How Michael Franti Finds Hope in Troubled Times

How Michael Franti Finds Hope in Troubled Times

How Michael Franti Finds Hope in Troubled Times

A music legend, and longtime Nation reader, talks about music, optimism, and Howard Zinn.

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Michael Franti has been at the forefront of the political music scene for 35 years. In the early 1990s, he led the groundbreaking hip-hop outfit the Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy, and since 1994 he’s headed the funk, reggae, rap, and pop musical melting pot known as Spearhead (now called Michael Franti and Spearhead). I spoke to Franti about our troubled times the night before his sold-out show at Denver’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheater. The next night, he stepped onto the stage in front of a packed crowd that seemed to know every word to every song. The concert was held on June 2, National Gun Awareness Day, and it has been an annual tradition for Franti to perform at Red Rocks, with Colorado having been home to several horrific mass shootings that have left a web of survivors trying to reform the nation’s gun laws. People throughout the crowd signaled their support for ending firearm violence by wearing bright orange. Between songs, Franti referenced The Nation interview, saying that he was asked what makes him optimistic in troubled times. He looked out at the crowd and said, “It’s all of you.” Then came an anthem that the audience sang with extra gusto. The song: “I Am Lost but Not Alone.”

—Dave Zirin and Dave Ashton

Dave Zirin and Dave Ashton: You’ve been doing this over 30 years. What musical advice do you wish you could have heard at the start of your journey?

Michael Franti: If there’s one thing I would say, it’s that things are going to be all right. There have been times where I’ve spent years worrying about things that never even came to be. It happens a lot with artists. We’re fearful of putting our voice out into the world or fearful of getting on stage and singing something that we wrote from our heart or fearful of being judged by others. But the only way to do art is to be able to be courageous and show your vulnerability—that ends up becoming your greatest strength, because that’s who you really are. There’s nothing more precious in the world than being your authentic self.

DZ & DA: Talk about a moment when your politics and music came together and pointed you towards that authentic self.

MF: When I was growing up, music was a big part of my life, because everyone in my family played music. I was adopted, and I grew up in this very mixed family of five kids. I grew up in this melting pot that was also a melting pot of music. There was church music and pop music and jazz music and punk rock and funk and just everything in our house. Music became a way for me to really give voice to my feelings. Whatever it was, whatever emotion was happening in my heart. When I couldn’t express it, I might hear a song that would express that exact thing I was feeling. If I had a crush on Sally Pinkner in my fourth-grade class but I couldn’t talk to my parents about it, I’d listen to a song on the radio by the Jackson 5 or something like that. I’d think, “That song says everything I’m thinking right now.”

One moment when it all really came together for me was when I wanted to write a song about HIV in the early ’90s. The first songs I wrote were like, “Eff the government, because they’re not responding to the AIDS crisis,” and so many people I knew in San Francisco were getting sick and dying. But I also realized that while we need to point a finger at the government, raising awareness is about telling stories and building relationships, and the best way to write the song was to go get tested myself, and then write a song about what it was like and what it felt like to be waiting for the results to come back. That’s what I did, and it ended up being this really positive, healing experience for me. It was a much stronger song to write about that than to only write, “Eff the government, because they’re not responding to the AIDS crisis.”

DZ & DA: I can absolutely see that a lot of your strongest work comes from a personal experience. What artists do you look to in creating this kind of politically empathetic music?

MF: Of the artists of my generation, I’ve always loved Ani DiFranco for being able to continue to write songs that are both personal and universal and end up being political that way. I always listen for songs that are about personal values, not just about issues. The thing about songs that focus on issues is that sometimes they die in a 15-minute news cycle. But if you write a song about your personal compass and beliefs, those things stick with you. I remember touring in 1988 on the first tour that Fugazi did. I was hearing Ian MacKaye and all those guys on Dischord Records and learning about the values and ideas they put into their songs. I’m always looking for artists who write songs from their hearts about things they believe in.

DZ & DA: You’ve really got this legacy of being a spokesman for people and for human rights. What do you say to people in the younger generation who are wanting to engage in the struggle but feel hopeless? What do you say to raise up the state of optimism?

MF: The main thing is: Don’t write songs as if you have everything figured out. Write about wrestling with the issues. For example, I wake up in the morning with a sense of who I am in the world and the place of God in the universe, and by noon I’m like, “There is no freaking God!” I go through those cycles all day, and I wrestle with those questions. I think it’s important for people to write about the wrestling match in their mind more than about thinking how you have everything figured out. That’s where the majority of the population is—trying to figure things out.

Another thing is to not be hindered by genre. Sometimes we think, “Oh, is this a rap artist or a reggae artist?” But if you look at the top artists in the world, like for example, Drake—people think he’s a hip-hop artist, but he’s a hip-hop artist who sings! And when he started singing, people were like, “What the eff?” And he’s a hip-hop artist who writes about what’s in his heart and about his emotional struggles. Those are the things that resonate. Even within that genre, the top artists are the ones who write outside the genre and try to break the mold and do different things. So, don’t get stuck in one lane.

