Michael Franti plays Belly Up, launches foundation in Aspen
August 20, 2013
Michael Franti & Spearhead
Do It for the Love launch event
Further information: doitforthelove.org
Michael Franti has seen what being a provocateur can do. In the bands he has part of early in his career, the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Franti railed against injustice, often in abrasive fashion.
The Beatnigs occasionally used power tools onstage to create their industrial sound. When Franti broke off to lead Spearhead, the music became gentler, a fusion of rock, reggae and hip-hop, but the words remained fierce. "Stay Human," his album from 2000, was a conceptual work that spoke out against the death penalty; it also took a stance against mass media and corporations. "Everyone Deserves Music," from 2003, had a strong anti-war theme, and in the song "We Don't Stop," he named names: "Bush war one and Bush war two/ They got a war for me and a war for you." There was always a softer side — in the title track of "Everyone Deserves Music," he puts forth the generous idea that "Even our worst enemies/ They deserve music" — but Franti at his core seemed to like agitating, drawing lines between sides.
"When I was young I liked music that was super-rebellious," Franti, who is 47, said from Saratoga, Calif., where he was playing the Mountain Winery, the sort of upscale venue that probably wouldn't have welcomed the Beatnigs. "Things like people coming together weren't that important to me. I think music has always been about sharing your heart, inspiring. But there are different ways of doing it."
A dynamic performer and a compelling presence as a 6-foot, 6-inch, barefoot, dreadlocked singer, Franti grew in popularity. But when his mainstream breakthrough came, in 2009, it was with the song "Say Hey (I Love You)," an uptempo proclamation of love that was cheerful enough to be used in an ad for Corona beer. His next album was "The Sound of Sunshine," which was as optimistic as its title promises. Franti's most recent album, released in late July, is "All People," whose opening title track is all about unification and connection.
Franti says the transformation stems from having seen what a pop song can do, seeing that a catchy dance tune can make as much of an impact as a protest song. "I want to write songs people can sing along to, dance to, that have great melodies that people can remember," he said. "I've seen the power of that, how these things can change people's lives. In my darkest times and my happiest times, these songs are there for me."
In his latest visit to Aspen, Franti, a frequent performer here, spreads his upbeat message in several ways. Monday night he performs at Belly Up. On Tuesday, he launches his Do It for the Love Foundation with an event at a home on Red Mountain. The new foundation comes out of his relationship with his girlfriend, Sara Agah, an emergency room nurse. The two wanted to combine their work in some way, so Do It for the Love gives people with severe illness the chance to see their dream concert.
"We'd meet people in concerts who were in advanced stages of cancer. They always said their dream was to go to one last show," Franti said. "We wanted to bring as many people as we can to a concert." (For another angle on that idea there is the film "Life According to Sam," which should be a highlight of this week's MountainSummit festival at the Wheeler Opera House.) The event in Aspen will include an intimate performance, a meet-and-greet with Franti, and a silent auction with items including a guitar hand-painted by Franti.
In the new album "All People," that upbeat feeling gets bumped up further with the sound. While most of Franti's music has been about making people dance, no matter what the message was, "All People" is in the dance music style, including the sunny single "Life Is Better With You."
"We wanted to combine songwriting in the classic form, acoustic guitar and vocal, and mix it with dance music, electronics," he said. "We put the most danceable beats that we can on it. So much dance music today is about one line of a song and one beat. We wanted danceable songs that told a story."
Franti's transformation can be seen as the natural arc from angry young man to a more mature being willing to accept the faults in the world and his place in it. "We have 'x' amount of days on the planet. Who do I want to spend them with and how do we want to leave the planet for the next generation?" he said. "You have to talk about what's happening in the world and in my heart, and you have to find a transformation."
Franti pinpoints several concrete things in his life that have pushed his music toward its brighter tone. He has two sons. "I'm working to see them live in a world that gets a little better each day," he said. He has also traveled extensively; the 2005 documentary "I Know I'm Not Alone" followed the singer through Iraq, Israel and Palestine, conversing with people who were working to bring peace to the Middle East.
"Spending time in Israel, Palestine, East Timor, you see how music is in these places where life is so day to day," he said. "But at night, they still put music on and dance and sing and celebrate, even in times that to other people are unbearably bad."
Some years ago, Franti began doing yoga. At first his practice emphasized the physical. "It was physically demanding, to make my body fit," he said. Over time, though, he saw a bigger purpose, and the course of his yoga practice mirrors in a way the changes in his music.
"Yoga, you do it with intention," he said. "You try to set something that is greater than ourselves. In our house we say, Be your best, serve the greater good, and rock out. Rock out wherever you are."