Through the crackling static of daily life and the constant hum of marketing machines, it's easy to lose track of your individuality and spirit.
For San Francisco poet, activist, rapper and musician Michael Franti, music is one of life's gifts keeping us human, giving us joy and a reason to move.
“It takes two things [to stay human]-the first is faith and hope. And the second is the expression of that faith and hope, which is music,” said Franti during a recent cell phone conversation as he walked the streets of San Francisco. “That's what we have to lean on when times are difficult: culture, song and dance. The more that we know about other people's cultures, the more we have to lean on in times of difficulty.”
Franti's voice, like his music, comes slow and easy in a deep baritone. But his words, like his lyrics, carry the force and emotional sway of a preacher, using his strong political convictions and clever word play to drive a point home.
“Unfortunately, most Americans are not privy to the foreign policies of our government, and I don't blame it on us. I think it's an organized effort to keep people in America in the dark,” said Franti. “It leads me to the understanding that we can bomb the world to pieces, but we can't bomb the world to peace.”
Despite being anti-war, pro-hemp, anti-police state and pro-human rights, Franti knows how to keep it all in perspective.
“Not everybody agrees with the sentiments of the songs, but I try to present the songs so it's not pointing a finger at them,” said Franti. “That includes keeping a sense of humor about the larger picture, but at the same time [not bowing] down from being confrontational.”
Humor combined with a sense of political purpose marks Franti's leadership of the loose soul/hip-hop collective Spearhead. From the funk grooves of 1994's Home (sporting the single “Hole In The Bucket”) to the harder-edged dub reggae vibe of 1997's Chocolate Supa Highway, Spearhead has made its mission to move the body and educate the mind. Their latest album, Stay Human, takes aim at the death penalty, the war on drugs and California's controversial “three-strike” criminal code.
The band's sound is informed by Franti's musical journey, a quest that has led to him find “a conscious voice” in varied genres: soul music's spirituality, reggae's political voice, punk rock's anger and hip-hop's lyricism. The result is their own brand of political hip-hop, with Franti's voice serving as one of the few fighting the genre's bling-bling mentality.
“In some ways, it's been sad to see where hip-hop has gone. In the last 10 years, the biggest influence on the genre has been money,” said Franti. “At the same time, I'm excited to see a whole new generation of young people who have embraced hip-hop from the angle of the four or five elements of hip-hop culture: breakdancing, graffiti-writing, rhyming, beatboxing and the fifth element, which is the conscious element, and what it means to young people who are struggling to find a political voice.”
Technology has played a key role in Franti's freedom of expression, allowing him to release albums on his own Boo Boo Wax Records and license the records to larger companies for distribution.
“Technology has created some leveling of the playing field, as long as musicians are willing to be realistic about the way they live,” said Franti. “Because of technology and home computers, you can produce your records a lot cheaper than before. You can market and distribute your records on more of a grassroots level through the Internet and through touring. As long you keep expectations realistic as far as what you're going to sell, just like any other business.”
Whatever the future may hold for Michael Franti, he's going to take an active part in shaping the world through his own actions.
“The best way to shape the future is to create it,” said Franti. “How we would like the world to be, try to be it ourselves. So if we want the world to be a less polluted place, practice recycling and support businesses that don't pollute. If we want kids to have opportunity, then love them at home and love other children as if they were our own. Exploring our creativity, dancing and moving, and finding positive ways to let go of our tension helps us day by day.
“Maybe music can't save the world overnight, but I know for a fact music can help us get through a difficult night,” Franti concludes. “Sometimes, that's all we can hope for.”