As Michael Franti prepares to headline California WorldFest in Grass Valley this weekend, it is important to note that in over thirty years of making music, the singer/rapper/poet/songwriter/activist has been an ever-evolving artist.
From his early days with the Beatnigs to his long-standing tenure as the frontman in Michael Franti and Spearhead, the Northern California native has covered a lot of musical ground as well as a wide swath of intellectual, political, and social justice territory. There are wide-ranging opinions about which musical era is his best, and regardless of which era you prefer, it’s been an interesting ride watching his art evolve over time.
Beatnigs were a spoken word band that combined hip hop, industrial, and hardcore punk that Franti started in 1986 after finishing high school in Davis to attend the University of San Francisco. He was joined in this avant-garde collective by percussionist/dancer Rono Tse, who would later continue with him in Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and Kevin Carnes, who would go on to form acid-jazz legends The Broun Felinins. The Beatnigs released a self-titled LP as well as the Television EP. They achieved regional acclaim in the Bay Area and Northern California.
In 1991, Franti and Tse started The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. They were joined by a then unknown jazz guitarist by the name of Charlie Hunter. The result was a further evolution of the politics, jazz, hip-hop, and industrial beats that had begun with the Beatnigs. It could be said that this album was a remarkable work of social activism as well the beginning of a new era in hip-hop.
Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy were an amazing live act. Franti’s delivery combined with Hunter’s sophisticated licks were stunning by themselves, but Tse turned the whole thing into an upside down art piece by taking his art to a new level. He would artfully dance all over the stage with balletic hip-hop moves, then pick up a grinder and put it to metal and percussively shower the audience with sparks to the beat of the music. It was a sight to behold. He had a modern medieval gallery of percussive tools at his disposal since he made metal furniture pieces on the side. At other times he would pick up a handful of chains and bang them on sheet metal to the music. Naturally, he kept gloves and goggles handy during the performances.
Broad topics like media influence, war, homophobia, immigration were interspersed with personal topics like the difficulty we all experience in taking the baby steps of self-evolution. Hiphoprisy was widely considered a brilliant work, so influential that the band was picked up by U2 to join them on the ZOO TV stadium tour. In the song “Language of Violence,” a groundbreaking hip hop song about homophobia, Franti rapped “Dehumanizing the victim makes things simpler, it’s like breathing through a respiratory, it eases the conscience of even the most calculating violator.”
An updated version of the Beatnigs song, “Television, the Drug of a Nation,” became a staple on college radio, as did the band’s version of the Dead Kennedy’s “California Uber Alles,” which put a new twist on Pete Wilson’s administration. “Satanic Reverses” referenced Senator Jessie, Salmon Rushdie, and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Meanwhile, “Music and Politics,” a sparse acoustic number with just Franti singing to Charlie Hunter’s jazzy licks was the first glimpse of the singer’s sensitive personal introspection and husky baritone as well as the Hunter’s incredible chops. There would be more of both to come in the future.
The next evolution took place in 1994 when Franti disbanded the Disposable Heroes and started Spearhead. The group’s first record, “Home,” was a departure from the heavy politics of Hiphoprisy. While Franti still examined social issues, this time it was from a more personal level.
“Home” was the first of Franti’s many collaborations with longtime bassist/producer Carl Young, who remains a permanent member of the band. Hunter was also on board for a couple of tracks as he prepared to strike out on his own. Notably, he came up with a memorable harmonica hook for “Positive.” This is the story of a guy who finds out he is HIV-positive and his subsequent navigation of this new reality. The hook was so catchy it was used on an NBC sports show. Franti and the band, which included the remarkable Mary Harris on drums and vocals, were part of the very first Smokin’ Grooves tour along with Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest and The Fugees.
Other tunes on the “Home” record showed Franti’s creative lyrical approach, like “Dream Team,” which envisions historical black figures in place of the 1992 Olympic basketball lineup. “Love is Da Shit” remains one of the singer’s great lyrical adventures in love and heartache. There were also serious metaphors addressing income inequality like “Hole in the Bucket” and the deep, dark brilliance of “Crime to Be Broke in America,” which examined the statistical social nightmares facing Black America.
One of the songs on the album that resonated on a celebratory note was “Red Beans and Rice,” which was a great foodie rap years ahead of Action Bronson. In fact, this album straddled a remarkable line between celebration, despair, and the social issues that accompany them.
The follow-up album, 1997’s Chocolate Supa Highway, tackled an even broader spectrum and featured guests Joan Osborne and Stephen Marley. It featured “Why Oh Why,” one of the truly gritty basketball songs of all time as well as “Gas Gauge (The World’s in Your Hands),” which starts off with hope and ends as one of the singer’s most heartbreaking tales about a brutal police shooting. One pattern that was emerging in Franti’s music was that he was ahead of his time in terms of his worldview. His manager at the time called him a “Prophet.”
About this time, Capitol Records, who had signed the artist, began to attempt to exert more pressure on the band to change their music to fit a pop format and Franti decided to bail and start his own label. He decided to create his own record label, Boo Boo Wax. Since Capitol Records owned the rights to the name “Spearhead,, subsequent albums were all released as “Michael Franti & Spearhead.”
It took until 2001 for the release the group’s next album but it was worth the wait. “Stay Human” was a conceptual album that featured a fictional radio station narrative going on in-between songs. It concerns the topic of a capital punishment case. Woody Harrelson, a friend of Franti, has a role on the album as a the governor calling into the fictional radio station.
