MICHAEL FRANTI ON MUMIA, MUSIC AND PROTEST TODAY: INTERVIEW WITH MARK TAYLOR OF EMAJ
I arrived early at the Wetlands club in New York City , to attend the first of two concerts that Michael Franti (lead singer and lyricist for the group “Spearhead”) was offering on August 15 and 16, 2000. I found him relaxing in the club before the crowds started coming in for the show. He agreed to an hour-long interview, provided I could come back the next day. That night’s show delivered what most Spearhead shows do: a night full of music (he played for 2 to 3 hours), thought-provoking insights and dancing good times. I was all the more motivated, therefore, to return the next day to record this interview. We did so at the nearby Thai Café, at Hudson and Hubert Streets.Over the past several years, Franti has been one of the most committed artists who performs and speaks out for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia journalist on death row in Pennsylvania, who 24 years ago was sent to death row for murdering Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner, on the basis of a trial fraught with error, manipulation of evidence and witnesses, and pervasive lack of due process. (For just one example of the violations suffered by Abu-Jamal in his first trial, read the transcripts to see how one prospective juror, who repeatedly said under oath that he could not be fair toward Mumia, nevertheless ended up on the jury!).
Franti also has been outspoken about a variety of other political issues, and has been an integral part of recent youth protest culture, in Seattle for the movement to close down the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings, and at the 2000 Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
His bold presence and wisdom-filled rap lyrics have characterized his artistic work from its beginnings. Songs like “Food For Tha Masses,”and others, are brimful with positive energy and yet lose none of their capacity to name, confront and resist the powers of repression and callous neglect.
I first heard Franti at the Academy in Chelsea, Manhattan , in 1991.He was opening for the now disbanded Arrested Development, and Franti was headlining for his group at that time,Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Much as I enjoyed, and still enjoy, the music of Arrested Development, Franti and his group stole my interest that night. I especially remember his “Television, the Drug of the Nation,” which is one of the many stunning lyrical performances on the one compact disc that the “Heroes” put out. The disc includes songs on music and politics, and takes up themes pertaining to AIDS, the Persian Gulf war, the ideology of the mainstream media, and more. In later years, I was able to catch him sharing the bill at venues with Digable Planets (Tramps, NYC) and with Busta Rhymes and the Fugees ( Garden State Arts Center, New Jersey ).
His raps – mixed with the funk, soul and jazz heated up by the Spearhead band – get in your head, shake your heart, and definitely keep bodies moving! Enjoy the interview, everyone! – Mark Taylor
Taylor [T]: Michael, I saw you last in Philly. You offered up a new song, “Keep On Runnin’, and did it there in the open air (near the Frank Rizzo statue!), on August 1st as hundreds were being arrested in protest of the 2000 Republican Convention. You’ve been on the scene as the youth protest culture has become more prominent. I’ve also read about some of your club performances in Seattle during the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in November of 1999, when youth and so many others helped close down the meetings of the World Trade Organization. What do you see happening with youth culture today in these movements?
Franti [F]: Well. Youth of today are those youth who have been brought up feeling the effects of the Reagan years – all the cutbacks of spending for education, for music programs, for athletics, for books, for toilet paper in the bathroom. This is what the youth of today are feeling. So young people today are angry. They feel that they’re being cheated, and they are. They have every right to be angry. So there’s a lot of young people who have felt this disfranchisement, who lately have been mobilized through youth leadership to get involved in protest and becoming active.
T: Where does the music come in?
F: Music has been a big part of that, and poetry has been a big part of that. And not just the music of artists like myself or other known artists, but the music that the youth themselves are making, and the rhymes that they’re kicking, and Hip Hop in general has been a large part of bringing young people together, and informing them about what’s going on, and getting excited about participating in actions.
T: I gather from reading about some of the club scenes in Seattle that some people actually came out of those venues that featured you and others, that they actually felt invigorated by that for what they had to do in the street, and in organizing in later years. Did you feel like a part of the protest vibe there, like a contributor to the overall scene in Seattle ?
F: Yeah, I think that Mumia said it really beautifully and eloquently; and I have tried to pattern myself after these phrases that he uses to describe the role of musicians today to try to enrage, enlighten, inspire. And I think that is when we as musicians are at our best, when we’re able to do all three of those things. Sometimes we do one or two.
