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February 7, 2006
"Revolution never comes with a warning."

Still fresh from his performance at Folsom Prison (the first concert at that institution since Johnny Cash's legendary visit), six-foot six-inch Michael Franti stood alone, towering above the stage in a relatively sedate high school auditorium about one and a half hours north of his native San Francisco. The hip hop "ragamaster" of funk and roll, Franti out from behind the curtain to make his California film debut for a somewhat discordant anti-war documentary entitled I know I'm Not Alone. After the screening, Franti facilitated a question and answer session and solo acoustic performance that got the crowd gyrating to his barefoot stomping rap lyric style beat. The dread-headed poster child for peace plans to facilitate a similar format for future Spearhead shows and film screenings slated to hit Arizona, New York, Colorado and Canada after Franti leaves the Golden State in February.

The crowd of aging Northern California hippies assembled for the screening were actually not the first group of fans on the west coast to see Franti's politically charged musical piece, as many of the community's children had the opportunity to watch it beforehand when Franti ran the film for the entire student body of Anally High School earlier in the day. That evening, during the his introduction to the film, it was revealed how overwhelmed Spearhead's charismatic front man had been by the enthusiastic reception from the students when a parent disclosed that earlier in the day her daughter had remarked how Franti's film made for the "best day of school" in her life.

No stranger to political activism, Franti, who got started in music by playing a strict style of contemporary hip-hop, has transgressed somewhat as of late into a more mixed musical package that includes overtones of roots reggae, folk and world music as well as his trademark urban style. Franti has been involved in a number of pro-democratic, environmental and human rights issues over the years, including a number of free concerts and benefits, as well as the annual Power to the Peaceful concert, which he judiciously helps organize.

In March of 2003, while meditating in the "corpse pose" on the floor during a yoga class, Franti began reflecting upon the implications of the United States Government's "Shock and Awe" campaign. Later, when asked where he would go if he could go anywhere in the world, as a reflex, Franti answered a friend, "Bagdad". Franti would find himself traveling to the middle east, visiting Iraq, Israel and the occupied regions of Palestine later that same year.

An undertaking such as I know I'm Not Alone requires an agenda, and the goal of "documenting the details of the human cost of war" turned out to be the cornerstone of the film, which stands to shred the imaginary boundary that exists between the performer, film, his music and direct action. The 90-minute piece, which is sometimes technically raw and primitive, more than makes up for any lack of industry sheen through its compelling use of interviews, impromptu jam sessions and face-to-face confrontations among potentially explosive adversaries, in an attempt to bridge the philosophic, political, religious and linguistic barriers of nationalistic foes. With a "No Enemy" sticker on his guitar case, Franti tightens his grip and leads all would be viewers "in a drive by style" throughout the meandering course of the film - which sees him paying tribute to taxi drivers, teachers, soldiers, doctors, merchants, craftspeople and artists alike - and on a wild ride through the streets of war torn cities and villages across the Middle East.

Among the merits of the film is the way in which it exposes the decrease in security and the increase in weaponry, the rising levels of unemployment and costs of food and medicine, and the every day chaos which plagues the Middle East, where the majority of citizens feel they have no say, opportunity or control in the outcome of the war that consumes their lives. "If the decision making process is being controlled by the rich and powerful here and in America, what incentive is there for us to participate in the rebuilding of Iraq," asks an Iraqi woman. With scores of homeless children and elderly living among the rubble, in polluted conditions, or on the wrong side of the occupied wall, the images of Franti's film are as captivating and insightful as anything to hit the screen since Michael Moore's award winning Fahrenheit 9-11.

Overall, I know I'm Not Alone dispels the notion that the "War on Terror" is indeed winnable without first attempting to win the good will of the people whom the war intends to liberate. "Wouldn't Americans defend the States [if someone attacked them]," quips an Iraqi dissident at a Bagdad café. The man, who has suffered shrapnel wounds during the American occupation, declares resolutely that, "Even if they cut off my hands I will [protest and] write with my feet and my teeth." Outraged, the man asks, "How dare they call us Terrorists?"

