Michael Franti is a man known to speak his mind through his actions and his music – his songs have an extremely refreshing political message. His 2006 release, Yell Fire!, was inspired by his travels in the Middle East, where he met with Iraqis, Israelis, and Palestinians. He had a chance to talk with the people being affected most by the current state of affairs, and captured it all on the film I Know I'm Not Alone.
Honest Tune contributing writer Brian Heisler got a chance to talk with Franti about his Harvest Ball, his influences, and politics.
Honest Tune: We just had the first installment of your Harvest Ball here in Denver, the other three being in San Francisco, can you explain how that came about the first time?
Michael Franti: I have a lot of friends who are, um, uh I guess I call ‘em farmers; they grow pot [laughs]. And we wanted to put together a celebration of the harvest season, because they all work so hard all summer long and then they harvest and they wanted to celebrate. So we were just talking about that. And at the time one of my friends, his name is Todd McCormick, he had spent five years in prison for growing medical marijuana in LA. He was just about to get out and so we were excited about that too.
The next year we did it we thought, ya know, pot is one part of nature, but there is kind of this boundary of nature that we want to give thanks for. And during that Thanksgiving season, it’s kind of a controversial holiday because some people see it as a family time, just coming together, but other people remember the kind of historic roots of the holiday being this time when native people and pilgrims came together and had this harvest celebration. But then shortly afterwards the pilgrims killed all the native people and stole their land. So we wanted to kind of transform the holiday into one that was giving thanks in a way that was honoring them, this history of the holiday.
So the third year we did, the theme was “The Native Earth Dream Catch.” We had speakers come from the Native American community in Northern California. We had dancers and performers. We built large puppets of all of the different native species in Northern California that are endangered.
And then this year the theme was to “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle,” part of our obeying and showing respect for Mother Earth by being good stewards of it. There’s a couple great organizations on Colorado that helped us with that. One is Rock the Earth, which is musicians and lawyers and activists who are trying to bring environmental awareness to the rock community, the festival community, both at the festivals themselves and in the rest of 365 days of the year. And then there’s the Rocky Mountain Sustainable Living Association, which offered to do the greening of the Fillmore for the weekend. So they made sure that the show was 95% landfill-free. They did all the composting and recycling for the night. There was a group of eight people who at the end of both those nights went through every bag of trash and separated everything out.
They also did something which is really what I see is the future of sustainability, which is that they went to Miller Beer, who does the beer for the Fillmore, and said “would you be willing to provide bio-degradable cups for the weekend?” And Miller Beer said “yes.” So they not only bought the 25,000 cups for the weekend, but they bought something like a half a million cups to be used at other events.
I think it’s a really great thing when people are able to not just complain about corporations, but go to those corporations and show them how they can help.
HT: Do you have plans to relocate the Harvest Ball again in the future?
MF: We’ll see how it goes. We had done it three times in San Francisco. We kept getting e-mail from people saying it would be great if we could move it different places around the country and so, that’s what we did. I’m sure eventually it’ll go back to San Francisco, it’ll go to other cities around the country.
And, we also did the family matinee, which was hugely successful over the last two years.
HT: How did that come about?
MF: Well, I’d just heard from a lot of fans who said, “we love Spearhead and we wanna go to the show on Friday, but we don’t have a babysitter.” And so someone suggested to me one time, “you should do a family show sometime and do it in the afternoon.” And so we did it at last year’s one in San Francisco and we had no idea how many people would show up and the place was almost completely full after only selling like a handful of advanced tickets. And so we did it this year and the response was so great, tons of people showed up.
It was moving, a couple times I was almost brought to tears just seeing families and kids so excited about the music, seeing kids who are like six years old singing every word of “Rock the Nation.” They know these really political songs front and back.
"I just think we need a change of attitude and looking at really which direction we want our country to go in is not a partisan issue."
– Michael Franti
HT: How does it make you feel and how different is it from one age to another when you see different people like that singing your music right back at you?
MF: I love it. To see the broad spectrum of age groups…I feel really happy that our music has touched people of so many different ages. You see these old-timers come, there’s a lot of them that I meet with after the shows. Sometimes people will bring their mother and they’ll bring their children along, there’ll be three generations there. That’s really exciting to me, it just feels really good.
HT: A lot of musicians will play their music, wave to their fans, and then that’s it for the night. But when you come on stage, you bring a message and go that extra step. What is it that makes you care and go that extra step to talk about issues with your fans, as opposed to just playing your music and getting off the stage?
MF: Well, the artists that influenced me the most were the ones that I felt like they could teach you their whole life. I felt like the artists for me, Bob Marley, John Lennon, The Clash, Public Enemy. These are artists that were always really open about their political beliefs, they were open about the things they did and their other artwork and their other endeavors outside of music that I was really inspired by.
And, I’ve always felt that as people, not as musicians, but as people, all of us have this great opportunity to give back something. Sometimes that takes place in the form of voting, sometimes that takes place in the form of speaking out, or bringing awareness to something that needs more awareness brought to it, or raising money for something.
It doesn’t matter what field we’re in, we all can find ways to do that.
HT: You mentioned ‘voting’ and going along with the issues you talk about in your film I Know I’m Not Alone, what is your reaction to this week’s overall election in the country?
MF: I was thrilled to see this change take place in both houses and equally thrilled to see Rumsfeld resigning. But now they’ve just brought in the former CIA’s Gates running the war, and to me that’s not a great option.
Although this election was the voice of the people saying “no” to the war in Iraq, we still have to work every day to make sure that we can get our men and women home safely as soon as possible and begin to allow Iraqi people to run their own country.
What I think it is is not so much an issue of Democrat or Republican, it’s an issue of this policy we have of going around the world and policing other countries. Is that one we want to continue? I don’t think it’s one that helps us, it doesn’t help the countries that we’re involved with and it continues to bring more anger and hatred to our country, which is the opposite of how we’re gonna reduce terrorism in the world.
I just think we need a change of attitude and looking at really which direction we want our country to go in is not a partisan issue.