You know, since the beginning of time there have been two unifying forces in the world. The first one is war (people always come together in war), and the second one is professional wrestling. . . . (laughs). . . No, really . . . The second unifying force is, music. It’s something whether you just have a wooden guitar around a campfire, or a circle of people playing drums, or a couple of people comin’ together on corners with a beat-box to sing harmonies, in a night club, or a concert with 50,000 to 60,000 people – music is always bringing folks together and coalescing.There’s a vulnerability in music. People let down their inhibitions, and free their bodies to move, and they open up their heart to allow the beat to enter in. With all that vulnerability is when you bring thought, put a thought into it, and you can have power. So I think that’s . . . the power of music is when we are able to inspire people to keep going and struggling, and at the same time, enrage them by information we can provide, and enlighten and give them a vision of the spirit that can unify them.
T: Do you see that unifying occurring across the racial divides of in the protest movement? After the protests of Seattle and Washington, D.C. , there was a lot of talk on the Internet, about “where are the youth of color in this movement? Are these disaffected white youth just into their own youthful rebellion?” Do you see some genuine new unities being created in the protest cultures of the day, across the racial divides?
F: Well, I was out at this place called the Ruckus camp, the Ruckus Society camp for protest organizers. One of the things that came up out there, during a workshop on imperialism, was just this question – that is, race and gender roles within the movement. And the fact that a lot of leadership in the movement has been white males. And I also saw people who were willing to go apart into groups, discuss their feelings, and then present it to the group, and then have the group mirror back what they heard from each of the groups talking about the way they feel about race and gender.
So, yes I do see that there hasn’t been a large amount of people of color, and uh, that’s disappointing. But at the same time, I see that there’s been people in the movement who are willing to talk about it, to reach out to other people, to try to bridge those gaps. So, I’m hopeful. I think that in order to build a strong and lasting movement, those types of dialogues need to take place.
T: Going back to Mumia for a minute. Can you say how you first got involved with the movement for Mumia. Who introduced it to you? How you got conscious about it? How you decided to really step into the movement?
F: Well, there was a documentary – I don’t even know where it came from – but it just appeared on our bus one day. Someone handed it to somebody in the van, “A Case of Reasonable Doubt.” I think it was about five years ago. We watched it, and we we’re all stupefied, you know. We couldn’t believe that this type of framing had taken place. Since that time, as I have become more aware of the death penalty in this country, I have seen that that kind of framing is, unfortunately, not surprising. And unfortunately, it’s the common place.
T: Can you say what intrigues you most about Mumia?
F: That Mumia . . . he’s a journalist, knowing that he was “the voice of the voiceless.” Since his time of incarceration, he has continued to speak out for everybody except himself. He doesn’t trumpet his own cause. He’s a thinker, philosopher, writer, educator, and spiritual leader to enlightenment. That’s why I’ve been attracted to his case in particular.
But as the anti-death penalty movement has grown, I see that Mumia’s case is not any more or less important than any of the other people on death row. And I believe that murder is wrong. I believe that murder by our government is even more wrong, of its own people. And I believe that we can find a nonviolent end to violence. And I think that, Mumia is somebody who is working toward that, That’s why I love him and respect him so much.
T: When we organize for Mumia, as educators and on campuses, a typical comeback is that, “Hey, there’s so many in prison, so many on death row, so many framed – why all the work and the special effort for him?” I think, in part, you’ve already answered that question for yourself. But I notice that you have a substantial number of web sites for Mumia on your own website as links, so do you ever feel the force of that kind of comeback? How do you respond to the question of “why ‘overdose’ on one person amid such a massive problem?”
F: Well, I tend to agree with the question. I agree there is a massive problem. But all the energy that we are putting into Mumia is justified, and that we need to find more energy in our hearts, more time in our lives to put into all the other people. Ending the death penalty in this country is a way to take care of it all, in one fell swoop, in terms of the people on death row. And we need to fight for justice period in the criminal justice system as a whole, and for economic justice, and educational justice, and health care justice, and housing justice. It’s all one thing, you know? But if we look at it as all one thing, we become overwhelmed.And so what I’ve chosen to do in my life is try to be as mindful as I can possibly be in each moment of my day. And just deal with the things that are there in the immediate day. Because if I look at the whole picture, I go crazy. But if I take the Republican Convention one moment at a time, one day at a time, the Democratic Convention one moment/one day at a time, the work I do for Mumia one moment/one day at a time, each of those things; then I find that I don’t lose my sanity. And it keeps me going in the fight, gives me endurance.
