Micheal Franti: On the radio, and at Jazz Aspen Snowmass
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Being in the Top 40 is a strange place for Michael Franti to be. So strange that the effects have been physical, and extreme. In the same week last month that his “Say Hey (I Love You)” landed on the charts, the first time Franti has had such radio success, the singer himself landed on the operating table for surgery to treat a severely burst appendix.”I was on the surgery table and the doctor’s telling me the severity of the infection,” he said from a tour stop in Chicago, “and I’m thinking, Great, we finally have a hit record and I’m not going to hear it on the radio.”Franti’s relationship with Big Radio hasn’t been entirely warm. On his 2001 album, “Stay Human,” he took something close to dead aim at commercial radio. “Stay Human,” which stands as Franti’s artistic high point, was a concept record intended to rally protest against the death penalty, foremost, but also globalization and corporate power. Much of the strength of the album was its structure – built as an ongoing community radio program, with songs interspersed with segments of chatter. “Stay Human” is intended as celebration of community radio, and inevitably, the way to boost small-scale broadcasters is to put down its mammoth, corporate counterpart. The repeated buzz-phrase is “What the others won’t say, what the others won’t play.” In “Listener Supported,” Franti sings “disregard the mainstream media distorted.”While Franti’s organs may have been shaken by the turn of events – “My body was revolting,” he jokes about the turn of events – his mind and mouth express appreciation for the success in the unlikeliest of places. Franti’s message, which alternates between poetically phrased outrages against corrupt power and (like “Say Hey”) uplifting words of brotherhood, will get out to people who might never attend his concerts, or seek out his recorded music. He tells of an experience a few nights ago, in New York City, when a cab driver from Ghana asked what kind of musician he was. Instead of trying to explain his mix of soul, reggae and hip-hop, Franti just nodded to the radio, which was playing his new his song. Franti muses that he would have been justified in saying that he was like Britney Spears or Jonas Brothers – a musician you’d hear on Top 40 radio.”It’s kind of surreal. I do accept the irony,” said Franti, who has a headlining appearance Friday with his group Spearhead at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, his second Labor Day appearance in three years. “I really have an appreciation for it.”Franti is 43, old enough to know not only the recent years of the radio giant Clear Channel and rigid playlists that are identical in Miami and Spokane, but also an earlier era, when radio was the essential outlet for popular music, and local stations had their own tastes and personalities. Franti remembers radio as a family thing – everyone listening to the same song, by Bill Withers or Sly Stone or Stevie Wonder – blasting from a boombox, as opposed to the more private experience ushered in by the iPod.”When I was a kid, I listened to Top 40 radio when we had a barbecue or drove to the Grand Canyon,” said Franti, who was raised by an adoptive family in Oakland, Calif., and came to music through a love of poetry. “When I think of my songs being listened to on a family reunion or on a car trip, it means something to me. “If it had happened to me when I had my first album, I wouldn’t have appreciated it the way I do today. After 20 years of touring, here it is.”Franti is clearly a different sort of persona than he was early in his career. He started out in an industrial punk group, the Beatnigs, whose best-known song was “Television: The Drug of the Nation.” (If Franti ever becomes a star on mainstream TV, he will really have a lot to answer for.) He then moved into the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, who continued to spew anger. “There was a time, when I first started writing, when I wrote everything from a place of anger. I was angry about a lot of things in the world, but I felt powerless to do anything about them,” said Franti in a 2004 interview with The Aspen Times. He overcame with action: “When I got involved with the things I was singing about – going to hospices, schools, … the military – it became less about being angry. Because I felt like I had my hands in things. It became uplifting.”The process of mellowing has continued. His latest album, 2008’s “All Rebel Rockers,” finds him raising his voice against government surveillance, in “Life in the City.” But the record, Franti’s most reggae-oriented effort, is skewed more toward lifting spirits than pointing fingers; witness titles like “All I Want Is You” and “I Got Love For You.”Franti’s next record – which is scheduled to be released on Rebel, a label owned by the entertainment giant Universal – seems likely to be filled with light. The central track, already written and being performed in concert, is “The Sound of Sunshine.” The song is about combating the current world worries with a positive outlook: “We’re in this really difficult time economically, and there’s always time to watch the sun go down, take a deep breath and clear our heads for tomorrow,” he said. The recent appendix incident only cemented that sentiment for Franti: “It was a reminder how fragile life is and how important it is to make time for family,” he said.The election of Barack Obama raised the spirits of Franti, who played at three events to commemorate the president’s inauguration. His words of praise are measured, but it’s not as if Obama is showing up in songs the way his predecessor was. (Sample lyric: “Bush war one and Bush war two, they gotta war for me, they gotta war for you,” from the 2003 album “Everyone Deserves Music.”)”The president of the United States has the most scrutinized job in the world. He’s got to please people on both sides of the aisle,” noted Franti. “The question is, Are we going in the right direction, towards solving climate change and health care for every person, stopping the wars, getting the economy back on track? Generally, we’re going in the right direction. But there are things I’d do differently.”With the clout of having “Say Hey” in the Top 40, Franti might have a slightly bigger voice to help Obama achieve those goals. “People who have heard that song, maybe they go out and hear all my music, and go and see my film about Iraq [the 2006 documentary “I Know I’m Not Alone”],” he said. “They send me e-mails and say they’re glad my music is in their lives.”Franti isn’t all that worried that the music might reach them via a radio signal sent by a huge corporation, and could be sandwiched between songs by Hannah Montana and New Boyz.”I don’t feel a bad sense of it at all,” he said. “I feel, Finally, there’s something good on the radio.”email@example.com
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