by arwulf arwulf
From the June, 2016 issue
Lanky, muscular, tattooed, barefoot, and dreadlocked, the poet crossing to center stage with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder stands six-foot-six and appears even taller. Extending both arms as if to embrace his audience, he speaks and sings in a voice that is uncommonly warm and persuasive. Drummer and electric bassist ignite the funk, and before long Michael Franti and Spearhead have transformed a catchy little tune with simple lyrics into a massively gratifying incantation that has more than half the audience standing with hands held high above their heads.
Franti combines hip-hop lyrical facility with folk sensitivity, a relentless rock intensity, soulful suavity, and the booming basso groove of dancehall reggae. A onetime collaborator with William S. Burroughs, Franti has always been a master of the reality check, and his disarming honesty recalls that of Gil Scott-Heron. He doesn't mince words when he wants to make a point. Early examples include "It's a crime to be broke in America," "Starvation is an invention of the devil," and "Television is the drug of the nation."
In 2004, Franti traveled to Iraq, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank seeking firsthand insights into the human cost of war. (Video footage from this humanitarian adventure was used in his moving documentary I Know I'm Not Alone.) Unable to communicate verbally with most of the people he met in Baghdad, he decided to compose a song with lyrics consisting of one Arabic word that everyone would understand. The word he chose was habibi, a term of endearment commonly exchanged among close friends or lovers. Franti wandered the streets strumming his guitar and singing habibi nonstop, chanting the word on people's doorsteps and in their homes and businesses. Iraqis of all ages loved it.
Last summer, Franti performed at an eightieth birthday celebration for the Dalai Lama, who commended him for generating ecstatic positive energy; Franti's listeners, he said, should not confine their enjoyment to the sounds and melodies, "but should also reflect on the content and the message that the lyrics carry." When Franti sings of washing away the world's pain, it is the utterance of an individual who is diligently dancing the path of the Bodhisattva, the honorable path of mindfulness, non-violence, and respect for all life.
Michael Franti and Spearhead perform at Hill Auditorium as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival on Tuesday, June 21 (see Events).
[Originally published in June, 2016.]
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