Michael Franti and the Spearhead’s first album, “Home” from 1994 has a song in it called Piece O’ Peace, in which the first line says: “Every million miles ya haffe tek a first step”. The idea of peace is often something that seems elusive, and maybe even unachievable in our time, but then there are artists like Franti who fight this idea by living and sharing a peaceful life with people he meets; whether it’s those in an audience doing yoga with him before his show, or people Iraq after they welcome him into their home to share laughter, tea, and stories about humanity. These are just a few of Franti’s steps towards achieving peace at home and throughout the world with the help of music.
Your life and your work seem very poetic. What is it that drives you to reach out to people and spread the message of creating a peaceful world?
Well what drives me is that I have a desire and a belief that all of us have this unique opportunity in our lives — and that opportunity is to each day learn to better get along with each other and to make the world a little bit better then when we got here. And music is a really great way of doing that because music is something that accesses the soul, the heart, so when our bodies become tired — like mine is today [laughs] — and our minds become taxed, it’s our souls that opens all of us and [says] “you know you can go a little bit further, you can try a little bit harder, you can love a little bit more”. And that’s when things really change in the world, because [people] get run down and as they get run down, it’s often when their souls close off and they lose their empathy, they lose their compassion, they lose their wiliness to try and reach out to others, or to try to do something for others. And music is one of things that accesses that part of us and I love music for that reason.
For your documentary [I Know I’m Not Alone] you went to Iraq, Palestine, and Israel. As an activist, how do you support change from here, at home?
One of things that I learnt when I was in Iraq, and in Israel and the Palestinian Territories was that everywhere I went, I met people who were risking their lives each day to achieve peace. I met Iraqi families who would take me into their homes where they hid during the bombing and [I met] soldiers who said, “I came here a day after September 11th. I signed up to join the army because I though Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, that he was involved in 9/11. And I got here and found out it was all lies” you know. And I met Israeli and Palestinian families who had lost family members in the conflict there and in the occupation and who said that we don’t want our family member’s deaths to be used as a cry for war, we want it to be used as a cry to end all wars. And that they don’t want the pain that they felt to be experienced by anyone else on the planet.
So as a communicator of that, I realized that you don’t have to choose sides – you don’t have to choose sides based on nationality — that you can choose to be on the side of the peacemakers from which ever country you come from. And in every country, there are people that are willing to go to great lengths to achieve peace. … In the case of the Palestinian-Israeli situation [where] you have people that are living under occupation for a long time, you know some people since right after WWII and other people since 1967, and living with everyday soldiers in their lives breaking into their homes, barricading, and you know blocking them off with a wall from their own land and it’s suffering and enduring incredible hardship and they fight back. And in doing so, you have people who living in Israel grow up in fear that if they were to walk into a supermarket or café or were to get into a bus it might blow up. And so I think that they way to really best communicate is to try to listen to both sides and to be respectful of the loss of both.
And when we start comparing and counting and saying a hundred people were killed here and two hundred people were killed here and oh a thousand were killed here and a million were killed here and twenty million were killed…we don’t get anywhere. So, I wrote a song Bomb the World that says “you can bomb the world to pieces but we can’t bomb it into peace” and I really believe that — that the more political violence that we enact, you get more in return. And it doesn’t matter if it’s next week or the next generation. You use political violence to try and solve a problem; you get more political violence back at ya. When we use peace, and we use music, and we use food, we share land, and we share resources, and we create jobs and opportunity and health care and education for people, then they’re a lot less likely to strap a bomb onto their body and walk into a supermarket.
You briefly lived in Edmonton when you were in grade nine. Coming back to the city [for Folk Fest], how has that connection influenced your performances?
Well you know it’s always emotional for me to come back here because I remember being in grade nine — which for everyone is one of the most difficult parts of their lives [laughs] — and so I have great, very positive, and glowing memories of this time and I have emotions from a very dark place in my childhood. And so it’s always healing to come back here and to see things that are familiar. Like I was out in front of this hotel and there was this clock that’s got these great winding gears on it and I saw it today and I remembered seeing it when I was a kid. And seeing the river and seeing some of the things that haven’t changed. And then you see things that have really changed like the skyline and just how far it is — I remember to get to the airport there was nothing to the edge of the city for miles and miles or kilometers I should say [smiles]. So you get to the airport and now it’s like the city almost goes out to the airport. It’s just neat to come back and see all that.