Franti's film records his eye-opening hospital visits to amputated explosion victims, ventures into underground recording studios and independent radio stations, as well as a bereaved mothers support group and a number of private gatherings inside the homes of Christians, Muslims and Jews, and it does so with amazing emotional candor. In addition to many unique performances, the film chronicles a particularly tense solo performance for American servicemen, which according to Franti was among "the hardest shows in [his] life." Along the way the film interjects insightful quotes and statistics from a variety of credible sources including the Washington Post, citing that "the war is costing the US one billion dollars per week" and "more than 100,000 people died in the first seventeen months" of the American occupation of Iraq. The segment on Iraq concludes with a US Army General Tommy Frank's now infamous statement: "We don't do body counts."

Leaving Iraq for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where the situation is not much better, Franti briefly outlines the modern history of tensions in the region since the end of WWII. The film provides a short synopsis of United Nations resolution 181 and the creation of Israel, Palestine and the International Zones in 1948, and the resulting "Six Day War" in 1964. According to Franti, "out of 4.2 million people living in Palestine, 1.4 live in Gaza alone," and that "the wall [between Israel and Palestine], which some branches of the Israeli Government have declared illegal to construct, is moving forward nonetheless, at a cost of 1.5 billion US dollars." Franti goes on to reveal that the dissection of citizens from their historic agricultural lands is creating an irreversible dilemma as more and more Jewish settlers occupy the Gaza territory with the help of the Israeli government's leadership, intent upon making colonization permanent. As I know I'm Not Alone's images aptly display, 60% of people in the Palestinian territories live in poverty, earning wages of about $2 per day.

The film's climax comes when the now infamous dashiki-wearing singer-songwriter, accompanied by only his acoustic guitar, escorts a young Palestinian youth intent on speaking with Israeli Defense Soldiers toward the disputed "Green Line" for an attempted mediation session at a reinforced gate. "Ya know, when I was in Baghdad the other day," Franti blurts out to an Israeli soldier. The soldier responds, visibly confused and laughing, "What are you, some kind of psycho?" Clearly, Franti has made up his mind to create his own campaign of "shock and awe."

"Stop playing that guitar," the soldier commands Franti, who in turn responds, smiling, with "I'll stop playing if you take your finger off the trigger!" It is that kind of overt risk-taking and sincerity that Franti exudes, and the buzz spills blatantly over into his art. Franti has always come across as authentic and sincere, by attempting to bring awareness to serious issues that range from AIDS to the death penalty, but now the entertainer seems even more grounded and mature, and perhaps even gallant, having shared his experiences and stories with cohorts and sympathizers around the world.

After the screening, Franti took a moment before picking up his guitar for his fans in the auditorium to announce that he had plans to make a second film in the vein of I know I'm Not Alone, this time taking on the collection of crises taking place in Africa. Former Black Panther member Geronimo Pratt, who successfully took on the FBI in a landmark wrongful imprisonment court case, has signed on as Franti's partner for the project, which is to begin shooting in Tanzania next year.

With an agenda of social justice and a diverse, high-powered drive to deliver it, Franti appears intent upon bringing about the kind of revolutionary change touted by other crossover celebrities like U2's Bono, but he does so with a political fervor that hasn't been felt since the passing of Bob Marley, who Franti incidentally cites as high among his influences. According to Franti, "Revolution never comes with a warning." Even Marley's former producer, Chris Blackwell, has been quoted as saying that Franti "is the most important artist recording and touring today who has yet to reach the mass audience. The subjects he sings about are totally genuine and derived from personal experiences."

Amid the mix of film and music, Franti entertained several poignant questions from the audience with equally poignant answers, taking time to calmly respond to a heckler in the crowd demanding a general strike of corporate America, effective immediately. "I hear you man, there's a lot of ways of going about stuff," Franti sympathized. "Look at how nature creates change with deliberate effort and with time. We need to plant seeds and create sustainable lives that allow us to create change with time."

With a nod to congressman Dennis Kucinich's idea to create a "Department of Peace," Michael's film concluded with a statement about the fact that he "isn't on anyone's side," outlining the performer's alliance with "only the peacemakers," whatever country they come from. It appears that an increasing number of suitors and believers are among this musical and filmmaking pied-piper's masses of followers, both in the United States and abroad. United together, their voices are encouraging. Let the conflict resolution begin!

SEE ALSO: www.iknowimnotalone.com
SEE ALSO: www.spearheadvibrations.com
SEE ALSO: www.powertothepeaceful.org

--
Hugh Slesinger
A teacher, naturalist and eco-conscious real estate agent living in Occidental, California, Hugh Slesinger occasionally publishes his insights on life with LAS.

See other articles by Hugh Slesinger.

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