"Music is the thread that's gone through my life and given it so much meaning"
Michael Franti is a very big man who has always dared to say very big things through his joyous and passionate music during an unusually diverse and highly impressive career.
Yet for all the wide-ranging, yet consistent excellence of his body of work, what's most impressive about Michael Franti as a recording artist and live performer is his ability to inspire. Ultimately, the heartfelt music that Franti makes and his dedication to greater understanding on a global level, are not two aspects of his life, but very much one and the same.
The Bay Area born Franti has been bringing our world exceptionally powerful, deeply felt music under a variety of names and in a wide range of genres for twenty years. From the intense punk rock of the Beatnigs, to the deeply political rap he made with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy to his joyful and meaningful modern soul music with Spearhead, and now as Michael Franti & Spearhead, this still young man has released an impressive series of recordings that have vividly reflected his status as a musical citizen of this world.
Consider Franti's most recent musical masterpiece, All Rebel Rockers, an album featuring the legendary production team of Sly & Robbie that reinforces his place as a global force and a true musician of his time. Recently, Franti's latest release entered the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart in the Top 40 and hit #4 on the Top Independent Album Chart, and further demonstrated that Franti remains very much at the height of his artistic powers.
Through his entire musical career to date, Franti has continued to slowly, but surely build an extremely dedicated global grass roots following. He's done it with a new spin on an old fashioned way. He's earned his fans, one winning concert at a time. Ultimately what unites Franti's remarkable and impressive career is, ironically, the man's ongoing search for harmony.
"As a musician and a man, I more than anything else want to be a unifier," Franti explains. "I want to bring people together through music and its unique power. And I hope that somehow that sense of unity extends beyond the music."
In every way, Franti has become a modern day troubadour spreading the word with equal passion, whether he's playing to a packed theater somewhere in America, Australia or Europe, or simply giving an impromptu performance in some war-torn corner of the world.
"I wear the troubadour badge with great pride," Franti explains. "I love playing music in the street more than anywhere else. It's still a lot of fun to get on a big stage, but the rest of the time, when you just play for people anywhere you can, it's like playing a pick up basketball game and I love that too. I love the intimacy of it, playing without all the bells and whistles."
To see Michael Franti play for people anywhere in the world is to realize that music is the driving force in his creative world. "Above almost any thing else on earth, I love songs," he explains. "I love songwriting myself, but in listening to the songs of others, I've learned that a great song is an incredibly powerful thing. I really believe that music can bring people together because I've seen it. To me, music is much more than the way I happen to make my living. It's the thread that's gone through my life and given it so much meaning.
That same thread has been woven into the lives of so many Franti fans all around the world. He credits the strong grass roots support that has allowed him to endure. "We have very deep roots and we all hold onto one another," Franti says. "That's how we've been able to grow; that's been the key to our sustainability. We've put out records that are more rock-oriented reggae and have explored a lot of musical territory and still have an audience that's willing to come with us. To make music for people like that isn't just a pleasure, it's a privilege.
As a teenager, Franti's life was profoundly changed by the music and the message of Bob Marley and the Wailers. "I first heard him when I was 15," Franti remembers. "He was calling for world unity ("One Love") and his music opened up my world. In fact, I was in Canada with my family for a year, and somehow I got tickets to see Bob Marley live and I was so excited. I still have the scrapbook from when I was a kid and there's that front page of the music section talking about his death. What a loss for the world."
Through Franti's appreciation of Bob Marley, he got turned on to bands that had a reggae influence like the Police and, especially, the Clash." "I got really into the Clash," Franti recalls. "They did that impossible thing that a lot of artists strive for; they made it socially engaging music and put it right alongside more personal songs and still made you dance. Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye all did that. Then there was Sly and the Family Stone, a multiethnic band making socially aware music that made people happy. For me, that's is about as good as it gets."
And when the rain falls down
You know the flower's gonna bloom
And when the hard times come
You know the teacher's in the room
And when the sun comes up
You know I'll be there for you.
"Have A Little Faith" by Michael Franti
Franti's own performances today are marked by a genuine openheartedness, a commitment to communication and a greater sense of community. "The people who come to see us seem to love the experience of the party as well as the message and the music," he says. "Increasingly over my life, I have less interest in being part of the fighting between parties. I'm interested in bringing people together on the left and the right, to face the issues of the day. The problems from global warming to the economy that we face today are so clearly universal that we need to address them together."
Indeed, Franti, the African-American son adopted and raised by Finnish American couple, has continued on many fronts to reach across all groups in a variety of ways, whether its with his annual Power To The Peaceful Festival or his award-winning documentary I Know I'm Not Alone, which featured Franti in Iraq, within the Palestinian territories and in Israel.
As a socially conscious singer-songwriter, Franti has grown up in public as his message has evolved from one of youthful anger to a more mature determination to find common ground. "When I first started out, I think that my politics could be boiled down to `Fuck The System' or `Fuck the Man,'" Franti says. "When you're coming of age, you're desperate to change the world, but you have no idea how to actually do it. It takes time to discover that just complaining about the world is not enough. You have to do some affirmative."
One war zone experience informs Franti's sense of musical mission. As he remembers, "I was playing on the streets of Bagdad, and I introduced a song called `Bomb The World' that says 'You can bomb the world into pieces/but you can't bomb it into peace.' I would translate that. And people there told me, `Oh well that's an interesting song, but we're living here where our world is being blown up, so sing us something that can make us dance and laugh and clap. That's what they want to do."
The truth is that we need everybody. We need the ideas of the grass roots. We need the resources of the corporate world. We need the cooperation of the government. And we need the intelligence of everyday people with their street wisdom.
"We need everybody, Franti explains. "So that's who I play music for - everybody."