T: Have you in any way found that you’ve paid any kind of price, artistically, or with different kinds of communities, because you have spoken out and worked for Mumia?
F: I’ve never paid a price. I’ve been criticized. I’ve had people write to me, sayin’ “Why you doin’ this? You know. . . he’s a cop killer. I like everything else you do. Just because he’s a cop killer, you need to think about it.” To me, that’s not paying a price. “Paying a price” is doing 18 years. “Paying a price” is having every moment of your waking life knowing that you’re going to die, and that somebody is going to kill you out of anger for something that you didn’t do. Havin’ a few people say they don’t like you anymore . . . that’s not “paying a price.” It’s just creating clarity in my life – about those who are with me and those who are not with me. And I would prefer to know up front who are the people who are with me, than to find out later.
T: From the stage and in other contexts, you have talked about “conscious music.” There’s a common retort that politically conscious music somehow subverts celebration, partying and the festive joy of an event. Is that a false problem in your mind as an artist? I know from experience, that part of the “exSPEARience of your shows is that festivity, that celebration, that there’s no trade off for a political message. You even refer occasionally to “the spiritual” as part of this festive experience.
F: You know, we live in this country, this culture, that has as one of its original mandates the separation of church and state, of government and spirituality. And as I have grown in my life I have continued to question that more and more and more. The one thing that music, thankfully, doesn’t have, is that separation. Music does not recognize the separation between music and politics, the separation between music and spirituality, music and god. They can all exist in music. That’s the beauty in music. And so if you’re thinking of music only on an intellectual level, you’re going to be missing the point. You would be missing, really, what it’s about. But if you allow yourself to be vulnerable to music, it can do powerful things in your life. “
T: You see the powers of music in the protest movements and struggle today?
F: For me, through music . . . you know, we played in Philly last Thursday. It was the week after the [Republican] Convention. And after the show, I said, “Hey, I’d like to go out to the prisons where the activists are being held.” We went out there and we stayed out until six in the morning. We were talking to people who were there and holding a vigil, waiting for people to be released, with food and stuff. We talked, and then we did poetry together, and it was a beautiful thing. And for me, what I got out of it was, to keep going. Keep doing what I’m doing. Keep striving. It filled me up with a lot of light. And I think the same was true of the people there who met with me, who experience my music, to give them the endurance to say, “Hey, maybe we’ll stay here one more night, one more day.”
T: I’ve seen you write that music’s power is also spiritual. Can you say more about that?
F: People say, “What effect can music really have spiritually on the world?” And I think, “Well, when I get up in the morning, I’ll put on a Bob Marley record to help me wake up. Put on “Sun is Shining” to help me wake up. And then, I go to my work and I might listen to some Hip Hop, on my way there, just to get my blood flowing a little bit. At work, I’m doin’ music all day, and takin’ care of business, so I might be listenin’ to some nice ambient music while I’m doing that. Then I come home at night and put on some Duke Ellington or somethin’, while I’m eatin’ dinner. And then when I want to make love, I’ll put on Barry White or Sade. When I’m pissed off I’ll put on Rage Against the Machine. I think if music can alter my emotions and help me to get those emotions out each minute of the days of my life, imagine how much it’s changing the world each minute of all these peoples who are involved in hearing music, all 6 billion of us on this planet. Imagine how much effect music is having every day.
Once I went to go visit this museum of slavery in . And it was a whole museum that was dedicated to the slave trade between Europe, Africa and the . And they had a display that was what it would be like to be in the bottom of a slave ship. You could go in there and lay down in shackles, very close proximity to other people. I just imagined what it would be like, filled with stench and vomit and bile, feces and rocking, with people dying around you, starving, and fear of not knowing where you’re going. And I thought, how did we endure this? What possibly could have gotten us through this? And I thought, there’s only two things that we could have had: faith in God, and songs. Faith in God, and a creative outlet to give voice to our emotions. And, when I think about that, I understood then how intrinsically linked, music and the spirit are. There’s no position more vulnerable than your open mouth wide open. Whenou put sound out, there’s no greater energy than doing that with a group of people, and like I said before, when you add a thought to that sound you have power.
