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Talking Revolution

Michael Franti and Spearhead are into change, if not the Internet

A quarter of a century ago, proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron informed us that "the revolution will not be televised." This year, with a soulful baritone and a revolutionary consciousness that echoes hip-hop's forefather, Michael Franti is here to tell us the revolution isn't going to be on-line either.

"I've been excited to see how much influence hip-hop is starting to have on the Internet," Franti says, "but at the same time I say, 'Yo, less than 1 percent of the world has a computer,' so this idea of the World Wide Web is bullshit. The World Wrestling Federation is probably more places than the World Wide Web."

Still, as the voice of Spearhead -- one of the few politically inclined hip-hop groups currently thriving -- it's Franti's job to keep his critical eye on the media that shape our culture. That's why Franti chose to put an Afrocentric twist on the new technology in naming his band's second CD Chocolate Supa Highway.

The name shouldn't suggest that Franti has any particular affinity for surfing the Web, though. Rather, he means it to highlight the need for black communities to widen their perspectives, to branch out and establish connections between each other. To progress, if you will, from George Clinton's "chocolate city" to Franti's "supa highway."

"I've always been somebody who's been afraid of computers," Franti admits. "A computer for me is something that when you walk into the fast-food restaurant and say, 'Can I have extra ketchup?' they go, 'No, you can't, because we don't have a button for that on the fucking computer.' So I've always been kind of a technophobe."

"But at the same time," he adds, "I realize that box -- the computer or television or radio -- is just a bunch of metal and wires, and without us putting our creative input into it, it's nothing. So if we don't, as black people, put our creativity into it, it's just going to be a place where we are further ghettoized from, and we can't afford to have that happen at this stage of our liberation struggle."

More than buying into technology, Chocolate Supa Highway appropriates it and imbues the computer age with the same playground vibe that made Spearhead's debut, 1994's Home, such a success. For all his talk of electronic gadgetry, Franti is clearly less concerned with the way ideas are transmitted than he is with the ideas themselves.

"The information era is over, it's come and gone," he claims. "Where we're at now is the inspiration era. People are not just trying to find things to write about, to be creative about, they're trying to find reasons to get up in the morning. We live in a fucking ugly world, but it's a world that a lot of us feel is still worth fighting for. I think that in the near future, you're going to find music that starts to take a stand on issues, that doesn't just say 'Hey, this is what's happening on the streets and we're just going to report it.' It's going to say, 'This is what's happening on the street and this is what we think about it.' "

That, at least, is what Franti aims to do. In fact, it's pretty much been his goal from the start. After a stint at the University of San Francisco, where the six-foot, six-inch adopted son of white parents played basketball, Franti became inspired by the tradition of black political expression that led from Malcolm X to Linton Kwesi Johnson to Public Enemy. He then formed his first group, the Beatnigs -- an industrial music/ guerrilla theater project masquerading as a rap group -- and in 1988 established an important link between the Bay Area's activist punk scene and blossoming hip-hop community by releasing an album on Alternative Tentacles, the label run by the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra.

By the time Franti released his next album in 1992, he and Beatnigs percussionist Rono Tse had transformed into a more overtly hip-hop unit called Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, their sole album, introduced Franti's booming agit-prop to a wider audience, particularly on the overtly Scott-Heronesque "Television, the Drug of the Nation."

By 1993, though, it began to dawn on Franti that by focusing his creative energy on political statements, he'd allowed the music to be an afterthought. For all their passion and smarts, the least his groups had going for them was their songs. And as Franti matured, he began to understand that by forsaking the music, he had been limiting his listeners' ability to hear his message. He also realized how liberating music could be on its own.

"There was a time when I thought [the purpose of] music was, like KRS-One said, 'Edutainment,' " Franti explains. "And then I started to realize that people get a lot more education out of books, from talking to their grandparents, from going to school, than I could ever give them in a song. What music is great at is finding emotional places in people's hearts and allowing things to come to the surface that don't often have a chance to be heard and felt. That's what I set out to do: not worrying so much about what people were thinking about the lyrics, but thinking more about the way people were feeling when they heard the music. That's what I do now. Music is the first thing, the sound of the voice is the second thing. If people are intrigued by those two things, then they'll want to hear what you have to say."

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