African Soldiers Under An Infectious Groove

If one needs proof that the political can also be the pleasurable, and that hip hop is far more than the gangster stereotype, look no further than Spearhead. Formed after the Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy split, Michael Franti's latest project is both more relaxed and more accessible without watering down the politics. However the political focus has shifted from the world 'out there' to the world closer to home - hence the album title. Yellow Peril caught up with Michael Franti and Ras I Zulu last week.

Both Michael and Ras I are sitting comfortably by the pool atop the Sebel Townhouse, high above the smells, the noise, and the sleaze of the Cross. Hotel attendants come up every few minutes to scan the pool - Michael and Ras I laugh in unison - "for hairs". The concert the night before was exhausting. Almost two hours straight of jumping, and rump-shaking, the Metro has never been so alive with energy and positivity. Ras I Zulu opened the proceedings blessing the house and Mary Harris and Liane Jamison sang the 'African-American National Anthem' then it was into a non-stop barrage of funky rhythms, phat basslines, and clever wordplays. From the first beat, the crowd was a swarming mass of smiling, sweating bodies - captivated. Michael explains; "People who are always going to rock shows continually ask ' why are the people putting their hands in the air, screaming and doing shit like that?' Its not about conforming, its about unity. Everyone comes to the show as individuals but then when we party we party together. As Black people that is what we've always done - you go to a Black church and its call and response, there's a band, there's dancing - and you go to a White church and its like 'did someone just die here?'. European people have hated nature and have this strange fear of god, and on the otherhand Black people have always celebrated creation and the creator . . . when we play live the audience is 85% of the show. The reason I go to concerts to see all the people there, not just the artists - if you can make the audience feel like they are part of the show and you break down the barrier between the stage and the floor, then you can all have a lot of fun. Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson, people whose music I don't really like, even, I watch their videos and you learn from them".

Since his time with The Beatnigs and more recently The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, Michael Franti has constantly expanded his musical repertoire. When the Heroes toured a low key benefit for the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation was held at the Site. In contrast to the other Disposable Heroes shows - with their heavy percussion and rapid-fire lyrical delivery, the benefit saw them go acoustic. It was here that the crowd would have first glimpsed the seeds of Spearhead both in the new songs they played that night but more importantly in the almost jazz groove that they created that night. On Home, and live, Spearhead are the souped up sound of that night - relaxed, groovy, and still political. Michael agrees; "Groove is so important, and in the last six months I've been trying to make the rhythm become a groove - the beat stays the same but its all the bits in between the beats that makes everyone's heads bounce. When I write my own songs now, I go through it line by line trying to make sure it has a groove to it. Before I used to concentrate more on what I was saying, not how I was saying it, and now I feel like I already know what I'm going to be saying now and I want to present it in a way that make's their necks snap . . . maybe the groove does make people listen more attentively but what I am really trying to do is make them listen to the songs more than once. My thing is playing with words and the subtleties in the language, and if you only listen to the song once then I'm fucked because if I haven't hit you with all the subtleties the first time then you you're never going to get it. I listen to Bob Marley everyday and hang on every word hearing new things each time going 'damn, man, I never thought of it that way before' and suddenly that one line means the whole world to me for that day. And so that's what I'm trying to do with my music now."

Talk inevitably moves on to influences - the typical music interview question -"When I was growing up I used to listen to the radio a lot - Parliament, Marvin Gaye, Commodores. I never used to listen to The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron, and it was not until I started writing my own lyrics that I began to use the 'talking style'. And then I started listening to the On-U Sound stuff, reggae - Lynton Kwesi Johnson, and then I got into dub - 7 inches - Lee Perry, Jah Shakar, Mad Professor . . . and I think you can hear those in my music . . . . Good bands borrow, great bands steal. Everything that can be done has been done before. I like beats that are straight 1-2, not that crazy 7-8 shit, or techno's 1-1 time - [puts on a robotic gruff voice] 'fuck you we're nazis' - but there's a lot of house music, Chicago especially, that is real soulful and celebrates the community that is dancing and its not just about the music. I was talking to Frankie Knuckles and their gigs would start at 2am and then stop at 8am, people would go to church and then come back and it would all start up again at lunchtime and follow through to Sunday night - like a Revival". As for other hip hop artists Michael is a West Coast fan steers away from the g-funk style; "I am a father and I'm on the road a lot away from my kid, and I don't want to come home to my kid and he asks 'what have you been doing daddy?' and I show him some picture of me with gold fangs, holding a gun with some girl's butt over here - I can't explain that to him. So, I try to write songs that are important to me, are personal and are intimate. You can write songs about external shit - its easy - the television, the government, but you can't keep doing it again and again. So with this band I've looked at the personal and surrounded myself with people who I am comfortable with an dare going through similar things to me and I can share things with".

This is Spearhead's first time in Sydney bar a small promotional tour at the beginning of the year which saw them do a Radio Skid Row benefit, but adding to that the Heroes tour earlier on, and the contact Michael keeps with people in the community here, he is not an ignorant foreigner. "People down here are interested in our music and having been here before - you learn a lot, being flown around the world all the time - everywhere we go we try to find the roots of the community - who's involved with the music, the social issues, and here and in Aoteroa we hang out with the indigenous crews - the Koori's and the Maoris". A most memorable moment in the Metro show was the acoustic version of the old Heroes track, Water Pistol Man with its chorus

Water Pistol Man full of ammunition

squirting at fires on a worldwide mission

But did you ever think to stop and squirt

the flowers in your own backyard?

at which point a spot would illuminate the Aboriginal flag hanging above the stage, to appreciative cheers from the crowd. Such actions often are tokenistic however Michael has made it clear both on this tour and in the past that he knows what he is talking about - "When you say land rights what are we going to do - evict everybody from the buildings and whatever? The soil is never going to be returned to its natural state the way it is now. The is not going to be justice but at the end of the day what is really justice? Because of this it is so important that you point [the injustices of the past] out like the Koori brother who went over to England, stuck a Koori flag in the ground and said 'I claim this', and in Aotearoa last week when the Tu Hoa (sic) tribe served papers to the farmers saying this is an eviction notice, this is our land forever and we have the Treaty Of Waitangi that says its ours and so you have to leave. I'm in favour of militancy like that because despite there being more people than ever before on our planet, you can't just displace people and tell them to 'fuck off'. You have to give up some of the land. The government subsidises farmers and sheep herders and so why can't they subsidise the returning of the land? At the end of the day it comes down to economics and a deep seated hatred of Black people. In our country we can't even imagine land rights - when emancipation came through every slave was supposed to receive forty acres and a mule and we're still waiting - I'll take an apartment in the fucking Port (area)".

Spearhead is a step for Michael that has taken him away from the aggressive and hard-edged raps of the Heroes and prior to that the Beatnigs. Now the politics are hidden amongst the funk - their political stance is more inclusive and more positive. "The bottom line is, we believe, we are all descendants of Africa and since we've developed our own separate cultures and today we are in a particular set of circumstances. At the end of the day if everyone came to the show, enjoyed themselves, smiled and danced, then give thanks. I try to invest something more in the lyrics and if people dig that then cool, and if they just want to raise their armpit hair in the air, then that's cool too. We have to remember the struggle and that's always at the tip of the spear but we also have to remember that we're also just musicians".

Yellow Peril (1995)

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