That’s what makes cops at a rally, you know, go from standing and kickin’ back to getting in a two-footed prone stance with their batons in front of them. Its just hearing the sound of the human voice rising up. It doesn’t take any more than that. You don’t need to throw rocks at them, throw bottles at them. When they hear the sound of the voice, they know it’s time.
T: I gather you see putting out that voice to be not just provocative of those oppressors . . .
F: No . .
T: . . . but as somehow the first phase of a mobilization to overcome.
F: Yeah. Well, I don’t see it . . . I don’t go into a protest to be provocative to oppressors. I go into a protest because I’m trying to communicate. And that’s why now, as these protests have gone on these last several months that I have been involved in so many different things, I see where we’ve been successful and where have we been unsuccessful. There was a time in San Francisco when we marched onto the Bay Bridge with a group of people during the Gulf War protests, and we shut down the bridge. The TV reporters were there saying “There was a Gulf War protest, people were against the war, and went on the bridge, and they shut down the bridge.” Now, we go onto the bridge and shut it down, it just makes the nightly traffic report. So now we have to think how we are going to do things differently.
T: How do you reflect on the different strategies of resistance available now?
F: Are we going to pick up arms and fight against these cops and fight against this system. If that’s the message we choose, we’re going to have to go underground, train like soldiers, do the best we can. But the fact of the matter is, the system is much more skilled at brutality and violence than we are. So where does that leave us. We’re more creative than that. And our best strategy that we have, is unity. The more unified we can be in our actions in the street, and say “Hey, this is going to be a peaceful protest. Its gonna mean no turning over of garbage cans, no throwing of bottles and rocks . . . because we’re trying to take the moral high ground.” Now, if we are going to go after them with bottles and rocks and cans, then I suggest we become very skilled at throwing bottles and rocks and cans, because we’re up against tanks, guns, pepper spray, and stuff like that.
So, I’m really starting to challenge myself, what does it mean to be a “protestor.” What does it mean to be “active.” What are the best methods? The thing I would like to achieve is critical mass in this country, that some of the issues – about prisons, about the environment, about the death penalty, education, health care, housing – that the masses of people agree with what we’re trying to say.
Now, one time I was in Seattle , we opened for the Indigo Girls in concert. There was this group of people out there who were protestin’. They had signs that said, “Faggots, Queers, Hippies,” you know, “Dikes, lesbians – you’re all going’ to hell.” I went up and approached them and said, “Why are you sayin’ this? Is it because you care about people? Or, are you just saying hatred? “No,” they said, “its just a warning, a warning to these people that they’re going to hell.” “So what,” I said, “are you saying that out of love and compassion for them. Or, are you saying that so you can strike fear in their hearts and make them feel your hatred?” He thought about it for a minute and said, “Well, I’m doin’ it because I care about other people.” Well, I said, “How many years you been doin’ this?” “‘Bout six years,” he said. “How many people have you converted in that time?” “Oh, a couple,” he said. “You’ve only converted a couple of people in six years, using this tactic? Do you think maybe you should change your tactics?” He just turned and walked away, said I don’t want to talk to you. But it made me think about what we do. Is it our goal to be just disruptive? Or is it our goal to communicate a message of compassion and love to other people so that they can understand it in a way that they want, and in turn, join the movement, join the fight, to make change in this country. I think about the dilemma we are facing today, because the tactics we are using so far are short-sighted. And the reason . . . and I go and spend time with former Panthers and stuff, and they always talk about it, “This is the struggle, this is the struggle.” And I think that word is important to understand. It is a struggle, because it’s exactly that. It’s not something that changes overnight. It’s something that takes time, it
takes endurance, and it takes vision.
T: It takes imagination, to move creatively into the next steps.
