Michael Franti’s transformation from a subversive underground hip-hop artist (as one-half of the early ’90s duo, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy) to a composer of mainstream stadium pop-rock anthems is a surprising, even startling, one. His new album, ‘All People’ – his eighth long player fronting Spearhead, a band that celebrates two decades together this year – illustrates just how far the 48-year-old Oakland-born musician has travelled in a career that spans almost thirty years. Mostly filled with bright, buoyant, optimistic songs (such as the his recent hit single, ‘I’m Alive’) that are characterised by sing-along choruses and pulsating dance beats, ‘All People’ possesses a commercial sensibility that is seemingly acutely at odds with Franti’s first forays in the music business.
But that’s not to say that Franti’s sold out. Rather, he’s just found a more potent and viable musical vehicle that enables him to transmit his messages to a wider audience. These days his music, which also evinces a strong reggae and hip-hop influence, might be overtly radio-friendly but there’s still some substance behind the upbeat music and Franti, himself, continues to work effectively as a philanthropic political activist as well as being a tireless campaigner supporting environmentalism, Human Rights and advocating world peace.
Having just finished a recent successful UK tour – that coincided with the European release of ‘All People’ – Franti took time out to talk about his music, beliefs and career to SJF’s Charles Waring….
How were your recent UK concerts? How do you find UK audiences compared with, say, US ones?
The shows that we just had in the UK were my favourite shows we’ve ever performed there. The audiences were so enthusiastic! We hadn’t played the UK in a few years so it was exciting for us to be back and look into the crowd and see some familiar faces and some new faces. Everywhere I go people look different, speak different languages…but once the beat drops everyone starts rocking out.
What’s the background story behind your new album ‘All People’? Can you describe what inspired you, the recording process, who worked on the album with you and how the album evolved?
‘All People’ is a celebration of diversity. I believe that all seven billion of us on the planet are significant. The songs on this album are about both political world issues, as well as, issues of the heart and relationships. We recorded all of the songs while on tour mostly in dressing rooms and hotel rooms.
How does the new album compare with what you’ve done before?
This music brings together a lot of different things I’ve experimented with – dance, reggae, hip-hop, politics, love songs. It all comes together on this record.
Spearhead celebrate 20 years together this year – what’s been the major highlight of your time with the band?
After having made music since 1986 and starting Spearhead in 1994, the fact that I’m still able to travel the world and play songs for people, that is the greatest gift. When I did my first show I never would have thought that 28 years later I’d still be making music and I never would have imagined that I’d feel more excited about it today then I’ve ever had.
Of the 16 tracks on the album, which one gave you most satisfaction – and why?
’11:59′ because I started writing it ten years ago. At first it was very political and I didn’t have a hook for it. It took me years of travelling the world to realise that an open heart is just as powerful as an open mind. The song discusses the political issues of the world as well as, having gratitude for the life that we love.
We live in a world with lots of problems and yet your music always seems so deeply positive and life-affirming – what helps you to remain positive?
Positivity is something that you have to practice: like becoming good at shooting a basketball or anything, the more you do it the less effort it requires. Positivity is something you have to actively pursue through your actions & attitude.
Which person and/or musician has been the most influential figure in your life and why?
I’m finishing up a documentary called ’11:59′ about four people that have influenced my life. They are every day people that through tenacity have done extraordinary things to help people. But if I had to name one person who has influenced me the most I would say my mother. She adopted me and raised five children for the most part on her own. Her goal was to make sure that all of us kids had “wings.” She taught us how to cook, how to wash our own clothes, and how take care of ourselves. We were expected to do this all of this ourselves so that we would grow up to be independent people and survive on our own.
At what age did you become interested in music and what was the first record that you bought?
I’ve been interested in music for as long as I can remember. There never was a time when I didn’t have music in the household. My mom played the organ in church so between church music, the radio, and my brothers and sisters playing their instruments – there was always music on. The first record I bought was Earth, Wind, & Fire’s ‘Greatest Hits.’
What facts about you would surprise your fans?
(1) I’ve been barefoot for 14 years; (2) I played college basketball at the University of San Francisco; (3) I own a yoga retreat centre in Bali and (4) I have as many songs by Britney Spears as I do Spearhead.
What advice would you give to any one starting out in the music industry?
Be your best, serve the greater good, and rock out wherever you are. What that means to me is (1) never stop challenging yourself or learning new things; (2) give back, and (3) never lose your youthful enthusiasm for life. Also, treat every person that you encounter with kindness. Be a giver not a taker.
‘ALL PEOPLE’ IS OUT NOW VIA BOO BOO/CAPITOL.