print logo

Behind the mike: Will success spoil Michael Franti?

 Street Roots (USA) 25 May 2019

(Originally published: 11/2009) Hip-hop was born out of social oppression and cultural exclusion, a genra that redefined and empowered what it meant to be a minority and a new music that has yet to be rivaled in its reinvention of modern music. With great power comes great attention and the seduction of bling has replaced early hip-hop’s socially aware back bone and radical sentiment. Finally, with a megahit on the airwaves and online ‘virtual’ stardom, will our favorite hip-hop activist keep it real?  - By Joanne Zuhl

Michael Franti and Spearhead's hit song "Say Hey," isn't angry; it's not seething with the venom of a disenfranchised generation. It isn't about seizing the day and thwarting regret - well, actually, it is - but the other stuff, Franti's bread and butter, has never made it this far, this fast. Franti has carved a career out of politically charged lyrics and emotionally powerful works that both scold and embrace, if not entrance, the listener, because his activism - on issues of homelessness, war, and climate change - is inseparable from his music, giving him a cult following among throngs in both the hip hop and social justice movements that has never been jeopardized by commercial or corporate interests.


Until now. "Say Hey" is big, getting bigger. Mainstream big, unlike anything he's done before.

But then, just as the song cracked Billboard's top 40, perhaps out of rebellion or in an effort to put the man's feet back on the ground, Franti's appendix exploded.


"I'm laying on a bed in the hospital with a distended belly and infection. And the doctor is telling me how serious it was. I never heard (the song) on the radio and I'm thinking I'm going to die before I do," said Franti, speaking by phone in Illinois while on tour. Franti and Spearhead will be in Portland Sept. 10 performing it and others at the Roseland Theater.


"After really spending time with family and people close to me, it put a really healthy bit of perspective on it. So now, the last couple of weeks, I've really been enjoying it. I think if it had been my first song on first album, I wouldn't appreciate it as much."


That first album was more than two decades ago, when a young Franti was sowing his oats in punk with the Beatnigs, and later with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Today, Franti's activism extends beyond lyrics into multimedia, a star of Youtube, iTunes, blogs and motion pictures.


In 2006, Franti walked, talked and sang his way through Iraq, Palestine and Israel, on a journey that eventually became the powerful film "I Know I'm Not Alone." He says he keeps in touch with some of the people in the movie.


"Just this morning I was writing some of my friends today from Tel Aviv who are in the film," Franti says. "They're two women who lost family members in the conflict. Other people in Iraq that I have contact with, the people in Israel and Palestine, have been really hopeful with Obama coming in that there could be some new opportunity for dialogue. People in Iraq are a lot less hopeful. They see the war continue to go on and on, not just American and Iraq, but Sunnis and Shiites, the Kurds, and all the factions. It's really become a civil conflict. They're not as hopeful."


The success and impact of "I Know I'm Not Alone," has Franti and his crew contemplating shooting another film in Africa. And that was kind of the plan when Spearhead's latest album, "All Rebel Rockers," was completed. "Now the song has taken off …" Franti says, as if that changes everything.


Like his friends, Franti remains optimistic about Obama's potential. In his blog, Franti writes that he cried when his pen hit the paper of his ballot. He campaigned for Obama, recorded and performed a song to rally the troops for Obama, and now, seven months into the president's term, as fair-weather fans are already wavering, Franti's holding firm.


"Obama has the hardest job in the world, being the president of the United States. You not only have to please people on both sides of the aisle here, you've got to please all 6 billion people on the planet," he says.

"There were things I knew where I was going to be disappointed. I think I'm probably a lot more radical than he is. But at the same time I've learned a lot in the past several years, especially in my activism, that if we really want to effect climate change, it's going to take more than my friends who are tree sitters in Northern California. It's going to take the resources of the corporations to work, the cooperation of governments, the ideas of grassroots, and the consumer power and hard work of everyday citizens. And together, that's how we are going to address climate change.


"The same goes for all the other large issues of the day; these things aren't going to be solved by people waving signs. It's going to take compromise."


But doesn't that get you some blowback from your supporters who say we should be taking to the streets?

"I still agree with taking it to the streets, but I think a lot of the people who I've been an activist with over the years, we share the same feelings. You're not going to effect climate change if you can't get WalMart to install fluorescent lights, and you have to get them to create a health care program for their people. All these things that are so important; we think we have all these ideas. It's all part of the bigger equation. We have to do our part to make that equation work for everybody."


Within days of the concert in Portland, Franti and Spearhead head down to San Francisco for their annual Power to the Peaceful concert. It's an outdoor festival of music and activism, free to the public (a small donation is requested). It started as a concert to raise awareness about Mumia Abu Jamal, and today is a two-day affair with numerous artists, events and workshops.


"We do it as a day to remember people working in service of peace," Franti says. "It's grown to 70,000 people. This year we partner with CARE. People come out with the festival and say, 'What can I do to get more involved with helping the planet?' And CARE is an organization that helps people, like agriculature help so people can grow their own food. More recently, CARE has started working to educating girls in developing countries. Because educating girls is really the key to solving poverty in the world."


It's been 15 years since Spearhead released "Hole in the Bucket," a song about homelessness, panhandling and understanding the needs of people on the street. In those 15 years, the numbers of people on the streets have grown, and panhandling has ballooned as a divisive issue in not only Portland, but cities across the country.


"I think the worst thing I have seen in city after city is the demonization of poor people," Franti says, reflecting on the relevance of his song. "In every election, they tell people, don't give people change, and say we're going to create all these programs that never come to be. Poor people always seem to get demonized in the election cycle, and people forget about them the rest of the time. That song I wrote, it's really a song saying that I'm going to give what I have, where I see need. That's what I try to do in my work as an artist, as a musician, in supporting local groups doing the same."


recently added