play at San Quentin. You know, it’s like our backyard. Every time I go up Highway 101, I always see it, look at it, and I always wonder what’s going on in there.”

Michael and the band played on the prison’s main yard “in front of as many prisoners as who wanted to come, except for the condemned.” And the response? “It was amazing. At the beginning, everyone was looking at me, cross-armed and tattooed, huge muscles, you know, pretty tough. By the end they were all jumping. The associate warden came up and told us that, in 23 years, he’s never seen such harmony on the yard between the different factions.”

His manager spoke up to remind Michael of an example illustrating that exact point. “Tell him about Sesame Street,” she insisted. “Yeah, the Sesame Street,” he remembered with a smile, “I sang Sesame Street. And they all got it. They were all like, ’This is one song we all know.’ Every single person, these tough, tough dudes. Guys with every inch of their body covered in tattoos, all they do is lift weights, and they’re going, ’Sunny day. Chasing the clouds away.’…That was my favorite moment of the day.”

The performance at San Quentin carried particular significance in light of a phone call his manager had received prior to the event. ” “Jill, who works in our office, got a call from a cat who had seen our show in New Orleans…The dude had never seen Spearhead before. He came out of the show, bought a CD, and said, ’This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.’”

But his exhilaration for the band would soon be challenged. “He goes to the website and sees we’re playing at San Quentin. He calls Jill and says, ’I have a sister who was raped and murdered by a man who’s in San Quentin. How can you dare be going to play for him?’”

“It really made me think,” he reflected. Michael’s tone once again adopted the quality of a man familiar with many sides of our world. “I stayed up all night thinking and writing about it. And finally what I came to is that I’ve never played music for people to reward them or to punish them. I’ve always played music in hopes that it would bring out some emotion in people, and that it would help the people heal whatever it is they’re trying to heal. For some people it brings out incredible joy. For some people…there were some guys who were there yesterday, who during some songs, had their head in their hands and were crying.”

“It was a really great question that the guy had to ask. It made all of us think about the service we are trying to do in terms of affecting people,” Michael continued. The brightness of his expression followed his tone. “If there’s somebody who did an armed robbery when he was 20, and he’s now 35, and he’s gonna go back out on the street. And if nobody goes in there to try to show them some light, and they’ve spent 15 years in violence and darkness, they imprint that back out on the street.” He would repeat this story, almost verbatim, to a hushed crowd during the concert that was now moments away. To his audience, the philosophy was familiar, though alternately worded: “Even your worst enemies, they deserve music.”

Michael Franti is a rare individual, aesthetically and substantially. The breadth of his personality and intellect make his uniqueness an asset. It is impossible to confuse him with anyone else. He is immense, conspicuous, and if you ever see him, he will no doubt hug you and sing to you. He looks and lives not exactly like anyone and endlessly resists the limitations of categorization. This allows him to traverse grounds and subjects often avoided by the standard traveler. No matter the distances traveled, however, his path, like our conversation, leads back home.

I asked him where Davis fits into the world he has ventured to see in recent years, knowing this would be my final question. (The concert was about to start and his manager was getting restless.) Michael thought for a moment and concluded. “Northern California, and Davis, has this gift to bring the rest of the world, in terms of the way that people have learned to live with progressive ideals and create communities that really work. And not just for a few people but for a lot of people. I think that’s the legacy I take from having spent the years in Davis that I did. Seeing how my next door neighbors are Jewish, the kid across the street is Korean. There’s other black children around. I went to school with migrant kids. And they were all my friends. I think there’s something the world can learn from that, as I think there’s still a lot of things that Davis can learn from the world.”

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