“Stay Human” featured some very strong cuts as the band moved towards a more soulful sound. The groovin’ “Sometimes” was featured in a couple of movie soundtracks and the quirky title track introduced the oft-used expression “All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.” Meanwhile, the track “Oh My God” was a hard-hitting spoken word piece and perhaps one of Franti’s best songs about resistance. It was used on the gripping television drama “The Wire.” The album also featured cuts like “Do Ya love” and “Soulshine”, which were a glimpse into how the singer was examining how to hold on to his spirituality despite the pressures of the world. “World around, got you down, you got high blood pressure, people pushing you around.”
2003’s. Everyone Deserves Music was yet another venture into new territory. The title track became a new anthem. The hard-hitting song “We Don’t Stop,” created more groundbreaking sounds. It featured raps by Gift of Gab of Blackalicious and Spearhead’s sound-effect rapper Radioactive. This song grafted hip-hop, hard rock and Motown with a driving bass line in a style reminiscent of the Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven.
Franti had begun composing many songs on guitar and his vocals became less spoken word and staccato as he seemed to find a new comfort zone with his naturally sensual baritone. Another notable tune was the powerful ballad “Bomb the World” which featured reggae greats Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. It featured lyrics like “You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb it into peace” and became an instant peaceful protest classic.
After releasing a mostly acoustic album called Songs Fom the Front Porch later that year, Franti planned a trip to Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Iraq. The subsequent film I Know I’m Not Alone chronicled the singer’s journey as he examined the human cost of war. One of the striking things about the video, besides Franti’s interaction with soldiers and civilians from all sides, is that he is seen walking barefoot through all of the rubble of war. He had decided to shed his shoes in 2000 because he has traveled to so many countries where people do not have shoes. He has remained steadfast to that commitment ever since and became involved in a partnership with Soles4Soles, which has resulted in shoes being sent to over fifty countries.
His next album, Yell Fire, documented what he experienced on his journey to the Middle East and how he processed it all. The music on that album once again showed an evolution as it examined the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. The title track started with a big electric guitar riff and the words “Revolution never comes with a warning..” Meanwhile, “Light up ya lighter” stepped Franti’s protest game up to a new level with lyrics like “The press conferences keep on lyin’, like we don’t know.”
It also featured songs that sought to bring the world closer together like “East to the West” and “Hello Bonjour.” Once again, an amazing balance was struck by the singer and his band. Around this time, Franti’s music began to filter its way beyond popular music and into social movements. By this time, he had already been the producer of a free concert in Golden Gate Park called Power to the Peaceful Festival. The one-day festival ran for over ten years and was a day of music, art and action.
For the next record, 2010’s The Sound of Sunshine, Franti began recording in Jamaica but finished in Bali. By this time, Franti had gotten very serious about yoga and became involved in a partnership that led to building a project called Soulshine Bali, a hotel and yoga retreat. The music on Sound of Sunshine showed perhaps the mellowest Franti yet, with an incredibly catchy guitar lick propelling the title track. On the tour prior to writing and recording the album, Franti had suffered a ruptured appendix and was thankful to be alive. The song “Hey Hey Hey” is reflective of this situation and has become a show staple over the years since with lyrics like “Between the Wall Street buildings and the empty homes, between the lines of the people standing all in a row, there’s a crack in the gutter where the flower grows.”
The appreciation for life continued onto the next album All People (2013), which featured the catchy big-beat song “I’m Alive.” The album featured an interesting cover, with a beleaguered looking Franti dressed in a suit and being besieged on one side by the intensity of social protesters and on the other side being showered by love and peace, which has an intensity all its own. On the song “I’m Alive,” Franti sings “Everybody wants me to be who they want me to be except you. All I wanna do is be with you.” The song “11:59” was also a great number, with Franti returning to his spoken-word form to portray the urgency of grounding oneself in love during a times of continuing social turmoil.
Perhaps, reflective of his nature to attempt to help himself and others find balance, on the All People tour, Franti began to host mass yoga sessions before his shows. Hundreds of people would show up hours before the show and do the downward dog and other vinyasa flow poses as Franti and guitarist Jason Bowman played acoustically as a local yoga pro would lead the practice.
By this time, Franti had also experienced a performance evolution and had been touring with a couple of smaller stages in addition to playing on the main stage of each venue. At any point during the set, he would venture out into the crowd and pop up on one of the smaller stages. It became a very effective way to connect with everyone in the venue.
Soul Rocker, the singer’s latest release, came out in 2016 and continues the path set with All People in the realm of musical exploration. Tracks like “Still Standing” and “Get Myself to Saturday” continue the theme of persevering through personal challenges. In “Good to Be Alive” Franti sings: “Everyday I wake up and turn my phone on/I read the news of the day, just as it’s coming down/I do my best not to let it get me down.”
As Franti continues this journey at the age of 51, life has seemed to become clearer for him as he strives to find that ever-elusive balance between joy and despair for those struggling in the world. When he arrives in Grass Valley, he’ll be coming off headlining two consecutive nights at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Undoubtedly, he will step on to the stage barefoot, speak to some of the issues we all worry about, and rock the house with the spiritual celebration that being committed to ongoing evolvement and helping others can bring. Naturally, as he sang on the great track “Piece o Peace” on the Home record-”Cause food for the soul is the flavor of the music, spice for the brain is the essence of the lyrics, songs can be delicious and also be nutritious, you can’t pay for culture it can only be experienced.”
For more information about Michael Franti, see his website.
Photos by Paul Piazza.