Michael Franti’s musical evolution

“How many herb smokers we got in this piece?” asks Michael Franti to an intimate crowd of a few dozen. The place erupts in knowing cheers. Although Franti has blessed stadium-size audiences with his smokin’ grooves, he doesn’t consider holding court in his favorite Senegalese restaurant a demotion. In fact, he performs here quite often.
“I used to want my music to get out there and save the whole world. And now I just feel like I’d really like it if my music meant something to a few people.” These words wouldn’t make sense coming from an average artist trying to earn a living in the music business. But these words aren’t coming from just an average artist.

“In pop music people are expected to have hits the first time out and that’s the measure of the success of a song,” explains Franti, summing up the problem with the music industry. He should know. The lanky, dreadlocked, six-foot-six, perpetually barefoot founder and frontman of Spearhead has flirted with commercial success for nearly 20 years.

Although Franti may not be well known to MTV viewers or Clear Channel listeners, he has certainly emerged as one of the most politically active artists of the hip-hop generation. Therein lies the distinction between success and greatness. “I don’t feel like it’s a bad thing that not everybody knows my music. But I do think it’s important I stay consistent and keep saying the things I say over and over again. What helps people to learn deep issues and especially deep compassion is consistency over time.”

Much of what Franti sings and talks about is more likely associated with civil rights leaders than rappers. On the hip-hop side, his flow is informed by artists like Schooly D, Big Daddy Kane, and Public Enemy. But unlike many of his emcee peers, Franti was heavily influenced by poetry, and was a staple on the spoken word circuit.

Joaquin Murietta, whose prose highlighted the indigenous California history of Aztlan, was an early influence. “He really inspired me to write my own poetry about my own struggle and the struggle of people I identify with. Out of that grew my music.” The lyrical result has repelled some industry gatekeepers, but they’ve become irrelevant as Spearhead’s popularity has expanded.

Early growth

The music lives of Bob Marley and Michael Franti share affinities far beyond dreadlocks and getting spliffed. In much the same way as Bob Marley’s music has been disseminated throughout the world, Franti’s recordings are spread by word of mouth, like heirloom seeds passed on from generation to generation. His songs are censored by radio stations, and his performances edited out of national television programs, but his concerts continue to sell out, and his website, www.spearheadvibrations.com, bubbles with activity.

Online, fans exchange greetings, stay up on the latest news from the band, and purchase gear, DVDs, live recordings, and other collectibles. Like Too Short, Mystic Journeymen, Living Legends, and Hieroglyphics before him, Franti has eliminated all the middlemen, and enjoys keeping a much larger percentage of his earnings than most of the Top 20 artists in heavy rotation.

“Being in the San Francisco Bay area and seeing how the different artists do things independently, and creatively coming from a place where people support creativity and also a place that is very forward-thinking politically and spiritually, has given me a lot of motivation.”

Also like Bob Marley before him, Franti’s music and activism is largely ignored by mainstream media, yet embraced by a voracious international fan base. When Franti organized a free solar-powered peace concert attended by more than 50,000 people in Golden Gate Park last year, the major dailies and the music press slept on it. But that wasn’t always the case. For years, Franti was a favorite among music critics, and always seemed to be on the verge of a major commercial breakthrough.

Franti’s first group, The Beatnigs, became instant darlings of the 1980’s post-punk art-brat underground in San Francisco. The group combined the raw sounds of found junkyard instruments, power tools and industrial strength samples with Franti’s apocalyptic verse, rightfully laying claim to the subversive legacy of the Beats. Around the same time, Franti teamed with then-unknown eight-string jazz virtuoso Charlie Hunter. The unlikely pair performed as a duo, cementing Franti’s growing reputation as a musical chameleon capable of expert wordplay.

Franti’s next group, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (DHOH), showed real commercial promise. Island Records thought so, and signed the group to a deal. The DHOH built on the Beatnigs formula, adding a hip-hop aesthetic to an already lethal brew. However, the name of the group proved to be prophetic. “The name is taken from the fact that as young black men we’re presented with two options: to go into sports or entertainment. That’s where we see our symbols of success. I chose ‘disposable heroes’ because of the heroes that are used for three or four years to make records or win games, then thrown on the scrap heap.”

