INTERVIEW: US music icon MICHAEL FRANTI takes time out to tackle culture, politics and Barack Obama.
PROTEST music is getting interesting. A lot's changed since Michael Franti rapped against "television, the drug of the nation, breeding ignorance and feeding radiation" almost 20 years ago.
Perhaps we live in more political times, but the US firebrand's latest album All Rebel Rockers is already burning up the internet before its official release.
Described by Franti as a "revolutionary dance record," it lays down radical lyrics and rock guitars over slamming hip-hop party beats. But is he ever worried that mixing pop and politics ends up just preaching to the converted?
"I try to make the music fun, make you dance to it, make the chorus something you can sing along to and plant a few seeds along the way," he explains.
"Music can be an inspiration and help raise awareness for specific issues, but I think the main thing that it does is reach our hearts and find connections between people, between nations. It inspires compassion."
This compassion was the theme of Franti's film I Know I'm Not Alone, which he shot in Iraq, Palestine and Israel in 2004. Armed only with his guitar and a camera, he sang his way through the war zones, leading trails of dancing children wherever he went.
Many of the most moving scenes involved bringing together traditional enemies, such as young Iraqis and US soldiers, for impromptu performances.
He's making a new documentary next year in Africa, but, until then, he and his band Spearhead are releasing video clips from the new album on their website.
"I've always loved the form of music videos, but, because MTV has gotten so far into reality shows or whatever, it's like the video has taken less importance. But now, with YouTube, you can put something up there that you've made with your own video camera and have millions of people see it."
Having been shunned by the corporate media - perhaps the television song had something to do with it - he sees the web as a way to reach his audience directly.
"As the Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra says: 'Don't hate the media, become the media'."
On the touchy subject of mp3s and digital downloads, Franti points out that there's been a fundamental shift in the way that people enjoy music.
"In the same way that the oil industry is a dying dinosaur, the whole way of selling CDs is on its way out. There's a direct connection now between artists and fans and the live experience is going to be a much larger piece of the economic pie.
"Creativity is blossoming more than ever before. It used to be that people with a record collection would have 30 LPs - now a three-centimetre iPod can hold 1,000 songs of every kind of music."
Bringing the subject back to politics, I ask him what he makes of Obama's chances for winning the US presidency. Is there a danger of more electoral fraud?
"I think that the Republicans are going to do everything they can to steal this election," replies Franti. "But even worse than an election that's stolen by the Supreme Court or electronic tampering is an election that's stolen by cynicism.
"Obama's campaign has brought a lot of new energy to the election, a lot of younger voters, but I still think that, at the back of people's minds, there's disbelief that he can win. That's what his trip to Europe was about, to show that he could be a leader not only of America but on the world stage, a 21st century leader.
"Of all the Democratic candidates, he and Hillary were farthest to the right, but I don't know if there's something really necessarily wrong with that at this point.
"I think that he's realistic about what it takes to win. We're not going to solve problems if we don't have coalitions. We need the left and the right to both agree it's time to get out of Iraq, we need the left and the right to both agree that it's time to address poverty and global warming."
Franti also wants to inspire new generations to avoid old mistakes.
"After I got back from Iraq and spent months editing this film about war, I thought: 'What can I do next?' So I sat down and said: 'I'm writing a kid's book, I've got to get my head out of all this stuff' and I wrote this book called What I Be, which is about embodying the best characteristics of nature.
"Another thing that's been a super-successful project for us as a group are the family shows. When we're in a town for two nights, we do a matinee show where we invite people with two, three or four-year-old kids to come for the afternoon and we bring people like Burning Man puppeteers and stilt-walkers and we do this sort of freak circus for kids."
But what kind of future will they inherit? What's it going to take for Westerners to "let go of remote control" and wake up to what our governments are doing, as Franti's new single Hey World urges.
"We have to feel that Muslim people, people who make a lot less money than us, people who come from other cultures and other nations, people who are different from us, are part of our future. As long as we don't consider them to be part of our future, we're not going to solve anything," Franti insists.
"I think that culture goes a long way. When you share food with people, when you share music, when you experience part of the beauty of their life, you can no longer say that they're worthy of us dropping bombs on them.
"I watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics the other day and, with that one invitation, China was welcomed into everybody's homes in America, where, 20 years ago or 15 years ago, China was - it still is - our sworn enemy. When you see somebody stand for their art and their culture, you want to embrace them."
Michael Franti and Spearhead are playing at Leadmill in Sheffield on Tuesday night, Edinburgh's Liquid Room on Wednesday, Koko in London on Thursday and the Greenbelt in Cheltenham on Friday.
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