It's not easy to imagine a performer who goes from punk to populist and still manages to find a common thread in the way he connects with a crowd. Then again, not many artists boast the same amount of energy and enthusiasm as Michael Franti.
Here's a performer who literally embraces his audiences, churning out anthems about peace, brotherhood, and subjects stemming from a spiritual source. He jumps into the concertgoers and paces the farthest reaches of the venue to come face-to-face with his delighted devotees. It's an approach developed over the past 20 years, alongside his band Spearhead, and inspired by his own profound beliefs about uniting humanity through the precepts of compassion and concern.
These days, the 48-year-old San Francisco resident is touting a new album aptly titled All People, a celebration of not only those ideals but also the people who are most important to him and part of his circle of family and friends. The themes are apparent in the titles alone -- "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)," "Life Is Better With You," "Closer to You," "Do It for the Love," etc.
But intertwined in this homage to romance and relationship, Franti's humanitarian ideals -- a broad sweep that envelops the need for political change, environmental awareness, and ongoing social concerns -- are never far from the surface.
If that mix of philosophy and outspoken ambition leaves a somewhat stern impression, the reality couldn't be further from the truth. His musical mix of reggae, hip-hop, pop, and personality always provides a party-like atmosphere at shows, one certain to inspire the most staid observer to dance to his heart's delight.
We spoke with the soft-spoken musician before his upcoming performance at Sunset Cove Amphitheater.
New Times: You're a performer that's really committed not only to his craft but to entertaining the audience as well. How did you develop that passion for people and the ability to engage with your audience?
Michael Franti: It's what I've always done. I started out making music with punk and hip-hop bands in the late '80s. At punk rock shows, I would always be in the crowd watching whatever band was playing before our own set. And then after we'd do our performance, I'd always go right back into the crowd. I believe in the power of music to connect people and bring people together. It's why I do it.
So when I go onstage, I don't think, I'm going to have this recital of songs. I think, What can I do in this environment to bring people together? I just love that feeling of one mind, one heart, one love and the connection that only happens at concerts.
It seems very spontaneous. When you get up onstage, do you scope it out and know where you'll end up or do you kind of go with the flow?
Usually before a show, I get with my road manager and we determine that there's a stairway over here, and there's going to be a group of people over there, and there's a disabled section over there, and so we try to figure out where we're going to go.
But when the crowd fills a venue, sometimes it gets so crowded that you just have to figure it out in the moment. We always try to do it safely, so sometimes when it appears like I'm rushing through the crowd, I'm being very mindful as I move from place to place. I also have someone there who helps me get through. We try to make it fun and loose and spontaneous enough so that if there's someone there who looks like they're having a really fun time, you can take a moment and connect with them.
Have you ever had an audience mishap where, say, someone grabs you and won't let go?
[laughs] I've had that happen a lot of times, yeah. But I'm a pretty big dude. I'm six-foot-six, and I weigh 210 pounds, so it's pretty hard to find a match for me where I can't gently loosen their grip. We've never had any real serious mishaps, but we insure our tours, so if anyone does get hurt while I'm in the audience, we're covered for that as well. We try to make it safe and fun. It's not a boxing match or a football game, so we try to encourage people to have fun and be safe.
It's interesting that you started out in the punk arena. Punk is such an angry, rebellious form of expression, and now here you are all about peace and love. It seems like it would be kind of hard to reconcile the two.
There's been a transformation. In my earlier years, my music was very angry and aggressive and political, but what I realized is that while I always wanted to make a difference in the world, I was looking for compassion. I always wanted the world to be a more compassionate place.
My dream is that people would see each other for who they are and realize that maybe there are those who need a little more help or there are some who may feel left out or that maybe there are people living in an area that is going through some environmental issues or some economic issues and that maybe these are things that other people can help out with. Maybe we'll feel a sense of empathy that will lead to action.
That's what I want to see in the world, that compassion that can take place. When I first started making music, I thought that if I got pissed off about things -- some mistakes the government was making or something some corporation was doing that's really messed up -- then that change will occur. But I eventually learned that music is much more powerful than that when it touches your emotions, and that the best songs can create transformation. While they may talk about the difficulties of life, they can also offer a positive solution, even if it's just in the sound of the music or the way it makes you feel. If at the end of the song you feel uplifted.
And the artists that have done that for me are Bob Marley, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, U2... As much as I love Rage Against the Machine, who I've been friends with for a long time, or Public Enemy, those aren't the records I turn to when I'm facing a tough time in my life. It's the music that makes me feel a sense of transformation or optimism and joy, a sense of triumph. I know the world is messed up, but I can make a difference.
It's a fine line between a performer who gets up on the stage and preaches and proselytizes and one who acts as a cheerleader for transformation. You manage to tread that fine line between the two extremes.
In 2004, I took a trip to Iraq because I had become frustrated hearing the politicians complain about the political costs and the economic costs of the war. They never mentioned what it meant to the soldiers on the ground or the civilians that were personally affected by this war. I was convinced when I went there that I'd come back and write an album of 12 angry songs against the war.
What happened is I went there and I played music for people on the street, and they'd come up to me and say, "We don't want to hear protest songs against the war. We're living in this war. Play a song that will make us laugh and cry and dance and sing and move our hearts through this difficult time."
The American soldiers that were there told me the same thing. "I signed up September 12th, the day after 9/11, and I thought I was coming here to get Saddam Hussein because he was involved in 9/11, but now we're finding out he wasn't and we're kicking in the doors of civilians, people just like us."
Since that time, I've really dedicated myself to writing songs that are more universal and using my music to connect with people in other ways, whether it was in the street or in Walter Reed Hospital playing for veterans. We launched a foundation last year called Do It for the Love, which brings people with life-threatening illnesses and kids with severe challenges and wounded veterans to live concerts. It's kind of like the Make-a-Wish Foundation for music.
I really believe that music is a healing force in the world. Every day, I reach for music the way some people reach for medicine. If I need a song that's going to help me go to work or get out of my funk I'm feeling, I go for that instead of Prozac or Ritalin or some other chemical. I reach for songs, and they are the things that help me through periods of my life, whether they're positive periods or dark and sad moments.
Michael Franti & Spearhead. The Soulshine Tour with SOJA, Brett Dennen, and Trevor Hall. 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 29, at Sunset Cover Amphitheater, 20405 Amphitheater Circle, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $35 in advance plus fees and $40 at the door. A 3 p.m. yoga session costs $20, minus $10 with concert ticket. Call 561-488-8069, or visit facebook.com/SunsetCoveAmphitheater.