Pondering humanity’s struggles
Michael Franti encourages optimism in film at 2018 Maui Film Festival
There’s a moment early on in Michael Franti’s brilliant new documentary, “Stay Human,” where he ponders the struggle we often face between feeling pessimistic about life and maintaining hope in our divisive, conflicted world. “How do we thwart cynicism and encourage optimism?” he wonders.
To explore this challenge, the award-winning musician/filmmaker traveled around the world meeting with some extraordinary, heroic individuals — from the U.S. and the Philippines to Indonesia and South Africa — who have led truly inspiring lives while facing harsh adversity.
“These are some of the most inspiring people on the planet that I’ve met along my travels,” Franti explains. “I lived a good part of my life in a state of constant pessimism and cynicism, and it was a guard, a shield. But inside, I really wanted to make a difference. Even when I was making really political music with the Disposable Heroes (of Hiphoprisy), all I was doing was pointing the finger out at all the problems in the world. I was not looking at what I can do to really make a difference or inspire somebody else. I’ve had some incredible teachers who have reminded me of that power. I’ve traveled the globe making music, and throughout the years I’ve always hoped that it could inspire small steps towards making the world a better place.”
“Stay Human” will screen at the opening night of the 2018 Maui Film Festival at Wailea on Wednesday at the Celestial Cinema. It marks the second time one of his films has screened at the Maui festival. “I Know I’m Not Alone,” which chronicled Franti’s journey to war zones in Iraq, Israel and Palestine, was shown here in 2005.
The winner of the Audience Choice Award at the Nashville Film Festival in May, “Stay Human” is very powerful, moving and uplifting.
“The response has been beyond our expectations,” he says. “When I started the film, I was making a music video in Indonesia, and we always do it on a shoestring budget with me and a cameraman. As we had the camera, I decided to interview a friend, Robin Lim, and put up a little social media piece.”
A remarkable midwife of Filipina heritage, Lim travels to disaster zones helping deliver babies. She encourages birthing babies gently to relieve any trauma.
“I called Robin and she was in the Philippines working after the hurricane happened, so I flew over and that’s how it got started,” he continues. “We didn’t really intend on making a movie. Then I said ‘There’s these guys, Hope and Steve Dezember in Atlanta I know, and we can film them.’ We filmed these pieces over five years.”
Steve Dezember is in very advanced stages of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and the couple’s incredible spirit inspired Franti and his wife Sara to form their non-profit, Do It For The Love. This amazing wish-granting organization brings people living with life-threatening illnesses, children with severe challenges and wounded veterans to concerts by artists they love.
Another heroic individual in the film, Indonesian surfer Arief Rabik, works with indigenous people who are reforesting their lands with bamboo, as a building timber replacement. In South Africa we meet rapper Sive Mazingo and Bussiwe Vasi who grew up in impoverishment, and have dedicated their lives to helping others.
And then there’s Franti’s own revelatory journey depicted in the film, along with the many hardships he endured in his younger days.
“I realized along the way, in order to show how these people affected my life, it was important for me to tell my personal story so that people could see how they affected me and my personal trajectory,” he says. “I was adopted into a bi-racial family, and my father was an alcoholic. Then I became a musician, an angry kid, f— the system, f— the government and everybody.
“Slowly I evolved and I realized the importance of humanity and holding on to your personal dignity, and understanding who you are as your authentic self, and being able to see the authenticity in others. Those things are bigger than being a Democrat or Republican, or being a certain religion, or whether you’re gay or straight, or black or white. There’s something that’s bigger.”
Opening up about his own journey of self-empowerment was a little challenging for him.
“We actually finished the whole movie with just the five stories,” he notes. “Then I realized there was something missing. Interviewing me took on a whole life — following me into the studio and visiting my mom. It’s challenging to be vulnerable on camera.”
There were specific moments in the evolution of his consciousness, which precipitated his shift from composing angry polemics in his former bands, Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, to creating life-affirming, righteous music which has inspired and uplifted audiences around the world.
“I remember when I had written a song on the first Spearhead album in 1994, called ‘Crime to be Broke in America.’ It was all about the prison/industrial complex and how prisons have become for-profit institutions. I was invited to play in a prison, and I did the song and other political songs, speaking out against the prison system, ironically the same way Kim Kardashian just did with Donald Trump. Afterwards this prisoner came up and said, ‘We really appreciate your music, but I’ve been in prison for over 20 years, and I don’t want to hear songs about how f—– up prison is. I want to hear songs about missing my girlfriend, and I wish I could be home at Thanksgiving.’
“It was the same thing when I played music in Iraq in 2005. I played for Iraqi civilians in the day and US soldiers at night. I visited this one family and I played my song, ‘Bomb the World’ — ‘we can bomb the world to pieces/ but we can’t bomb it into peace.’ This Iraqi man said, ‘How dare you sing a song like that to our family after your country just bombed us. We want to hear songs that make us laugh, dance, cry and sing.’
“I started to realize there was more than just calling out the bad that’s in the world. There’s another side — like the fire and the honey –there has to be balance. That’s been my gradual journey — to understand the power of human connection.
“More than ever, now every day we hear mean-spirited conversation coming from the highest offices in the land, all the way down to the street level, to all the chatter we see on the anonymity of our electronic devices. There’s so much meanness. It’s hurtful to people.
“I remember one kid in kindergarten called me a n—–. I went home crying and said a kid called me a name. My mom was like, ‘Was it the F-word or this or that?’ I was afraid to say it because in our house if you cursed you got your mouth washed out with soap.
“I finally said it was the N-word. Her response was the classic, ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you.’ I got into lots of fistfights as a kid, and I healed from that really quick, but I’m still affected by the pain of what people have said to me and the things I have said to other people that hurt them. Words really hurt. The kind of talk we see today is going to have ripples for generations. It’s going to take a lot of healing.”
Once hailed by Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell (who introduced Bob Marley to the world) as “the most important artist recording and touring today who has yet to reach the mass audience,” Franti has also received praise from the Dalai Lama who called his music, “something very special.” How such a big man can be so light? the Tibetan leader wondered. Calling him “a monk without restriction,” he honored the joy and compassion that Franti creates through music.
An inspirational live performer, Franti lays down exuberant, positive grooves that ignite audiences. He recently had the pleasure of singing and dancing on stage with Dead & Company performing a 17-minute version of “I Know You Rider,” when they headlined the Playing In The Sand fest in Riviera Maya, Mexico.
“I had so much fun in this circle of incredible music,” he reports. “I’ve known the Dead’s music for a long time, but I’ve never sat in with them before. It was an honor to get on stage. I just kept dancing. The Dead is an institution of goodness.”
In conjunction with his new documentary, Franti will release the new album, “Stay Human 2.”
“The new album is inspired by the film and my experiences in the film, and they all have this nod towards being able to embrace the fullness of our humanity.
“At the end of the film, I say one of the things that unites all of us is that none of us are perfect, we all have our ups-and-downs. If we look for negativity, hatred and fear we’ll find those things; but if we look for optimism, love and light we’ll find those too.
“So this record is committed to speaking to that journey, not just speaking to the optimistic and positive, but to speak to the fact that we live in a place that is challenging and our lives aren’t easy. But we do live in a world that is more beautiful than it is not.”