F: Yeah, and you have to be able to . . . first of all, you have to believe that you’re going to someday be victorious. If you don’t believe that you’re going to someday be victorious, then you might as well go drop out, get a job at a phonebook company, watch Monday night football, drink beer every night. But if you believe you’re going to be victorious, then what is your vision of victory. Is your vision of victory a street strewn with trash? Or is your vision a forest that’s protected for eternity? You know?And so then you have to think about the ways we’re going to get there. So that makes you change your philosophies. Is me breakin’ this window really going to get us to where we’re tryin’ to go? Or is this just me raging against the machine for my own, you know, “self-full” reasons. . . I don’t want to say “selfishness” because every one has their own motivations, but, for yourself. Or, are we doing this as a movement together?
T: When you talk about that “togetherness” in the movement and how our strategy is unity, and putting those things together with what you’ve said elsewhere in your writings about “spirituality” as a “reach for the one” – well, if that’s what “spirituality” is, and if unity is our strategy, that makes spirituality pretty important. But I’m curious. At one point today you seemed to identify spirituality with “faith in God.” In your opinion, do you have to have the “God-talk” going to have a real vibrant spirituality? A lot of people today are coming up with spiritualities that don’t have the God-talk. . . and . . .
F: When people ask me about my beliefs, I believe in God. I don’t believe everybody has to believe in God in the way I do. But I believe in God. I believe in the power of the Creator. I believe that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but that it was in the vision of the Creator. All of us are beautiful, and that all of us are created by God in that, in that beauty. And I believe there is a beauty way of life. Just like the Dine tribe, the Native people in Arizona; they call their way of life “the beauty way,” which is a connection to the earth, and human beings are here as protectors and caretakers of this planet. So, I believe there is a beauty way of life and that we are all beautiful. And that we all come from this creator, we have this vision of beauty.
T: Those views move belief in God in some new directions. . .
F: Yeah, well . . . there are various people who have used “God” for their own different kinds of things: to divide people, and I don’t choose to do that. I believe in embracing diversity, celebrating diversity, and I believe in compassion. And some people say, “God is love,” that’s been an expression, its been in the Bible, its been out from all time. I can say, “God is love.” And I think during all the translations of the Bible, people could have said anything. They could have said, “God is greed.” God is “a new pair of shoes. . .” (laughter). . . “God is taking all you want and leaving nothing for anybody else. . .” But over time, those definitions haven’t worked. Over time, the definition that stood true was that “God is love.” and “God is compassion” – caring for everyone. So, that’s what I
Someone was telling me the other day about a writer – I can’t remember his name right now – a theologian. He said, “Religion . . . is. .. whatever is the most . . .” My God, I can’t remember the word he used, but basically “. . . the most important thing for you in your life . . . the most important thing . . .”
T: I think it’s the famous quote from Paul Tillich . . .
F: Yeah, that’s the guy . . .cool . . .
T: He wrote often of “religion” as “your ultimate concern. . .”
F: Yeah, that’s it. Your ultimate concern. What is your “ultimate concern?” When I think of my ultimate concern, sometimes I have to wade through other things to get to what it is. And so what I am thinking I’m wading through other things, I think, “Wow, well, maybe I need to find some type of foundation for my spirituality so that I don’t have to wade through things to know what is my ultimate concern. And that’s why I meditate.That’s why I talk to people of different faiths, that’s why I read books about different faiths, so I can find what it is for me. And so when somebody asks me what is my ultimate concern, I have an immediate answer and I don’t have to hesitate.
T: (laughing) I wrote a book on Tillich, I’ll have to send you a copy. . .
F: Nice. . . I’d like to read it. Somebody told me that quote, it really impressed me.
T: He is an important figure to read when bringing “spirit” together with “culture.” What I find particularly interesting about your notion of “spirituality” is that it doesn’t take you “above” earth onto some supernaturalist terrain above the world of politics. Your sense of “spirit” seems to be in the depths of a very human, very earth-oriented politics. Is that right? And will this spirituality be prominent on your next album, Stay Human (Boo Boo Records, 2000)?
F: Yeah. Well . . . Stay Human is an album that’s all about this pirate radio station, that’s covering this death sentence case. There’s a governor who’s tryin’ to get re-elected. He feels if he executes this woman prisoner he’ll get re-elected. And he does. He executes this woman prisoner the night before the election. The next day, he wins the election by a landslide. In that afternoon, the real murderer comes forward and confesses to the crime. He tells where the body’s at, gives up the murder weapons . .. and all chaos breaks out. The songs are woven in between this radio station that’s reporting this case.
