JPG: When you’re writing the lyrics, do you consciously, when the words are flowing and they may come out angry, do you let them develop and shape them into a way that they do shift to that roller coaster of emotions from bad to good and inspirational?
MF: Yes. Usually what I’ve found…this is just me after going through years of therapy, literal therapy with a room and a couch, that I’ve found that when I’m angry, they is almost always some other emotions that’s underneath it. “What is it that I’m fearing right now? How is it that I’ve been hurt in some way and that now my anger is lashing out to cover that? What is it that’s causing me pain and is now showing up as anger?”
There’s definitely things to be angry about in the world. I still express that and I still feel like it’s important for us to be out there and being mindful of everything that’s happening in the world that should piss us off but I’ve also chosen to be on the side of mindfulness. That’s the big difference for me. I’ve been an activist my entire adult life and I remember when the Gulf War had just started, a group of us who went out on to the Bay Bridge in San Francisco and we blocked the Bay Bridge with signs saying Stop the War.
The news media came out and they talked to us and we were like, “Yeah, we’re against the war.” And it got covered on the news that protesters blocked the bridge to stop the war. Then, when the second war in Iraq came around, protesters went out on to the bridge and blocked it and it just got reported as a traffic item. (laughs) It was like, “Protesters on the bridge blocking traffic. There’s a one-hour delay. Details at six.” So, you gotta figure out ways to change your tactics and your strategy with the time that you’re in. As a messenger or whatever message it is, it’s basic, and as an activist you have to understand that your strategy is as important as your passion.
Sometimes, the passion gets in the way of the strategy and then you end up doing more damage to the movement then you do good in trying to change hearts and minds. You gotta reach people, the right people, the right message at the right time.
JPG: Going with that thought, you also need a good slogan such as Work Hard and Be Nice or Stay Human, Good Shit Happens…Defund the Police. Not so good.
MF: I agree with that. Even though I’m totally down with the theory of defund the police but, really, what we’re trying to say is “Defund the police so you can fund…” It should really be “Reallocate our resources” so that we can fund things in the community that really create community safety and looking at community safety holistically like when people have jobs, they don’t hang out on the street corners. When people have good schools they go to, they tend to want to find ways that they can engage within the community. That’s what that movement is all about. And you’re right. It’s got a bad name right off the start.
JPG: I use the hashtag #ReformThePolice or now I can use #ReallocateThePolice. I always think of a kind of lineage as far as politics and music when I was growing up, artists such as The Clash, you, Billy Bragg…It’s interesting to see the changes over time. Billy is, I don’t know, exhausted, but you’ve found another way to approach it, which I guess is healthier and less depressing than giving up.
MF: Billy is one of my biggest heroes. It’s funny. I rarely have an opportunity to really talk about Billy because he’s not as known in America whereas in England, he’s like patron saint. (laughs) Billy’s favorite band was The Clash, and my favorite band was The Clash, too, when we met in 1988. My band, the Beatnigs, was invited to go on tour with Billy. So, here we are, this group of radical revolutionary poets banging on metal. We had grinders that we were shooting sparks out over the audience and then Billy would go up there with one Telecaster and it’s just him onstage. The thing that I was so moved by Billy was not only his analysis of politics and the world, which he was so great at bringing humor to it and insight at the same time.
In a way you have Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, and maybe at their best moments Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle. I feel like Billy’s up there with those kinds of minds, of people who can bring humor to politics. Yet he would write songs about how much he missed his girlfriend or how in love he was or he’d write songs about sexuality. It really had an influence on me. I was like, “Man, maybe if you really want to reach people, you’ve got to talk about more than just the way things are fucked up. You’ve got to talk about the way things could be.”
Then, a few years later, we went out on tour with U2. U2 was known as this super-political band. This is when I was in Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, another upfront, radical political hiphop band. So, we’re on tour with U2 and there was this journalist from some UK magazine or newspaper, and they were sniffing around the tour and trying to dig up dirt on U2. Here, I was the leader of this really political band and this guy sat down with me for this interview and he’s like, “Do you think U2 has sold out? Now, they’re playing stadiums. They used to be super-political upfront. Now, they’ve moved away from that.” I was like, “You know, 50,000 people come to these shows every night and they’re from all different walks of life, all experiences and by the end of the night, they’re all singing together arm-in-arm, they’re high-fiving strangers. With whatever they came in, they go home feeling happy and a little bit better prepared to face whatever’s next in their life. They come out and they look like they’ve grown a half an inch. If you can you name a politician that can do that for 50,000 people every night on tour I’ll vote for him or her.”
