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Spearhead's arrows point in all the right directions

[Originally published 1995 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

Anyone out there remember Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy? Cast your mind, dear reader, back to 1992. DHoH was the groundbreaking twosome of Michael Franti (he of the dreadlocks, intense gaze, and deep voice) and Rono Tse (the strong, silent type, with a penchant for routers, chainsaws, and other noise-generating devices). I praised DHoH in these pages as a smart pair who achieved the first truly non-homophobic rap.

Ah, but times have changed, and now Franti is leading this trippy mellow soul band – sort of. As in DHoH's case, labels mislead. Spearhead, the new group, boasts four boys and two girls and aims to tickle your ears with honey-dipped feathers. Sounds better than getting your earlobes scraped by the angry rap sandpaper of Disposable Heroes, right? Franti thinks so. In a superexclusive interview, this not-unhandsome 6'5" hepcat told me, "There were a group of people who came to our [DHoH] shows who already knew everything that I was talking about, or understood exactly what I had to say, or had read every interview or were totally into it, but we weren't reaching out beyond that group of people.... I mean, music is a seduction," he allows. "Music is about drawing people in to listen, to pay attention to what you have to say. And the better your melodies are, the better your beats are, the better your vocals are, the more that people are going to pay attention to what you have to say.... I wanted to make a record that people could listen to over and over again, and the Disposable Heroes record – even for me, the creator of it – was a record that you had to sit through."

I beg to differ. Like Madonna, who is spectacularly incapable of elucidating her own art (isn't that why queers were put on earth – to interpret Madonna for her?), Franti undersells his own achievements. Now, I know I'll be in the minority for saying this, but that hasn't stopped me before, so here goes: I found even the obscure songs on DHoH's sole album, Hipocrisy is the Greatest Luxury as reverberant and wise as the "TV" single and the anti-gaybashing "Language of Violence." "Water-Pistol Man" trenchantly evoked male lust; the clamorous, "ugly" beats of "Socio-Genetic Experiment" aptly echoed the contradictions in the song's contemplations of mixed-race identity. In short, the album worked for me.

Well, the tides of history are leaving me behind, and I'm not sore about it or anything, since the Spearhead album, Home, is sweetly winsome and just as lyrically astute as DHoH's disc. Being a big anti-meat queen, I loved "Red Beans & Rice." Being a weirdo sports queen, I loved "Dream Team," too, with its sly lessons about what an all-African Olympic basketball team – one wearing American uniforms – might really mean. "Hole in the Bucket" shows just how smoothly Franti can rhyme (that's as smooth as RuPaul's nightie, kids), and "Positive" – well, it's another marvel of subtlety. And guess what it's about?

"I don't feel like becoming HIV[-positive] is a death sentence," Franti explains, "and second of all, I wanted it to be a song that people who never thought about going to get tested could listen to sheerly for the musical thing. I didn't want it to be a song that said 'Fuck the government, 'cause they aren't going to respond to this crisis!' I wanted it to be a song that says, 'Hey, man, what have I done in my life that could have put me in danger?'"

Like AIDS itself, "Positive" raises questions and thwarts answers. "How'm I gonna live my life if I'm positive?" Franti asks in the song. "Is it gonna be a negative?" "I don't practise safe sex all the time. I don't," Franti declares. "I put faith that my partner is telling me the truth about what they do... and so because of that I know that I've put myself at risk, and like I say in the song, you try to give yourself a risk assessment. And even as much as you do that, you're never sure, you're never certain until you go and get tested. And it's a fuckin' hard thing. The first time I did it, it scared the shit out of me. And I remember after I did it, I said to myself, 'I'm never going to sleep with anybody again without a condom, ever.' And, like, that lasted for six or eight months."