Do you know what you're here for today?" rapper T-K.A.S.H. asked. Most of the early-morning crowd ringing the secondary stage had most likely trekked out to Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadow for a free concert; the promise of all-day music with no cover charge was enough to bring more than fifty thousand people to a grassy field on an unseasonably cold September day for the eighth annual Power to the Peaceful festival. Between sets, however, the audience was treated to various antiwar and pro-ecology speakers. If the event had been just a rally with no musical component, it's doubtful even a quarter of the crowd would've shown up.
Accompanied by DJ True Justice and a hype man, T-K.A.S.H. ripped through several incendiary numbers from his solo album Turf War Syndrome, including the "Shook Ones" remake "Amerikan Nightmare" and the reggae-inflected "Actions Speak Louder than Words." Between tunes, he addressed the crowd, attempting to instill a sense of urgency among the mellow peaceniks outfitted in hemp tunics and Tevas. Shit is fucked up in the world right now, he explained: "We gotta do something about it. We can't just rap about it no more. And if you feel I'm talking to you, that's because I am."
It's not enough, T-K.A.S.H. continued, to dance and hear music, blow some trees, and have a good time: These times call for active participation. His point was taken up by speaker Mario Africa, who lamented the dwindling support for convicted Death Row felon and onetime NPR commentator Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Meanwhile, in a backstage tent, festival organizer Michael Franti was holding a press conference, accompanied by Sila of the Afro-Funk Experience, Piper of Flipsyde, and soldier-turned-documentarian Sean Hughes. Someone asked the dreadlocked, barefoot Franti what he'd say to the president if he had the chance. "I'd ask Bush to come over to my house in Hunters Point and have food and drinks and listen to music," he said. "Then I'd ask him to call in an airstrike, so he can know what that's like."
Damn, that's hardcore.
On a lighter note, Blackalicious' turn on the main stage was warmly greeted by the seemingly endless throngs of folks, who stretched as far as the eye could see. As MC Gift of Gab unleashed torrent after torrent of melodic alliterations, his fingers tracing his vocal patterns like an overly caffeinated orchestra conductor, a sign-language interpreter deftly translated every verb and noun, making the performance def for the deaf. As the show went on, she got more and more into it, shaking her hips and emphatically gesticulating, until her body language resembled a Travoltaesque disco dance.
By now, some of us have heard Blackalicious songs like "Paragraph President," "Blazing Arrow," and "World of Vibrations" so often we can recite them backwards. Still, there's no doubt that "Deception" sounds incredible with fifty thousand people singing along to the deet-da-de-de-de-daa chorus. And it was amusing to see the sign-language translator attempt to keep up with Gab's tonsil-tweaking workout during "Alphabet Aerobics."
Any sense of giddiness, however, was lost when Hughes took the podium and somberly talked about his experiences in the Iraq war. "We saw a lot of action, a lot of violence, and a lot of death," he told the crowd. Yet when he returned home, instead of a welcome wagon, he found an apathetic public, an inept Veterans Administration, and a large number of fellow veterans who were struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Later, Franti and Spearhead brought the afternoon to a close. Franti's overtly lefty leanings haven't wavered since his early days as a member of agitpunks the Beatnigs, yet his sound certainly has. Reggae-funk tunes like "People in the Middle" and "No More Passports" were followed by folk-rock ditties like "Keep on Walkin'," which could have easily been a John Mellencamp number. From acoustic singer-songwriter material to thumping electro-house anthems, Franti left no genre uncovered. Still, it was clear that the signature antiwar tune "Bomb the World" (We can bomb the world to pieces, but we can't bomb it into peace) has become only more relevant in the three years since it was released, as death tolls have risen and no clear end to the conflict lies in sight.
For that reason, Power to the Peaceful's slogan "Be Peace Now" made perfect sense, because the alternative can only be more human suffering. The free music was great especially the fact that there was more hip-hop than at previous festivals but Hughes' words brought home the importance of supporting the troops, even if you don't support the war.
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