Michael Franti & Spearhead
I could not have picked a more interesting or relevant time to review this album, in the shadow of the first federal execution in more than 35 years. See, Stay Human is a concept album about the death penalty — more specifically, against the death penalty. While the album’s scenario more closely parallels the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, the particulars aren’t as important as the opinion the album espouses — that is, that the death penalty is barbaric and wrong, and should have no place in the modern world.
It’s an opinion that I happen to share (with exception in extreme cases), and so I find a lot to appreciate in the album’s lyrics and the “Stay Human Radio” vignettes that advance the story of Sister Fatima, an activist about to be executed for a double murder she claims she did not commit. Without giving too much of the story away (as hearing the story progress is one of the album’s most compelling high points), it involves in-depth discussion of the death penalty, including news reports and phone conversations with supporters, the Sister, and the obviously politically-motivated governor, who intends to stage the execution the day before he goes up for re-election. The vignettes are superbly staged, making it easy to get wrapped up in the story and experience its emotional highs and lows.
The album’s voluminous liner notes contribute to the environment, including not only (annotated) lyrics, but facts about the death penalty and quotes from everyone from Jello Biafra, Chuck D, and Bono to Angela Davis and MOVE’s Pam Africa. It’s an excellent package that does a fine job of getting out its message.
All the politicism might lead you to believe that the music is somehow less than important or of sub-par quality, but that’s not the case at all. Serving as cuts being played between the conversation on Stay Human radio, the songs are as uniformly excellent as you’d expect from a Michael Franti project, a perfect mix of soul, R&B, hip hop, funk, and even a little disco. The musical themes of the songs even reappear as background music during many of the vignettes. As I mentioned, is uniformly excellent — no song here is anything less than compelling, musically speaking, and certainly enjoyable on that merit alone. Lyrically, the songs often advance the theme, but also touch on topics of social injustice and equality, and even celebrate the joys of life (particularly on songs like “Love’ll Set Me Free” and “Thank You”). The album is incredibly spiritual, and far from being a somber and depressing affair, it•s a joy to hear.
But in the end, I believe that Franti and Spearhead are most interested in getting their message out, and Stay Human more than succeeds at that. Which brings us back to the beginning, and this week’s federally sanctioned murder in Terre Haute, IN. While I have no doubt that Timothy McVeigh was guilty of the atrocity in Oklahoma City, what is accomplished in doing to him what he did to others? Haven’t we grown beyond Hammurabi’s Code of “an eye for an eye” in this supposedly enlightened 21st Century? Does anyone really believe that we’ve done anything more than make McVeigh a martyr to those who share his beliefs, or that the fear of execution would stop another zealot from doing the same thing? While McVeigh may not deserve to breathe the same air as everyone else, does killing him do anything but prove him right (in his own mind)? Why was evidence withheld, keeping McVeigh from a fair trial (which I’m sure would still have found him guilty, but the fair trial laws are there for a reason•)? Is the Bush Administration so bloodthirsty that they don’t care what this execution does to our standing as a human rights leader (which we are no longer, if Amnesty International is any judge) in the international community (which largely condemns the death penalty as barbaric)?
And why not give Abu-Jamal a new (fair) trial? If the purpose of the prison and “justice” system is rehabilitation, how does killing someone rehabilitate them? And how many people are being executed for crimes that they didn’t commit? How many are being released after years of incarceration now that DNA evidence is incontrovertibly proving their innocence? Stay Human may not provide the answers to these difficult questions, but it achieves something that’s almost more important — it makes us think about them. Maybe together, we can find the answers (try improving education, for starters). For now, we have this brilliant, landmark album to inspire us and set us on the path.