Michael Franti Likes the Tough Crowds

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Michael Franti Likes the Tough Crowds - Over the last several years, singer/songwriter Michael Franti has performed in Gaza and Baghdad, and this weekend he will be playing a set at California's notorious San Quentin State Prison. Franti joins Farai Chideya to explain the satisfactions and difficulties of playing music against the backdrop of war and prison walls.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

San Quentin State Prison is a grim building on a beautiful patch of land in Northern California. It's also sometimes a concert hall. Johnny Cash played there in 1969, so did Metallica just a few years ago. And this Saturday, singer-songwriter Michael Franti is going to take his turn, playing a set in one of America's oldest and most notorious lockups. Believe it or not, he's excited. Franti seems to prefer tough crowds. He's performed in Israel, Gaza and Iraq.

Mr. MICHAEL FRANTI (Singer, Songwriter): I find that when people are dealing with really difficult circumstances, it brings out the best and worst qualities in people. And I'm interested in witnessing those things, and it kind of helps me understand myself, and it helps me to understand the world better.

CHIDEYA: You're going to San Quentin. It is famous, and it's one of these very strange places to me. When I ended up going to someone's house in San Quentin and they had this beautiful bungalow overlooking the prison. And it's really surreal because from, what I understand - and the Bay Area is one of the most expensive places in the country - San Quentin is kind of becoming this little resort town in a weird way. So for the people who are on the other side of the bars, what is your goal to give them? What are you trying to give them when you perform to them?

Mr. FRANTI: You know, I thought about that a lot, because I received a letter from a man who'd seen my show, and he heard we're going to play in San Quentin. And his sister was raped and murdered by a man who is now locked up in San Quentin. And he said, you know, how can you go and play there? And that really made me think about why do this, you know? All of us have our own pain, but, you know, somebody who's lost a family member like that, it's really difficult to then reconcile doing anything good for that person.

And it really got down to the core of why it is that I make music, which is that I believe that music is one of the healing arts, and through music we have an opportunity to bring out emotions in ourselves that we never knew existed. And so that's my reason for going there. I don't do music to reward anybody or punish anybody for their good deeds or bad deeds, but I do try to create an opportunity for people to let emotions come out, you know, have some self-examination, and also some just letting go. And that's why I'm going to be there.

CHIDEYA: How do think - or do you know how they're billing your music? How are they describing the kind of music that you do to the prisoners?

Mr. FRANTI: I don't really know, but it's going to be an interesting thing because when we play, it's going to be the first time that they do it out on the main yard. And so that'll mean the entire general population, probably 1,800 or a couple of thousand men, will be able to be at the show at the same time, and it's going to include all ethnic groups. And, you know, the in the past, when we've gone inside, we've played in chapel facilities or gymnasiums with just a couple of hundred people, it's very closely guarded. And so this is going to be a unique thing to be out there in front of the whole population.

CHIDEYA: And finally, what song are you most looking forward to playing for the folks?

Mr. FRANTI: Well, you know, the think I'm most looking forward to is seeing people clap and dance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANTI: There is one kind of intimate song that I remember from playing at Folsom. It is "One Step Closer". It's a song about letting go, a song about letting go of anger, about letting go of pain and then being able to invite people into your life to be closer to you. And I remember the men in Folsom really, you know, standing up, putting their arms around each other - some of the men are crying, some of the men sitting there and quietly praying, and it was a really powerful moment. And so that's a song I'm looking forward to.

(Soundbite of song, "One Step Closer")

Mr. FRANTI: (Singing) Let go of a broken heart. I let go to an open heart.

CHIDEYA: Michael Franti performs at San Quentin State Prison this Saturday.

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