Positive Science 

Spearhead keeps the faith with socially-conscious grooves

It's been almost four years since Michael Franti & Spearhead parted ways with Capitol Records to seek out more appropriate milieus for the band's socially conscious brand of funk, hip-hop, and soul. Franti sought higher ground. Capitol didn't have any to offer, just industry execs asking him to tone down his politics, write catchier hooks, and just consider doing that collaboration with Will Smith.

No matter. It seems Franti's found just what he was looking for while making Spearhead's latest release, the aptly titled Stay Human. "When we left [the label]," says Franti--on the phone from a hotel room in Los Angeles--"I had this newfound freedom and I thought, God, if I could only make one record in my lifetime, what would it be?" He pauses, and then adds softly, "This is what it was." I notice the almost Zen-like tranquility in Franti's rich basso profundo. He sounds happy.

Produced, written, and arranged by Franti, Stay Human's narrative centers around an imaginary broadcast from a community radio station that's covering the impending execution of a black revolutionary activist named Sister Fatima. In brief interludes between songs, DJs Brother Soulshine (Franti) and the Nubian Poetess (Nazelah Jamison) talk to listeners, the pro-death penalty governor (played by Woody Harrelson), and finally Sister Fatima herself (Kiilu Nyasha), a black revolutionary activist, like Mumia Abu Jamal, who has been framed for the murder of a prominent white couple. A vehement opponent of capital punishment, Franti helped organize "Mumia 911" in 1999 and "911-2000" in the Bay Area last year, both free concerts to protest the excesses of the US prison system and the death penalty. He says he'd wanted to write a song about the death penalty for some time, and only stumbled onto the radio show/Sister Fatima conceit after "failing miserably" to put all his views on the topic into a single song.

From a commercial standpoint, Stay Human is a risky endeavor. First off, it's a concept album (we all know how those can be--remember Garth Brooks pretending to be an indie rocker named Chris Gaines?). Second, it's a concept album about the injustice of capital punishment--not exactly a popular topic on most for-profit radio stations, MTV, or anywhere really (what with trigger-happy George Jr. in the White House and all). And third, even if you agree with Franti's politics, liberal preachiness is just as bad as conservative preachiness.

Luckily, Franti manages (albeit narrowly) to avoid oversermonizing, and though the dialogue gets a bit heavy-handed from time to time, he tempers his message with heartfelt grooves and infectious melodies. Songs like "Soulshine," "Sometimes," and "Thank You" overflow with buoyant exuberance, reflecting Franti's desire to pay tribute to the blissful musical messages of legends like Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder. "All the artists I grew up listening to were ones that were writing songs about the world, but from a soulful perspective," he says, "making protest albums during a time when music had really just been about love songs."

Franti himself has been making protest music since 1987. He played bass with Bay Area alternative punk/ funk band the Beatnigs until 1991, when he founded the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, the group behind searing anti-establishment hip-hop rants like "Television, the Drug of a Nation." In 1994, Franti formed Spearhead, trading in the Heroes' tirades for soulful introspection and funky R&B beats. He says he decided to do so after trying to write a song about the AIDS crisis, explaining, "The first song I wrote was like 'fuck the system.' But that's not what AIDS is about. It's about family and friendships and lovers--so I wrote a song instead about me going to get tested for HIV." The song turned out to be "Positive," one of the most poignant tracks off Spearhead's debut album, 1994's Home. "That changed my whole perspective on songwriting," he says, "to be able to take political issues and find personal chords to strike them on."

Franti and his family live in San Francisco's Hunter's Point neighborhood, and he says despite the gentrification, the traffic, and all the other bad shit the now-dwindling dot-com boom brought with it, he still wouldn't live anywhere else in the world. "It's been hard for artists, hard for musicians here," he admits, "but one thing I've always loved about the Bay Area is that it's a haven for misfits and freaks and weirdos"--he laughs--"of which I am all of the above." Franti believes his voice as an artist is merely "an extension of the voice of the community I've always been involved in." That's why he decided to license Stay Human to Six Degrees Records, a small SF-based label. (Franti's also got his own label, Boo Boo Wax, through which he sells boutique items like live recordings and band merchandise).

In the end, Franti hopes folks will get more than a lesson in his personal politics from the album and do a little soul-searching themselves. "Like I always say," he declares emphatically, his voice rumbling, "we've gotta enrage, enlighten, and inspire people to become more compassionate. That's why I make music."

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