Songwriter, musician, activist, filmmaker. Cultural polymath Michael Franti remains a shining creative force. meets him
Political songwriters can fall into the trap of being preachy, but not Michael Franti. In a career spanning over 20 years, the former frontman of The Beatnigs, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and latterly Spearhead, has always struck the right balance between personal and political.
‘My goal is to be an artist who makes a difference and I want to inspire others to do the same,’ he says. ‘But people can get overwhelmed, especially right now, with war, climate change, the economic crisis, violence and fear. Sometimes people need a song that helps them get up in the morning and dance around the bathroom while they get the kids ready for school, other times they need a song they can pump their fists in the air to. Hopefully I provide both of those.’
That blend is very much in evidence in Spearhead’s most recent and most commercially successful album, All Rebel Rockers, recorded in Jamaica with legendary rhythm team Sly and Robbie.
‘They’re the sweetest guys you could ever imagine, but the two of them are complete opposites,’ Franti laughs. ‘Sly only eats raw vegan food, nothing cooked, and never goes to sleep in a bed, he always sleeps sitting up in a chair. Robbie eats MacDonald’s, smokes and drinks brandy. They’re the odd couple, but they’re perfect together.’
Throughout his career Franti has combined campaigning on various issues with his music making. He’s worked for the World Health Organisation and the UN, lobbied Congress on climate change and is an ambassador for the humanitarian organisation Care.
In 2006 he made I Know I’m Not Alone, a documentary highlighting the plight of those caught in the crossfire in Iraq, Israel and the Gaza Strip. It’s no surprise, then, to find him thrilled by the election of Barack Obama, something which was for him as much an emotional event as a political one.
‘On the night of the election, I sat down with my 10-year-old son and read a book about Obama, and I started to cry,’ he says. ‘I told him when I was a kid we used to say when pigs fly we’ll have a black president; it was a source of comedic satire. I feel excited that we have our first gentleman in charge of the country, that’s the most important thing to me. Someone who’s a statesman, an orator and most importantly a listener.’
Speaking to Franti is an uplifting experience. The man exudes good vibes, something evident in both his music and his exceptional documentary. As he talks about the power of positive thinking, it’s hard not to get caught up with enthusiasm, likewise when he talks about where his music is heading in the future.
‘Lately I’ve been writing songs about relationships, about the way people connect to one another, faith, loyalty and friendship,’ he says. ‘I believe peace and prosperity can only come through relationships, in fact there’s nothing more important than the way we relate to one another. If we can create a relationship with someone in Pakistan and help him to build a school, he’s going to be less likely to strap a bomb onto his body and walk into an airport.’
The Arches, Glasgow, Tue 30 Jun.