Michael Franti showers sunshine
The happiness come to Concord
By Michael Witthaus firstname.lastname@example.org
Listening to the cheery music of Michael Franti and Spearhead, it’s hard to fathom that he once brought a hard edge and angry attitude to just about every word he spoke or sang. Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Franti fronted the proto-punk/funk Beatnigs and the politically charged Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
Franti and his band appear at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord on Sunday, Nov. 7. He spoke with the Hippo by phone from New York City, a day after an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman.
How was the Letterman show?
It’s always fun. Doing those TV shows is a surreal experience. You walk on the set and it’s never what you imagine it’s going to be. On TV it looks like this huge thing and then you get there and it’s this little tiny place. You’re like, “This is where it happens!” It’s like seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Mona Lisa for the first time in your life and thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this a billion times.’ And then you play this song for three minutes and it’s over before you can even get warmed up but it reaches millions of people.
The Sound of Sunshine is a very happy-sounding record. What’s behind the mood?
Well last year my appendix ruptured while I was out on tour; I had this life-threatening emergency and as I was coming back from the surgery I just felt all this new optimism. I was so grateful to be alive so I started writing all these songs that were about that feeling of gratitude … with the economy and all the different things that are happening in the world, people are really worried, and I wanted to make music that helps people get through that.
Your early music was much more direct; do you think this approach is better for engaging these social moments?
Well, I think that the goal for me is to help people find ways they can get involved and make a difference. They see problems in the world and it’s not easy to do … it’s not easy to find a way to make a change in another person’s life. I also want to write music that helps us get through difficult nights. That’s another way to make a difference in the world, just to write somebody a song that makes them laugh and dance and sing and feel better. While I do that on record, off stage and in the rest of my life, I’ve made a bigger commitment to all the activist work that I do. On this tour, we’ve partnered with this organization, Soles for Souls. We’re collecting shoes at every show we’re doing. I work more closely with CARE, working in developing nations to eradicate poverty. So as much as I have changed the way I message the songs, I’ve gotten involved deeper off stage.
Do you feel like the progress is good?
Yeah. I see today more concern than ever before. When you look at climate change for example, you see everybody thinking, ‘What can I do in my life differently to see a change?’ You see it from grade-school kids all the way to huge corporations and Madison Avenue advertising firms. Everybody wants to help the environment, and then solve the issue of climate change. But it doesn’t happen at the rate we’d like it to — or that I would like it to. So sometimes there’s frustration, but as long as I know we’re going in the right direction, I feel inspired.
You made a movie (I Know I’m Not Alone, 2005) that put you in some very dangerous places. What was the experience like?
That was really a personal journey for me. I went to Iraq and played music on the street there for people. I wanted to see what life was like for people who were living in war. I kept hearing on the news about the economic and political cost of war and never the personal and human cost of war. So I took my guitar and video camera and I played in the street in Baghdad and I talked to people about their life after they listened to my music. It changed me so much and it made me realize that political songs are not necessarily the way to solve problems in the world and I realized that the connection between people is the most important thing. It also changed my view about the military. Before going there I would say I was anti-military. To this day, I’m not somebody who believes in political violence, but I have empathy for our people in the military. I go and play at Walter Reed hospital when I’m in D.C., I work with a lot of different veterans, because they’re not the decision-makers, they’re just sent there to do what they’re asked to do. People never on the ground over there are making decisions from afar, and I have empathy from seeing what they’ve gone through.
Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy sounds very timely today, especially a song like “Language of Violence” — have you thought about bringing that album back and maybe showing it to a new generation?
That’s a really good idea — thank you for your advice. I haven’t listened to that record in a really long time. People come up to me all the time and they’ll remember words from songs or tell me about a song that really moved them. When I was a kid, I was inspired by groups like The Clash and other openly political bands that made great dance music. The thing that I loved [was] they didn’t just write songs about the social issues, they’d write songs about their girlfriends and put them right next to each other — Bob Marley or John Lennon. I think it’s that mix of being able to shine the light on the issues but also put a human face on it that makes music be really strong and lasting. I think that’s the main thing that I learned from that period of music. It’s one thing to just highlight the social issues and another thing to try to put a human face on it. I would like to bring that music back, especially to the newer listeners we have today who have only heard a song like “Hey, Hey” on the radio.
Is it fair to say you keep the message in the music, just in a different way?
Yeah. It’s just a different way of doing it. You mentioned a song like “Language of Violence,” which talks about bullying and gay-bashing. When I wrote that song, I remember being kind of ostracized at times in the hip-hop community for [daring] to approach that issue. But today it’s on the front burner. At the same time all my songs are ones that have that same message in them. I grew up in a family where my mother adopted me and another African-American son, and she already had three kids of her own. She insisted that all five of us kids be treated exactly the same. When we went out to play in our neighborhood and at our schools that we treated everybody the same, whether they came from a different school or religion, different walk of life, and my message is the same today, that we should not only tolerate differences but we should learn to appreciate the beauty of differences between people, whether language, culture, sexual preference, all those things.
You had a health scare recently — how are you doing?
I’m in the process of passing a kidney stone. I had to go into the hospital for a couple of days and miss a couple of shows and they did an ultrasound treatment to pulverize these two kidney stones that I have. They’re still trying to work themselves out of my body, so I’ve been a bit tender. But I’m good.