I really believe that there’s something to that power of being able to…everyone who loves U2 knows what Bono’s stance is on political and social issues. He’s somebody who’s tried. He tried to work with George W. Bush to bring development to Africa, and I admire that. I admire that spirit of somebody who’s willing to say, “Hey, I’m here to deal with issues and not just candidates.”
That’s ultimately how we get stuff to move in our society. When we look at the Black Lives Matter movement, now people all across the country are starting to look inside their hearts and say, “How am I showing up for this in terms of systemic racism in our society and racism in the hearts of individuals? How am I showing up as not only someone who says, “I’m not racist,” but that’s showing up as an anti-racist and what am I doing to fight racism in the way that we would fight anti-Semitism or that we’d fight misogyny? How are we showing up for that?”
That’s really an important thing that I’ve learned in the last four years. There’s people who come to my shows who I am diametrically opposite from in terms of their politics but I try to have an open heart to them. I try to listen to where they’re coming from and at the same time try to be as courageous as I can be and speaking my truth but do it in a way that other people who might be different from me can understand and go, “Well, yeah, I kind of get that part of it. I don’t agree with all of it but I get that part of it.” I feel that’s how we move the needle.
JPG: I was thinking there were other political bands that I was missing. So, I missed U2, which should have been obvious because they were political from the very beginning. Speaking of Bono and working with others, I saw the YouTube clip of you doing “My Lord” and bringing him, Don Henley and Jeff Skoll onstage at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepeneurship (www.skoll.org). The audience is filled with people in suits, possibly fancy haircuts, you know what I mean, and you’re playing in front of this crowd. So, is it that kind of thing of reaching out to those who are well off in life that see that there’s another side, other than another Rolls Royce…?
MF: The Skoll World Forum is an interesting event because it does bring together people who are from the philanthropic world. Jeff Skoll was one of the founders of eBay. It brings together people from the philanthropic world who are very well-to-do with frontline activists and people who are out in the world doing work with NGOs (nonprofit organization that addresses a social or political issue and operates independently of any government) in some of the most challenged places in the world, like the White Helmets of Syria who go into buildings after they’ve been bombed and pull civilians out of them. That was a really mixed group of people there. It was at a gala at the end of the week of the conference, which is done every year.
But, to answer your question, again, you’re trying to hit the right people with the right message at the right time. So, whether I’m playing in a prison or whether I’m playing at a private event for a corporation, which we often get invited to play, I’m always trying to bring a message that reaches where they’re at. For any kind of a corporate event, I always do research on whatever brand it is that I’d be performing for beforehand. I choose them very carefully and if it’s totally whack, I don’t go into their space but when I do I go there with a message of, “Look at the incredible things that your company is doing to have impact.” Some companies aren’t doing anything to have impact or much to have impact and I talk to people about that. “What ways are you showing up to have impact?”
It’s amazing how much things have changed. Since the last time you and I talked in 2010, it seems like every company in the world now is trying to find a way to have impact in their community or with their audience and it’s really a good thing. I used to be somebody who complained that corporations were just taking money and not doing anything and now I see corporations and brands who are doing incredible stuff and are leaders in their area. You take all the different brands who are committed to doing things, it adds up to a lot. Rather than just being against corporations, I try to encourage them just to show up.
JPG: There is a different way now. It is almost confusing if one’s ‘90s self looks at what is happening right now; the complexities and entanglements of everything, good and bad.
MF: In the ‘90s, it seemed so clear. I had this song “Rock the Nation” and the lyrics “Give the corporations some complications.” It was really about activism and saying as Mario Savio said, “Let’s put a wrench in the machine.” That was a saying from the Sixties that had carried on up into the ’90s.
Now it’s like, “Let’s try to use the machine to do good stuff in the world and to give back and to make sure that the environments that people are working in within those brands are healthy for everyone who is involved.” That’s a welcome change. It’s a different time now. And it’s a testament to everybody who marched, and it’s a testament to every person who protested and everyone who wrote a song about it that these changes have occurred.