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Hip-Hop Renaissance 

Michael Franti just wants to make music to clean the toilet to

Michael Franti's ambitions are modest. With his band Spearhead, he plays intoxicating songs combining hip-hop, funk, reggae, rock and folk, often addressing cultural issues such as the criminal-justice system, the corporate takeover of our daily lives, AIDS, gay rights, homelessness, the death penalty, drug addiction and suicide.

But all he really wants to do is make music that can serve as a soundtrack to doing his daily chores.

"I want my music to be part of people's everyday lives, although with seeds planted in the lyrics that will grow with you as time goes on," he says.

Franti's music has been known to move listeners (this one included) in profound ways, but he has no such high-minded expectations. At most, he hopes his music is a subtle force, he says.

"I would love to change the world with my music, but with me as a listener, I'm just looking for something to get up in the morning to and find the energy to clean the toilet."

Franti, 38, speaks on the phone from his manager's office in San Francisco on the eve of a concert tour that will bring him back to Tucson for two nights this weekend at the Rialto Theatre.

On Saturday, Feb. 4, Franti will perform with his explosive five-piece band at the Rialto. The following night, Sunday, he will screen his new documentary film I Know I'm Not Alone, sit for a Q&A session and play a solo acoustic set.

I Know I'm Not Alone is a 95-minute journey shot as Franti, armed with only his acoustic guitar and a video camera, traveled for a few weeks in 2004 and again in 2005 through war-torn Iraq, the occupied West Bank and Israel. Along the way, he played for and with local families, doctors, musicians, soldiers and everyday folks, who in turn related their experiences to the camera.

Of his first foray into filmmaking, Franti says, "It's not just about the despair, but about the complex nature of their lives there. I kind of narrate the film in the first person.

"What I basically did was walk down the streets of Baghdad and go into hospitals or wherever and asked people, 'Tell me about your life. What's it like to be a heavy-metal musician in Baghdad? What's it like to own a tattoo store in Baghdad? What's it like to live in the West Bank?' The film is a collection of people's thoughts and impressions coming through the music."

Franti came away from making the film with enlightening lessons. "One is that I had my faith in the goddess of music renewed. When I would jam with others, it would bring out emotions and ideas that we didn't even know were there. Also, it didn't matter if I was talking to a doctor or a soldier; I didn't find one person who didn't want peace.

"The last thing I came away with was maybe the most important thing. And that's: I'm not on any side. I'm on the side of the peacemakers, whatever country they come from. Which is probably why I've never chosen to register as a Republican or a Democrat."

I Know I'm Not Alone will also be available to purchase on DVD. A lifelong movie fanatic, Franti considered releasing the film to the art-house circuit, but he figures his current distribution method reaches more audience members.

"We've had some screenings of the film where thousands of people have shown up. At an art house, sometimes there'll be like 15 people in the audience."

Franti, who gets director's and producer's credits on I Know I'm Not Alone, says he has wanted to make movies since he was a child. "I'm kind of a movie buff. I used to see all the movies that came out--Hollywood, independent, whatever--but now that I am on the road so much of the year, I have to watch them on DVD."

Between shows with Spearhead and acoustic gigs, Franti plays about 250 concerts a year. He has maintained that pace since 1999, when he went independent. Spearhead has been an ongoing concern for about 12 years, following earlier Franti projects The Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

After two CDs for Capitol Records--Home and Chocolate Supa Highway--Spearhead broke away when Franti formed his own label, Boo Boo Wax, which has released several recordings. In addition to critically acclaimed albums of new material such as Stay Human (2001) and Everyone Deserves Music (2003), he has issued an acoustic recording, several live discs and one CD of outtakes and remixes.

Franti reports that Boo Boo Wax will release the next studio album by Spearhead in June. It'll be called I Know I'm Not Alone, a title that also will be shared by the book he'll publish at about the same time. The tome will feature photographs and impressions of the Middle East during his travels there, he says.

So Spearhead fans need not worry that Franti's cinematic moonlighting will siphon his attention away from music.

"We built a temporary studio to record the new album in my living room. We're mixing it as we speak."

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