SAN FRANCISCO - In today’s highly polarized political climate, news networks and politicians are busier than ever, delivering messages as if preaching to congregations of devoted followers. To Michael Franti, Oakland native and frontman for the outspoken hip-hop act Michael Franti and Spearhead, the goal is less about delivering the message than challenging people to figure things out for themselves.
“Artists have a unique opportunity because we have a voice, but our voice comes through something that we create,” Franti says. “So when we write about political things and our cause, it brings up something that a news anchor or a politician can’t do.”
Franti has been exercising that voice recently, through his 2005 documentary about the Iraq war, “I Know I’m Not Alone,” and the 2006 album it inspired, “Yell Fire.” Blending hip-hop, rock ’n’ roll, reggae and folk sounds, each song on the album contributes to a call for hope.
On Friday, Michael Franti and Spearhead launch a U.S. tour in support of “Yell Fire” with a two-night run at the Warfield in San Francisco. When the tour was scheduled to commence on Presidents’ Day weekend, the group decided to host a “Letter to the President” writing contest.
“We were trying to think, ‘What’s a real, positive way that we can have these celebrations on Presidents’ Day weekend?’” Franti says. “We asked people to express their views, whether in support of the president or against … But the one thing that we said was, ‘Try to put some form of an answer.’ You know, not just ‘Here are all the things I hate about the president,’ but ‘here are the things I would do maybe if I were president.’ We got some amazing responses.”
The winners will be announced this week on Spearhead’s Web site, www.spearheadvibrations.com.
“The main thing is that I’m not so much in the business of trying to change minds as I am in trying to open them,” Franti says. “When I took my trip to Iraq in June of 2004, and I made a film about it, that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to try to make a political case against the war. I just wanted to show people what the war was doing to people’s lives on the ground, both Iraqi civilians as well as U.S. soldiers. So that’s the way I try to work now.”
While it’s easy to make such claims, Franti makes it clear he is more about diplomacy than playing the blame game.
“I don’t think ‘bad people,’” Franti says. “I think we’re all in various stages of ripeness — we’re all gonna get ripe. What I’ve found in politics is, the more that you point the finger at other people, and shout and scream about how bad they are, the less chance you have to get people to come to a place where there is a middle ground that can be met. I’m interested in results.”