Tough subjects inspire hope
Activist musician Michael Franti tempers dark topics with his lyrics
“I read the news of the day, just as it’s coming down/ I do my best not to let it get me down/ I try to keep my head up, but this is Babylon/ This world’s in crisis, we try to fight it, this changing climate/ The scientists and the politicians divided by it/ So many ways we could solve it but they would never sign it/ This mountain’s tumbling down, but still we try to climb it” — Michael Franti “Good To Be Alive Today”
Few artists today seem able to depict contemporary events in their songs while cushioning gloom with a ray of hope. For years Michael Franti has been on kind of a mission to decry injustice and provide palliative uplift.
Following in the tradition of visionary, activist artists like Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and Gil Scott Heron, Franti creates what he calls “conscious music for the masses.”
“It’s Good to be Alive Today,” from his latest “Soulrocker” album is a prime example of this gifted artist’s approach.
“Whenever I make a record I always think how can I make music that helps people get through whatever challenges they face,” Franti explains. “I was making the record during the lead up to the (2016) election and there were police killings of black youth, and there were so many things weighing on people. And so I wanted to speak to those things, but I also wanted to leave people feeling a sense of optimism, and face whatever they were going through with positivity.”
“Another youth in the streets and police is in a conflict/ And now they hear the guns click, yo/ Ebola crisis and ISIS is taking heads off/ A drone is bombing a village and now the kids all/ Signing up to be soldiers, but they all willing now/ To do the killing now, now are you willing now?”
“I stay up in the middle of the night stressing out about the woes of the world,” he continues. “I remember reading this quote from Winston Churchill about being awakened every night by a black dog barking reminding him that not everything is OK in the world. I feel like that, the pain and frustration and sadness and worry.”
“Some politicians out there making up some problems/ And tryna tell the people that they can solve them/ With TV shows and sound bites and quotes/ But everybody knows that it’s all about the cash flow/ They telling you and me, they’re making progress/ But tell it to the millions of jobless.”
“Every day I was picking up my phone and reading the news and thinking the world is such a s— show. But I feel most grateful right now that in my life I can’t recall a time when there were so many opportunities to be doing things that make a difference. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed if I’m on Facebook reading an endless list of things going wrong. But I’m also getting in touch with ways that help make things be better. That’s when I feel a sense of purpose both with my music and just as an individual in the world, when I’m giving back and contributing in some way, to alleviate some kind of suffering in the world and bring some kind of happiness and joy.
“What if everybody had a job?/ And nobody had to break a law?/ What if everyone could say/ That it’s good to be alive today?/ Oh, oh, oh, oh/ Is it good to be alive today?”
Released last summer, “Soulrocker” is Franti’s ninth studio recording with his band Spearhead. Packed with infectious, uplifting songs like “We Are All Earthlings” and “Summertime Is In Our Hands,” Franti says the album title personifies a righteous individual.
“It’s a person who lives from their heart with compassion for all and has a tenacious enthusiasm for music, life and the planet. I was just in South Africa traveling around and we’re making a ‘Soulrocker’ documentary about people I meet who are going through incredible challenges and find their connection to music gets them through it. There are millions of people who make or enjoy music simply because of the way it makes them feel. That’s what a soulrocker is.
“Music is my salve. It’s what I go to when I’m stressed out. I keep a guitar next to my bed and I’ll pick it up in the middle of the night and strum or write. That’s where a lot of the inspiration for my songs comes from.
“My iPod is like my medicine chest. I’m feeling anxious in traffic I’ll put on Kool and The Gang and have some celebration in the car, or I’m p—ed off I go to my Rage Against the Machine medicine, or if I’m trying to get my wife to come to bed early I’m throwing on Sade.”
The South Africa trip was quite a profound experience for this pioneering musician who has previously traveled to conflict zones in Iraq, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
“It got me back in touch with the roots of music,” he says. “I visited a cave where people have been living for thousands of years, a woman’s fertility cave. In the last 100 years it was for both men and women with very traditional African drumming and spirituality. It made me imagine the first music was a mother cooing to her child and that cooing became a melody. Or someone coming back from a hunt and they start banging a stick on a log and everyone joins in and they chant and stomp their feet, and that becomes a dance, and the melodies and rhythms become the hits of their time. That led to notes and the rhythm we have today. I could see where it all came from.”
From his days creating overtly political songs with his former groups the Beatnigs and The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Franti has evolved over time to craft more inspiring, rejuvenating music.
Two years ago he met with the Dalai Lama, who called his music, “something very special.” How can such a big man be “so light” the Tibetan leader wondered, and he honored the joy and compassion Franti creates through music as, “a monk without restriction.”
An inspirational live performer, Franti lays down exuberant, positive grooves that ignite audiences.
“Franti’s music exudes positivity like the sun radiates warmth,” noted a review. “It’s hip-moving, hand-clapping, head-bobbing, sing-out-loud soulful music that unites and welcomes everyone with an ear for good vibes.”
In February, he was invited to participate at the Skoll World Forum 2017 at the University of Oxford in England. This annual gathering of social entrepreneurs and philanthropists was launched by Jeff Skoll, the co-founder of eBay.
Franti performed “My Lord,” one of the rousing songs from “Soulrocker,” joined by U2’s Bono and the Eagles’ Don Henley on backing vocals.
“It was a pretty magic moment for me,” he says.
Franti has known Bono since the early ’80s when The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy were invited to open for U2 on the Zoo TV Tour.
“We had a song called ‘Television the Drug of the Nation,’ and it was seen by U2,” he says. “They loved the video for it and they used it to open their Zoo TV Tour to start the show. They invited us to tour as a support act. The ‘Achtung Baby’ album had just come out and I saw the show where they sang ‘One’ for the first time, and it totally changed my world.”
Relaying a funny incident with the band, Franti continues: “Bono came up to me after about five days and he’s like, ‘Michael can I have a quiet word with you?’ I’m thinking ‘Am I in trouble? Did I do something wrong?’ He goes, ‘It’s this one thing. You know my guitar player?’ I’m, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘His name is the Edge, not Ed.’ Oh. For part of the tour I’m, ‘Ed, like that hat, nice guitar solo Ed.’ “
While hanging out with U2, Bono told Franti about a life- changing event when he had lived in Ethiopia for a month with his wife, Ali Hewson. On a tour stop in Toronto, Franti had purchased a wooden Ethiopian Orthodox Christian cross for Bono. The gift prompted the recounting of the U2 lead singer’s time in a rural Ethiopian village.
Bono told Franti how he had been doing a lot of soul-searching after their “Joshua Tree” album hadn’t sold so well. He said he went to a village and began digging a well, toiling in the hot sun all day with a shovel, getting blisters. But he had a great feeling that he had done something, feeling a sense of purpose.
“Then the chief wanted to speak to him. He’s feeling really good. And the chief says, ‘You know we appreciate you coming out here and helping us dig, but you set us back three days while we watched you fumble with the shovel. We can’t have that.’ He says, ‘But in our community the songwriter tells the stories that are our history. Even here in Ethiopia we know about U2. We want you to write some songs.’
“So for the next couple of weeks Bono wrote songs about using condoms, boiling water and another called, ‘Don’t Put Cow Dung on the Baby’s Umbilical Cord.’ The songs become part of the oral tradition of the community. Bono told this whole story and he said, ‘The reason I’m telling you this is don’t think for a second that pop music doesn’t matter. It’s all about what you choose to invest in it and the stories you choose to tell.’ That really changed me.”