Using an agreeable combination of reggae, rap, rock and R&B, Michael Franti has crafted a body of work that’s as infectious as it is idiosyncratic.
The charismatic Franti, who headlines a free concert Friday in Forsyth Park with his longtime band, Spearhead, has spent his career concerning himself with so much more than mere entertainment. As a member of the Beatnigs, and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, the native Californian embraced political, social and environmental causes with fervor and, on occasion, anger.
Today, at 41, Franti is a veteran writer, singer and songwriter who’s able to channel his concerns and beliefs into wholly positive music-with-a-message. “If I don’t write fun songs and make a show that’s really entertaining and exciting for people,” he admits in this interview, “nobody’s going to care what I have to say.”
All Rebel Rockers, the most recent Spearhead album, was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, with reggae masters Sly & Robbie in the producers’ chairs. It arrived on the heels of I Know I’m Not Alone, a documentary film about Franti’s 2005 visits – barefoot, as always, with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder - to war-torn sections of Iraq, Israel and Gaza.
For Franti, life and art are pretty much the same thing.
In your mind, what is the artist’s role in helping to effect political and social change?
Michael Franti: There’s two ways to do it. One, you do it in the song, and you try to find some way to bring about some kind of enlightenment. Sometimes that’s directly, like writing about an issue, but more often than not I think it’s touching on emotions that people are feeling at the time that kind of go along with what’s happening in the world.
Right now there’s a lot of fear about the economy, and climate change, and stuff – you don’t necessarily have to write a song about the economy, but maybe you can write a song about overcoming fear.
The other way that artists can do it is by, through their music, turning people onto the things they care about. For example, I’m an ambassador for this organization called CARE, which does relief in developing nations. We put on this big festival in San Francisco every year, and CARE is one of our partners, and the day after the festival we’re putting on this CARE symposium, so people can go and learn more about the work they go, and get involved in. We also have a table at our shows.
So instead of writing it into a song or say it onstage, we just incorporate it in and invite people to check out CARE.
You talk the talk - do you feel that it’s important you walk the walk? In other words, are you setting an example for your listeners?
Michael Franti: I think that’s a really good point. I don’t just sing about issues I care about, I go to them. So in 2004, when we’d been in Iraq for a year, I took my guitar, and a video camera, and went to Baghdad. I played music on the streets of Iraq, and Israel, and Palestine. I just try to follow my own curiosity, my own passion, and hope it inspires other people to want to make a difference.
This October, I’m going to two hotspots in Africa – Northern Uganda, which has been in war for decades, and then we’re going to Congo, which has had war for decades but got really active last summer. But I’m really interested in the issues of child soldiers, and of education. I really believe children should be in school, and not in the field carrying a weapon.
Just to play devil’s advocate … you go over there with a guitar and say “Here I am, I’m a good guy and I mean well.” It’s an unstable area. How do you know somebody’s not just going to blow your head off?
Michael Franti: (Laughing) I guess I have faith in my ability to communicate … but whenever we go somewhere, we plan it very carefully before we go. So when I went to Iraq, we spent a couple of months talking to people who had been in and out of there with relief organizations, who helped us find Iraqi drivers who took us around in very inconspicuous cars. We went to places where they felt people would be receptive to hearing music on the street – not just in the most radical neighborhoods. So we plan ahead.
But there’s also that “divine light” factor. You figure if you’re on the side of positivity and goodness, and you’re sharing something with people … music just breaks down those doors. And everywhere I was in the Middle East – it could have been at a checkpoint in the Gaza Strip, with soldiers with trained weapons right at us – I’d play guitar and start singing and they’d go “Hey man, do you know One Love by Bob Marley?” I say sure, man, and they’d say “We haven’t heard singing here in six months.”
If you weren’t interested in issues and talking about deep things, would it be satisfying to you to “just” be an entertainer?
Michael Franti: I think there’s something in me … perhaps it comes from the fact that I have a white mother and a black father, and I was given up for adoption as a kid. And my whole life growing up I always felt like I was an outsider. So I indentify with others who feel like outsiders.
We all feel like that in some way. There’s some part of us that feels like “God, I just don’t fit in.”
But it’s really important to me that people have a voice. That people are heard. So there’s something in me that’s always said “I want to make a difference in the world. It’s not enough for me just to sing songs.” Maybe if I didn’t find it in music, I would do something else.
At the same time, I understand that if I don’t write fun songs and make a show that’s really entertaining and exciting for people, nobody’s going to care what I have to say. They won’t show up! So we work really hard to put on the best show we can.
You’re playing guitar onstage now, aren’t you?
Michael Franti: Yeah! I started writing my songs on guitar. I used to just work with the band – I’d hum ‘em a little melody and say “let’s go from there.” But then I realized I really like the experience of being around someone who’s singing and playing guitar. I just kind of fell in love with what other people had done.
We were out on tour with the Indigo Girls a number of years ago, and Emily Saliers taught me my first guitar chords. And ever since then, I play every day.
What does it feel like, when you’re in front of thousands of people and you’ve got ‘em in the palm of your hand? What are you thinking about – “Hope I don’t forget the words”? “What am I having for dinner?” “Did I do my yoga today?”
Michael Franti: Most of the time, when I’m performing like that, and playing, I’m not concerned about what happened earlier in the day, and I’m not concerned about what I’m going to eat for dinner. I’m exactly in that moment. And I feel totally free.
And that is when I screw up the words! Then I’m brought back into reality, scrambling to try to make up a verse right on the spot.
Really, I think that’s why any of us goes to see live music. It’s those moments. Even when CD sales, radio and the Internet, everything else has taken the money out of that side of it, today more than ever people are going out to see concerts.
Michael Franti & Spearhead
With: Reel Big Fish, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Ingram Hill
Where: Forsyth Park, 501 Whitaker St.
When: 4 p.m. Friday, May 29
Listen & learn: spearheadvibrations.com
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