DZ & DA: Indeed. You started out with experimental hip hop with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Television, the Drug of a Nation. You did some boom-bap albums for Capitol Records. Here on this Colorado junket, your musical offerings will include an acoustic set one performance, and another night it’ll be a reggae review, and then you’ve got this full Spearhead performance at Red Rocks. By stepping around all the established genre boundaries, how does that help you get your message across?

MF: Whenever I’m writing from an emotional place, I try to use music like artistic materials. If you’re somebody who says, “I’m a painter, but I’m only going to limit myself to white and red and black,” at a certain point you’re going to think, “I would love to mix in some yellow or blue or mix in a piece of old newspaper or grab an old piece of scrap iron and throw it on, and I’d love to video the whole thing and turn it into something that gets manipulated in a video way.” So as an artist, you have to remain open to whatever is going to respond best. Even though I write every song on the acoustic guitar, that doesn’t mean it’s the best treatment for it. It might mean that I use the acoustic guitar in a strings section or I go on a drum machine and use a boom-bap beat and combine melodies with that or maybe rapping over a banjo or whatever. You just try to find the best way to express it, because at the end of the day, music is the sound of feelings. That’s the most important thing. You have to be willing to experiment and make some failed attempts before you find an exact way to express it.

DZ & DA: “Music is the sound of feelings.” What social justice campaigns have you yourself been involved with in recent years?

MF: Well, everything. Obviously, the movement against police violence, the environment, being the best fella I can be to my nonbinary child and the LGBTQ+ movement. But the biggest one for me over the last year has been the issue of gun violence. I’ve seen us go from with fairly little gun violence to now having over 40,000 gun deaths per year in our country. It’s getting worse and worse, and I’m just astounded by how little effort is made each year to curtail that number. We see things that are happening today, like the “desire” to protect children against “child predators” or something. We’re trying to do all these things to ban people who we think maybe perhaps are doing that and aren’t even doing that, like the trans community and drag community who have no history of anything like that at all. And yet we see gun violence every day in the news, and nothing is being done to limit the access to those weapons or create training programs or expand background checks or put biomechanisms on the guns so no one can use them except for the owners. There are all these things we could be doing, and none of them are being done. It just pisses me off. That’s probably the thing that I’m most passionate about today. I live in San Francisco in Hunters Point. We’re in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of youth-on-youth gun violence. And then you go to other communities where it’s happening in schools or on street corners. And the majority of it is actually people taking their own lives in their own homes in accidental deaths. It’s just such a big epidemic, and it baffles me that we’ve done so little about it.

DZ & DA: A final question about the historian Howard Zinn…

MF: I love Howard Zinn!

DZ & DA: OK! So, do you see any connection between his work as a public intellectual and your work as a cultural worker in the public?

MF: The thing that made Howard Zinn so incredible was he tried to take back the narrative of history and put it in a way that wasn’t just about the history of the victors but about the history of the people and of humanity in this country, and to shine that light of truth. The thing that we’ve learned maybe in the last 10, 15 years with social media is that sometimes there are many perspectives of truth on one event. It’s really important that we have a holistic viewpoint on the big touchstones that we look back on as our history. Our perspective is what gives us the ability to judge what’s happening today. I think his ethos of being able to do that and say, “Let’s look beyond just what you’re reading about in your eighth-grade history book, and let’s find out more and talk to more people involved in this than just the people who ended up winning the crisis in that moment.”

DZ & DA: I love that because I think that’s something that separates your writing from some of your contemporaries in the mid-90s in hip hop. You’ve really had that ability to present the viewpoint of the underdog and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

MF: Yeah, and I think that today when we’re receiving so much information at such a high speed, the main thing that’s important for anyone to have is your moral compass. You’ve got to be able to look at the information coming at you and say, “OK, I hear this, I hear this, I hear this. This doesn’t seem like it’s fitting into what I know as my true north in the world.” For me, I always consider how decisions being made are going to affect people and our environment where we live. With AI, for example, where are we going to be in 10 year when every DJ session is programmed in advance to create a mood, and you just hit a button, and there’s no DJ required anymore? These are the kinds of questions we’ve got to wrestle with, and you’ve got to have a true north in your life, so you’re not just swayed by any meme or zealot that comes along telling you what to do or who to vote for or what to believe or how to feel. Understanding that is really what’s important.

DZ & DA: Michael Franti of Spearhead, thank you so much.

MF: Thank you, and I just want to add that I first subscribed to The Nation in 1987 or around that time, and it was almost like a newspaper version back then. It would come to my house, and we’d always be excited to read it. There’s different viewpoints that we weren’t hearing anywhere else. I just want to encourage people to get that perspective from other sources of news and information. It’s super important.

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