Ironically, Franti succeeded in both sports and music. He had come to San Francisco on a full-ride college basketball scholarship, but his professional hoop dreams never materialized. With the breakup of DHOH, the jock-turned-poet seemed to have another dream deferred.

“Everybody has a different perspective about ‘success,’ but what is considered ‘failure’ is universal, which is not meeting your goals. But there’s also the thing about principles: What are your goals? Are your goals about self or are your goals about community? Is your art about enlightenment or ignorance? These are some of the ethical questions I ask myself. Where do you want to see yourself five years from now? Where do you want to see the world five generations from now? We should align with those types of goals and be successful at that.”

Although DHOH was short-lived, their limited presence had maximum impact. They released the critically-acclaimed out of print classic Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury; toured with the biggest groups of the 1990’s (U2 and Nirvana), and ended the whirlwind affair with a surreal outing produced by knob wizard Hal Wilner, who married their music to the junkie genius of William S Burroughs on the album Spare Ass Annie.

Musical evolution

Bono and Ice T are the odd couple credited with planting the seeds for Franti’s next musical venture. While DHOH was on the road supporting U2’s Zoo TV tour, Bono told Franti a story that would greatly impact his musical direction for the next decade.

After the release of the multi-platinum selling Joshua Tree album, Bono had a personal and artistic crisis resulting from his meteoric rise to superstardom. The crushing success left him wondering if he had sold out. In a desperate attempt to get back to the salt of the earth, Bono and his wife flew to a remote Ethiopian village to help dig irrigation ditches. After toiling for days in the sun and getting sufficiently broiled and blistered, Bono was called to a council of elders.

He was expecting to be honored for his work, but was instead told his shovel skills sucked and that his work was putting them behind schedule. The council told him they knew about U2, that they had great respect for music, and suggested he write songs for them instead. These songs, they said, would become a part of their culture. So he ditched the shovels, sat down, and wrote. Bono and his wife would pen songs about safe sex, health awareness, and water safety that are still recited and sung today. Franti took the lesson to heart. “As a pop musician working in the pop world, your value is really pretty trivial in the grand scope of things. But as a storyteller, if you can really invest meaning into your work, then it can have real value.”

Soon afterward, Franti and Ice T co-chaired a panel discussion about hip-hop. Before the discussion began, Ice T told the audience that he didn’t want people to agree with him because that meant he was the only one doing the thinking. Franti had an epiphany, and his musical direction would evolve once again.

“That’s when I realized I wanted to expand my music to people who didn’t agree with me. When I was out with DHOH, the audience was always ready to bang their heads, slamming to every word I said. I realized there wasn’t really a dialogue taking place. I wanted to expand my music to people who were not thinking what I’m thinking. I’m really proud of the DHOH record, but it sounds like reading a Russian novel. It’s hard and aggressive. I wanted to make music that you could hear over and over again.”

Spearhead launched in 1995, was signed to Capitol Records, and Franti was again poised to be the Next Big Thing. Their debut album, Home, did not disappoint. With Joe “Da Butcha” Nicolo at the controls, Franti eschewed ferocity for warmth, succeeding in his goal to create bona fide soul music. He retired his didactic delivery in favor of a more organic, singsong approach. By stepping off the soapbox, Franti’s music became more self-reflective and poignant.

“When I started making music with the Beatnigs there were a lot of things in the world I was pissed off about. By working and getting involved with different projects I became more active and I realized I didn’t feel so angry anymore because I felt like I had some power in the world. As that has increased, I don’t just need songs about what’s going on because I’m pretty clear on what’s fucked up in the world. But now I need songs that inspire me to get up every morning and continue the work I do and that’s how Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone helped me in my life. Their music is spiritual and uplifting. That’s the music I want to write.”

Looking back now, it’s apparent that Michael Franti and Spearhead helped pioneer today’s “neo soul” era. But in 1998, Capitol Records failed to sell the multicultural hip-hop sound to monocultured urban radio formats, and dropped Spearhead following their sophomore effort, Chocolate Supa Highway.

This is Spearhead’s most dank-drenched album, with herbal treatments on almost every track. It also contains the anthems Ganja Babe and Keep me Lifted. Being dropped from Capitol turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Franti found himself free to manifest his own destiny. More importantly, he discovered he could be more successful off the grid.

