Dissent is the Highest Form of Democracy: Michael Franti and Spearhead’s Yell Fire!

By Daniel Garrett

Michael Franti and Spearhead
Yell Fire!
Produced by Michael Franti
Boo Boo Wax/Anti, 2006

Michael Franti and Spearhead’s album Yell Fire! uses the language, melodies, and rhythms of several musical traditions: Caribbean or Jamaican dancehall music, rock music, folk music, and the oral recitation of hip-hop music. Yell Fire! not only assumes international affairs as part of the background of its music, it makes the fact of different cultures and countries one of its subjects. This is a recording that seeks to assert the centrality of the wants and needs, the love and pleasure, and the fear and trouble of people, despite the military, political, religious, and technological complexities of the world. Yell Fire! seeks to make critical intelligence a positive attribute in music. What is critical intelligence? Critical intelligence: the ability and inclination to analyze, to discern, to discriminate, to evaluate aesthetics, ideas, qualities, and values; a resource for reviewing situations and negotiating relationships; a faculty necessary for responding to an abundance of acts and works of diverse intentions, content, structures, and effects. Still, Yell Fire! very often has a good beat—and, often, you can dance to it.

“Those who start wars never fight them, and those who fight wars never like them,” says Michael Franti in a conversational voice in Yell Fire!’s first song, “Time to Go Home,” which notes that the reasons for war are rarely clear, especially as war goes on; and the song has a reggae rhythm. The title song “Yell Fire” is a rock song—uptempo, loud—but Franti’s vocal has a Caribbean accent, a combining of traditions; and he says, “They tellin’ you to never worry ‘bout the future, they tellin’ you to never worry ‘bout the torture, they tellin’ you that you will never see the horror. Spend it all today and we will bill you tomorrow.” Franti carries the lying clichés of our time into the light of his music; and we hear words that otherwise we might try to forget, as it can be safer and saner to forget. If you cannot trust your own government, what and whom can you trust? “Everyone addicted to the same nicotine, everyone addicted to the same gasoline, everyone addicted to a Technicolor screen, everybody tryin’ to get their hands on the same green.” Our pleasures, like our needs, become the basis of our participation in a social contract: and Franti advises, “never ever make a deal with the devil.”

Michael Franti recites and sings and plays guitar with the band Spearhead, which includes Carl Young on bass and piano, Dave Shul on guitar, Manas Itene on drums and vocals, Roberto Quintana on percussion, and RadioActive, another voice. Franti, formerly of the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, is a conscience in music, consistent, and respected. He traveled to different parts of the globe, including Israel, Palestine, and Iraq, and Yell Fire! was inspired by that, and some of it was recorded in Jamaica with the legendary producers Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespeare on bass. Yell Fire! is another chapter in Michael Franti’s career, another attempt to do work that expresses his personal sense of the world and his place in it. He is someone who does not quite fit common expectations: he is not selling our own greed and desire for glamour back to us, nor, though young and handsome, is he selling sex to us, or stupidity or hatred. He has invested in mind, sensitivity, and public concern; and his reward will be our awareness and our active—or activist—response. The problem is that people compelled to obey various authorities often resist any persuasion or power that is optional, even when it is positive: they exercise negative freedom, by saying no to possibility.

Four songs: The rhythm of “I Know I’m Not Alone,” a song about the memory of better days, and a feeling of solidarity in other places, reminds me of U2, possibly too much, though it is a band and sound I like. “I Know I’m Not Alone” may be the closest Michael Franti comes to being a traditional vocalist. In “East to the West” there is a chanting vocal, an invocation of all geographical directions, of nature, and a tribute to positive acts and perseverance and generosity: “one to the culture from the time when it began, one to destruction, one to birth, one to the people who still fight for the earth,” are among the lines, as is “love is too big for just one nation.” There is a request for reassurance, even if it means a denial of facts, in the melodious song “Sweet Little Lies”: the lyrics (echoing Fleetwood Mac) include the demand “You tell me lies, lies, lies, sweet little lies, when I cannot bear the truth…Help me make them all come true.” A song about a connection to the earth, and an intention to connect us all, “Hello Bonjour” has a rapping voice with a Caribbean flavor as it rejects national boundaries, and cultural and religious prejudices.

“Til I let go of a broken heart, I let go to an open heart, I let go of my broken dreams, I let go to the mystery,” Michael Franti says in the assertion of love and spirit that is “One Step Closer to You.” It is a well-intentioned song, one of sweetness, of tenderness, and yet it inclines me to wonder about how closely the human will can remain bound with spirituality. Spiritual awareness and spiritual growth can become ambitious, points of pride, not unlike intellectual command or sexual stamina. Spiritual appeal is, however, difficult to resist. “I never meant to hurt you, no, and you never meant to hurt me too, but it seems like we always do,” Franti says, with the young woman performer Pink singing behind him, very soulfully. Franti says, “I take one step closer to you.” (Michael Franti has a pleasantly masculine deep voice, but I am not sure it is honest to call all of what he does singing.)

In “Hey Now Now,” Franti advises, “Don’t let mistakes be so monumental and don’t let your love be so confidential” and the song is a party call with wise words. “Never know when the next big sound gonna come,” he admits, naming Baghdad, Tokyo, and other international sites as possible origins of new sounds, in “Everybody Ona Move,” and yes it’s spelled “ona,” and some of the song’s mentioned sounds are “heart beat, car bomb” and “bass and the drums.” (It is not surprising that for a musician the world can be apprehended through its multitude of sounds.) “Welcome all to the dance, angel, criminal, animal, mineral, and spiritual, all sinners, all head spinners,” Franti intones: and though that seems a very promiscuous welcome, indiscriminate, one intuits it contains spiritual insight: we all must be accepted, and we cannot be corrected until we are loved. It is a song that mixes poetry, hip-hop slang, funk, and Jamaican dancehall rhythms. Franti soon makes his beliefs explicit: “love conquers all, love accepts all, love respects all.”

Michael Franti as contemplative singer-songwriter is on display in the light melody and vision of “See You in the Light,” but he follows that with the declaration “Don’t let them fool you with their milk and honey. No, they only want your money” in the dancehall song about war, “Light Up Ya Lighter,” and one can surmise that Franti moves between hope and disbelief, between reconciliation and repudiation. That may be a conflict between heart and mind, and between knowledge of the past and the desire for a different future. One could think that this is only a young man’s confusion, but I do not think it is: it is an expression of a thinking man’s doubt. Michael Franti can respect differences in the world, among other people, because he recognizes differences within himself.

Yell Fire! offers more than one kind of engagement—emotional, intellectual, musical, and political; and it is a surprising, significant, and satisfying recording. Michael Franti is one of the people “plantin’ seeds for the next generation,” as he remarks in “What I’ve Seen,” which also asks, “Does anybody need a place to go, to call your own?” (The desire—the need—for home may be one of the most fundamental aspects of being human.) Franti wonders who will believe in what he has seen. I do; I do not think I am the only one. “Tolerance or violence?” he asks in the song “Tolerance,” before remarking, “And the whole world goes to war. Is one enough or is one too many before we say no more?” The last piece on the collection Yell Fire! is one that names many of our contradictions: “We want freedom of speech, but we all talkin’ at the same time. We say we want peace, but nobody wants to change their own mind, so it goes on and on and on for a thousand years…What language are your tears?” and “What language do you laugh in? What language do you cry in? What language do you dance in? Make romance in?” Michael Franti’s last words are “Believe in coexistence.”

Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House; and his work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, NatCreole.com, Offscreen.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com