Michael Franti vividly recalls the foreboding sense of not quite fitting in as a child.
Growing up as a tall kid with African-American and Seminole blood on his father’s side and Irish, German and French blood on his mother’s side in a Finnish-American family in Northern California, Franti didn’t quite know how to connect with the kids in his neighborhood and easily could have retreated into his youthful shyness. But thanks to his adopted mother’s insistence that all of the children in her Neapolitan family receive the same opportunities and, perhaps most importantly, treat other people even better than they themselves wish to be treated, Franti has evolved into a loving, thoughtful and unifying personality.
Now an internationally known music star and filmmaker, Franti sees it as his responsibility and charge to help make those connections for people.
“As a teenager, I was overcome with my shyness,” said Franti, who plays Belly Up Aspen tonight and Thursday night as well as the Yoga and Live Music Extravaganza benefit for his Do It for the Love Foundation on Thursday night at the Aspen Institute’s Doerr Hosier building.
“It took great efforts through my sense of humor and my involvement in sports and the arts to get to the point where I felt like I could connect with people. Now, as an adult, I understand what it was like to be a kid at a concert and to not feel as though you fit in. I see it in their eyes, and I go to them, ... literally, out into the crowd, and I play to them.”
One hundred percent of the proceeds of the benefit go to Franti’s foundation, which provides the opportunity for people who are in the advanced stages of life-threatening illnesses, specially challenged children and wounded veterans to attend live concerts.
The foundation was formed after a Florida woman named Hope Dezember wrote to Franti on Twitter, explaining that her husband, Steve, was dying of ALS and that Franti’s upcoming concert at the Wanee Festival would likely be the last live performance that Steve would be able to attend. He wanted to meet Franti. True to his generous heart, Franti delivered not just to Steve Dezember but to dozens of people in impossibly difficult health crises.
“I invited Steve to the show, and my girlfriend and I stayed up the night before watching videos of Steve when he was an able-bodied man on their website. The next day when we met, he was in a wheelchair with 95 percent paralysis and a body of skin and bones,” said a resolutely positive-sounding Franti. “But you could see his spirit shining through and feel the love that Hope has for him. Steve told me that Hope said ‘yes’ to marrying him even though he knew he only had a few years to live.”
Franti credits the mountains of Colorado as serving as a sort of catalyst for the success of his band due to the many shows it played after battering itself playing in the snow before performing to crowds of amped-up skiers and snowboarders.
Franti was in Colorado on Sept. 11 and took a yoga class the next morning in an effort to de-stress. He found quickly that the practice connected the mind, body and spirit in a way that he previously has not experienced.
“Yoga really resonated with a sense of going deep into my body in a strong way,” said Franti, whose touring Soulshine summer festival will present multiple bands and mass yoga sessions alike. “I had been an athlete (the 6-foot, 6-inch Franti played college basketball at the University of San Francisco). It really resonated with the mindfulness of trying to quiet the chatter in my head as I was touring and life and family and all of the things taking place in the world. And, finally, the idea of open-heartedness ... being open to others. Yoga brings all three of these things together.”
Listen to any of Franti’s many songs in the past decade, and you will hear a soulful, skillful and at times bombastic and energetic blend of reggae, hip-hop, rock ’n’ roll and folk laced with seriously inspirational lyrics. But it wasn’t always that way.
Over the years (and the miles), Franti’s message on-mic and off has stayed fairly consistent: human unity, love and concern for a deteriorating earth. But his delivery has changed subtly from his early days with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopcrasy — an influential, mostly hip-hop band featuring jazz guitarist Charley Parker and Rono Tse that Franti fondly imagines re-forming at some point in the future — when taking on hard subjects of injustice with a whip-smart, full-force rapping rant was par for the course, a la their contemporaries Public Enemy. You might call this shift maturity or even enlightenment brought on by thousands of shows and millions of miles under his famously always-bare feet.
“I have always had this insatiable curiosity about music and communicating ideas and emotions through song. When I first started, I thought that writing angry songs about the bad things going on in the world was the best way to make change. But what I found is that people don’t always want to hear how bad things are,” Franti said, which he says has led some people on Facebook to claim he is a sell-out.
“Sometimes people would rather hear songs about how much they miss their girlfriend or how much they just want to let go of their troubles and dance off into the night,“ said Franti, who currently is working day and night (when not performing) on his new documentary, titled “11:59.”
“I started writing this song in 2004 after returning from singing to Iraqi citizens and U.S. soldiers on the streets of Iraq (the subject of his 2005 documentary “I Know I’m Not Alone”) and had this angry song about war and politics and climate and energy, but I never finished it. I started writing more uplifting songs about making it through life. Then I met people through my travels who were doing small things in their own backyards which have the chance to actually change the world,” Franti said.
The film features three of these people, who in a roundabout way inspired Franti to finish the song — now much more positive in nature — 10 years later. The song can be found on Franti and Spearhead’s newest record, “All People,” as well as the forthcoming film when it is released.
If you have ever been to a Spearhead show, you are familiar with Franti’s spirited trademark “How you feelin’?” exultations, a refrain that is not just a veteran live-performance barker’s rile-up; it is literally the philosophy by which he lives.
The man is interested in everyone, loves everyone and wants everyone to get along regardless of political borders, race or religion. This piercing interest in humankind is very natural to him and comes through in casual conversation as well as his music. After traveling the world several times over singing songs, he sees more in common with people than opposition.
“There are so many things we all have in common!” he said, laughing in a deep baritone gravel before resuming in his accent-less California cool. “We all have the desire to be loved and liked, the desire to succeed at whatever our creativity takes us, and, most of all, we all want to be happy. I’ve found that music is one of the roots to get us all there. People love to sing and dance. You can hear a lyric in any language and dance to it, or you can hear all kinds of beats that cross borders.”