“I do something that’s very specific and not really something that is gonna make millions of dollars at the end of every quarter for the corporations like Britney Spears. So I’m better served by doing things independently. We record and produce the albums ourselves and then license the albums to be distributed, so that way we’re not beholden to any long-term connection to any label. We make our own decisions about where to tour and most of the promoting is done by word of mouth and community radio; and we sell our things on the road and internet.”

Integration situation

Much of the appeal of Spearhead’s music is its inclusiveness. Their music is a gumbo of sound. It’s impossible to describe it without naming several genres at once: soul, funk, hip-hop, latin-jazz, reggae, dub, rock. Something for everyone. The sound is a deliberate distillation of the many faces and facets of Michael Franti. The fact that he is biracial is an important context to understand Spearhead’s one love vibration, another parallel that can be drawn between Michael Franti and Bob Marley.

In his book, On Racial Frontiers, Gregory Stephens calls Bob Marley an “integrative personality,” or a person “from more than one ethnic group, a common icon through whom diverse groups trace many ideological beliefs, their expressive style, or model of identity and cultural rootedness.”

Stephens posits that Marley’s “mixed heritage and his interaction with a racially mixed audience had a profound impact on his identity, style, and content of communication.” Stephens suggests that Bob Marley was the creator of a “new culture that was often racialized in origins, and yet spoke to multi-ethnic and multinational audiences of the present and future, for whom racial language would be inadequate.” These days, Franti is on the same tip.

He explains, “The diversity we see in the world is nothing compared to the infinite diversity that each of us have in our souls.”

While in DHOH, Michael Franti laid bare his conflicted upbringing in the song Socio-genetic Experiment: “I’m African, Native American, Irish and German/ I was adopted by parents who loved me/ They were the same color as the kids who/ Called me nigger on the walk home from school.”

Franti was born in Oakland and raised a few hours northeast in the predominantly white suburb of Davis. “My real mom never thought she could bring me up because her family was very racist. I grew up without any relatives and always felt like the first and last member of my own tribe. So I always felt my community was my family and I always had a great desire to connect with that world family.”

This world view is articulated well in Franti’s latest work, Everyone Deserves Music: “If I could be the sun I’d radiate like Africa/ And smile upon the world intergalactic love laughter/ If I could be the roots I would dig deep like ancestry/ And if I were the fruits you’d make the sweetest cherry pie from me/ What I be is what I be and on and on.” Also, the repeated refrain of the title track reminds us to always embrace humanity: “Even our worst enemies, they deserve music.”

“My music is not just about political things, or things that are happening in the world. My music has always been about trying to be yourself. And the more that I’ve learned about my self, its taken that to get me to the point now where I can really start to express that in my music.”

Higher power

Stay Human, Spearhead’s third full length offering, was the first release on their new record label, BooBoo Wax. It was a concept album which brought together many of the issues Franti is most passionate about. Medical marijuana care-giving, the death penalty, corporate-controlled politics, the prison industrial complex, and the threat of media monopolies are deftly covered in a compelling story woven through the music featuring the voice of pot-toting, hemp-fitted celebrity Woody Harrelson as a corrupt politician.

Franti followed up Stay Human with a brilliant collection of acoustic music called Songs From The Front Porch. That album showcased Franti’s matured abilities to craft unforgettable songs as well as a penchant for singing them with grace.

“It takes courage to sing. When you’re rhyming, as long as what you’re saying has cleverness or has some meaning to it, people don’t mind if you get off the beat. But if you’re a little off the note, its like, ‘I don’t want to hear you!’ Gongs, buzzers go off, the hooks come out, tomatoes [laughter]. It’s taken me a while to feel safe about singing a tune. It’s taken a lot of practice.”

It was after a recent cultural exchange visit to Cuba that Franti began to seriously focus on singing and playing guitar. While there, he met with political exile Assata Shakur, who stressed, “To be a good revolutionary, you have to take care of yourself. You have to take care of your health, mind, spirit, intellect, love life ? every part of who you are ? so that when called upon, you will be ready.”

In the months since, Franti has developed a regimen of holistic care that includes food fasting, meditation, daily exercise, walking everywhere barefoot, deep tissue massage and yoga. As a result, he’s trimmed 25 pounds, and is in the best health since his days as a svelte college basketball star.