T: Can you describe any of the songs on the new album, Stay Human?
F: One of the songs that really sums up the whole record for me, it’s a poem, “Every Single Soul is a Poem.” And its about how each of us in our lives, our souls are like poems that are being written and rewritten over every day. . . “on the back of God’s hand”, the Creator’s hand, or however you want to see it. And, that’s what it is for me to “stay human” . . . In our lives, as we write our poems, sometimes we look back at the poetry we wrote in fourth or fifth grade and we say, “Wow, that was really simplistic.” But there was some truth to it. When we look back at our poetry we wrote when we were 22, when we thought we were really smart, really wise, we say, “We thought we were very wise, but you know what, we were really very shallow.” And as we write and we rewrite, and we rewrite, that’s what it is to be “human” – to me.
T: As you look back over your own development, are there particular key focus events in your own life that you can identify as contributing to. . .well, to the kind of “poem” you’ve become. The way you bring music and politics together with a special set of concerns, you have a distinctive voice, as all artists do. . . But are there focusing events in the past that have made you who you are, your uniqueness as you understand that? Kind of a tough question, maybe. . .
F: The first thing is just my birth. I was born to a black father and a white mother. And I didn’t know either of them growing up. I was adopted. So my whole life has been one of searchin’ and questioning, about where I came from and who I am, where is my identity, who are my people. When I became 22 years old, I had my own son, 21 actually, I had my first son. I had been looking for my birth parents for a couple of years and I finally found them at age 22. My mother told me the reason she gave me up for adoption was because her family never would have accepted me, a brown baby comin’ outta the box, because they were a racist family. And so, because of this history, and because of the way I grew up, I’ve always felt as an outsider most of my life. I’ve always identified with other people who felt like outsiders. And I’ve always, you know, wanted to feel loved and cared for by people.
And as I’ve grown up, I’ve found I can love and care for myself. I don’t really have to always be lookin’ for that from other people. And, I want to share that with other people. I want other people who have been, who have felt disfranchised to feel that love, and to feel that togetherness, and that embrace. And that’s why my music has always been about compassion. That’s been the message of my music.
T: Are there particular musicians who you feel make up a community of musicians who you feel are working toward that kind of love, or that kind of unity of compassion and political consciousness. And if so, is it a strong community? There aren’t many in the artistic community who fight the commercialism as you do, seek to “divorce from the corporate money” and step forward to build up the critical mass.
F: Well, music has been like, uh, it’s kinda like a “reflector” and a “director” of everything else that’s been happening in society. Music “reflects” the corporate world today. All these bands, like NSYNC, its like its not just about the music. Its about the action-figure, the calendar, and all these other things – the hot dogs, the balls for kids at MacDonalds for kids to buy stuff, the movie. So the music is becoming more and more about that, because people see the power of music to sell about anything. So, it’s a reflection of that right now.
But at the same time, music is also a “director.” Music has always had a resistance movement to it. Its always been a reactionary movement to what’s takin’ place, and in instrumental music. And I see myself as being a part of that side of music, and as I go around the country, and as I meet up with more and more musicians, I talk to them about this, about what is it that we can have in terms of a coalescing of thought about battling this whole thing, you know. So, yeah, there is a community, small community but its growing.
T: And, you feel a part of building up that community?
F: There’s a number of artists I’ve talked to who’ve been operating outside the mainstream doing, saying “You know, Michael, we’ve been watching what you do, and ,we think its pretty cool, the way you been raisin’ your voice, going out to all these events, making sure you’re there, and speaking out, and we’d like to get involved in that, too.” So I don’t think that, ultimately, music is going to have this world-wave of hundreds of artists all singing political songs. But I do feel that with the Internet, what’s happening with music is that people are creating communities that love some band . . . Maybe there’s not 5 million people in the world that love that band, but there are 50,000 that love this band. And the more they get to know about this band, the more they make that decision that either I’ll become more closely connected to them, or I’m going to move away from them. The more that the artist puts out of himself, the more that the people have to make that decision out of. And that’s the thing that I’ve seen with our band, and its something I’ve seen with other bands.
T: How do you think the web and Internet serve music today?