The yoga practice has been crucial, and Franti claims it is “changing me a lot and I’m generally happier and healthier and better able to reflect loving light.” When asked how yoga will help him rage against the machine, he laughs, then breaks it down. “Yoga in and of itself won’t stop the war, but yoga is gonna help us become more compassionate for ourselves so that we can have compassion for others. Yoga will help us be more able to deal with stress and tension so that when we are facing the police line we don’t freak out. Yoga helps us to find ourselves and find our center so that we can enact that sense of centeredness in the world. It’s really about the union between self and a higher power and the body is such a perfect instrument for that.”

Franti’s recent dietary changes didn’t stop with food. “I don’t smoke pot anywhere near the rate I used to. I smoke maybe six times a year, very special occasions and when I’m in great pain. In my own use there was a time when I used it as a crutch. I didn’t really use it as a way to advance myself. I used it as a way to self medicate when I felt stressed out. That medication led to me using it before I went onstage to deal with stage fright and deal with depression for being on the road for so long and being tired. And now I use it when I’m in great pain or occasionally to enjoy it, but it’s not a regular part of my every day diet because I felt like it was getting to be a crutch for me. There are plenty of people who can use it without getting to that point. I totally support the legalization of it for everybody in whatever way they want to use it.”

Ganja & family

In addition to being a musician and activist, Michael Franti is also a husband and father. On the topic of cannabis-friendly parenting, he speaks candidly. “When my son was growing up I was a daily pot smoker and I never hid it from my kids the same way I don’t hide Snoop Dogg records or tell my kids they can’t watch certain movies. Instead, I’ve always talked to them about the pros and cons.” Franti learned fast that his freedom-of-information approach was not widely accepted by other adults.

“When my son was in 6th grade, the DARE program called me after they visited his class because my son kept interjecting during the presentation about the positive attributes of hemp. He told them the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp, that Thomas Jefferson grew hemp, it can be used as fuel, fiber and food, etc. So I had to have a meeting with the school district and let them know that ‘this is my son and this is what we believe. My son doesn’t smoke pot.’ He’s seventeen now and he still hasn’t smoked pot, but it has always been around and available for him if he wanted to. Because he understands what it’s about and has a clear perspective on it and is happy about himself, he doesn’t feel a need to alter himself in that way.”

While Franti has greatly decreased his usage, the same isn’t true for his wife. “She’s a huge cannabis lover,” he says laughing. “In fact the song Ganja Babe is a romantic and sexual song about us smoking herb while making love. Its one of the few real sexual songs that I’ve ever written.”

Franti has immortalized the healing of the nations in song enough times to make Cypress Hill proud. While his songs celebrating weed are fun and light-hearted, his stance on the failed war on drugs is sobering. In the new song We Don’t Stop, Franti raps, “The war on pot is a war that’s failed/ A war that’s building up the nation’s jails/ Bush war one and Bush war two/ They got a war for me, they got a war for you!” Franti flips the script and calls for the end to the drug war, and the beginning of drug peace.

“Look at how many people are in prison for medical marijuana, and small amounts of cocaine; and look at the mandatory minimum sentences that continue to fund the prison industry. Then look at the other parts of our communities that are suffering as a result of that misappropriation of funds. It’s obvious we need to have a peace on drugs, which means legalization, and people having free access to information about drugs and real education about what drugs do. We need to provide treatment for addicts. We need to create opportunities for young people so drugs aren’t the only economic source or the only source of fun or peace of mind.”

Intense connections

At a recent concert inside a women’s prison, Franti met several hardened victims of the war on drugs and poverty. He dedicated the last song to a mother who had given birth days earlier and then had the baby taken away. As he sang, the women held hands, hugged the weeping mother, and sung with him.

Franti, the band, the inmates, even the guards were moved to tears as the words echoed through the yard, “It’s never too late to start the day over/ It’s never too late to come on home.”

A week later, Franti reflects back on that day while making plans to tour with Ziggy Marley in South America. “It blew me away how art and creativity has the ability to bring out love and compassion in people. That’s how I stay human, by connecting with people who are going through intense things and to be there to listen and to also share my story.”

Later this year, he will have ample opportunity as he travels on to Palestine, Iraq, and Africa to bear witness and spread love. “Right now is a time of great turmoil, and out of great turmoil comes the opportunity for change. But we have to be present to be part of that change.”

? Michael Franti: www.spearheadvibrations.com