F: The bands now have an opportunity; even if they’ve never sung a political word in their songs, that through their web site they are able to say, “Here are a few things we feel strongly about. You can check’em out, and maybe you dig it.” And I love that about the Internet. I feel like it gives people the opportunity to say, “You know what? I’m really into this, I’m really going to support this, or I’m not into it.” And, that’s it. And it takes away the whole thing, you know, “We’re going to ram this song down your throat, 50,000 times a day ’til you like it and go out and by it.” I really love electronic downloading of music. I feel like it gives artists an opportunity to have their music heard that have never had it before. And I think that ultimately it would be great if the music wasn’t the thing we had to sell to keep our livelihood going. It would be great if music was the thing we could give away. Maybe we could create a new model for how artists make a living.
T: I noticed that in one of your releases, you say, “we honor tapers.” That’s a different kind of move.
F: Yeah. That’s our “radio station!” That’s like our radio station, the tapes that go out there. And they get passed to people at a café, and then someone tapes it from someone else and someone else. That’s our radio station. And, the thing is, I’ve seen that at work with like Bob Marley. If you go to the Third World , nobody has access to go buy a CD, of Bob Marley. But, they have a tape of a tape of a tape of a tape of a Bob Marley. And in that way, his music means something to the people, and lives on in their life. That would be my ultimate. . . sign, that what I am doing is worthy of doing, that if people really took it to heart, that they would want to copy my music and share it with other people. Not that someone necessarily goes and buys my CD. At the same time, there’s the practical side of a business that, when you have six people in the band, you all gotta eat. And you have to figure out a way to do that. But I believe that when people really believe in what you do, people are willing to buy a concert ticket, willing to buy a t-shirt, willing to go out and buy your CD from the store even though they’ve downloaded it already.
T: Especially when they know and share the politically conscious dimension of your music. . .
F: Yeah, and they’ll support you. . . It’s never been my goal to start music and get rich and retire. And that is a lot of people’s goal, is to get rich quick. My goal has been to always make another song. And always make another record. If I have time in my day to do that, its always going to happen. If I have to go to work from 9 to 5 at a job I hate, and then try to come home and write songs, I am probably not going to be quite the best songwriter.
T: Before we finish, I want to return to this theme of discovering in ourselves the hope for making it through the crises of our time. When you played at California State ( Monterrey Bay ), you had the audacity to dream of the prison system being turned into an effective educational system – a point of interest, maybe, to educators working on justice issues. But hey, we’re looking at 2 million of our citizens in prisons today, predominantly people of color, a figure quadruple the number in 1980. So, we’re up against it, against a more intense version of a disease institutionalized from the beginning of this country. How does one maintain the audacity of hope, especially when looking at the enormity of what we face?
F: Well, its hard. Its really hard. There’s not a day I don’t wake up and turn on the TV, or go online, read the newspaper, or just walk down the street, when I don’t feel fear. But I carry along with my fear, courage. And the way that I get courage is by giving voice to my emotions. When I bottle my emotions in the whole world weighs in. When I write a song, to form a song, sit down with a friend and say, “God, things are lookin’ wrong.” Your emotions are like waves, and those waves are enormous when those emotions come up. Just like a wave, they crash with thunder (claps hands) and then they become still waters (claps hands) – until the next wave. When you give voice to your emotions, that’s what it is, that crash of wave and then it passes.
And the last thing is, like I said, trying to be mindful, trying to meditate. In learning to meditate, there was a teacher who taught me that each of us has 36,000 individual thoughts in a day, on an average. And that 90 percent of those thoughts are either projections about the future, or worries about the past. And, if we can live our lives in that 10 percent of the time when we are mindful and present, and we’re not stressing out about all our past and future stuff, then we’re able to live at peace and able to be more effective in our life. Through mediation we can learn to extend that time of mindfulness from 10 percent to 15 percent to 20 and 30 percent. During the Vietnam war, there were monks who meditated through the whole war and still conducted their lives, but they were mindful of every new moment and every new movement they made. And if we can extend just a little bit, say, from 10 percent to 20 percent, we can become so much more effective in our lives. So that’s the thing that it is for me; I can’t really say for everybody how to do it. But, for me meditation is helpful, viable, just becoming conscious of my breathing, clearing my mind, and learning how to go to that place where my mind is clear, so that when called upon to speak or act, there will be something there.. . . without being so attached to my emotions that I do something irrational.