SPEARHEADING UNITY: MICHAEL FRANTI URGES US TO WORK HARD, BE NICE
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
“Find something that you’re passionate about and work towards it and then find five or ten people in your life that do other things that they’re passionate about and try to amplify their message. Really, at the end of the day, just like I say [with] the title of the record, work hard and be nice.”
Michael Franti has challenged complacency and championed social causes since the early 90s as the main voice in the hip-hop group The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. With in-your-face song titles such as “Television, The Drug of The Nation,” “Everyday Life Has Become A Health Risk,” “Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury” and “Language Of Violence,” Franti made no secret of his intention to make an impact and a difference on this world. Well, mission accomplished. Amid the politicization of a worldwide pandemic and the pain, suffering and death caused by both the virus and ongoing police brutality, Michael Franti & Spearhead’s new music challenges us all to hope, heal and help others by being better human beings.
I recently spoke with Franti about his new uplifting album Work Hard and Be Nice. The set includes a hefty 17 songs that certainly accentuate the positive vibes one can’t help picking up from Franti’s music.
Thank you for your time and we’ll jump right into it because I know you would rather be chillaxin’ in Bali, which is where you are, correct?
(Laughs) That’s where I am right now, yeah. We own a boutique yoga hotel. My wife and I were leading a yoga retreat at the end of February. We planned on staying here a couple more weeks, but then our concert tour got moved back a month. During that time that we thought we would stay back the airport here closed down to incoming and outgoing travel. And so, technically we’re stranded on a tropical island (laughs).
Not a bad place to be stranded, I guess!
Cool, well let’s talk about this new work and great album. The new album is called Work Hard And Be Nice and it’s out now – thankfully – because we can certainly always use music from you. But especially now! What was the spark that led to the album title and title track?
Well, the title came from a t-shirt actually that I had made up on tour. I just thought that I wanted that to be the theme for our tour. Not necessarily the name of the tour, but just that I wanted us to embody that; those values as we went out as a band and crew. Just to work hard and be nice to people. And so we made a t-shirt that had that on it last summer and it became the most popular selling shirt on our tour by two-to-one. So, I was like, I gotta write a song about this (laughs)! So, I wrote the song about it and then it seemed like it was striking such a chord with our audience that we called the album and the tour for 2020 Work Hard And Be Nice. And I think the reason it resonates so much with people is that there is so much mean spiritedness out there in our country and on the planet today, where people are just mean to each other. And extremely intolerant, both in person and especially on social media. Then when you get into political or racial things, people start putting each other on blast over these things that really shouldn’t matter.
Well we’re gonna get into more of this in this conversation. I want to focus on the music, but the music deals with some of the things we’re talking about. The record includes a whopping 17 songs, including the lead single, “I Got You.” Is the hefty number of songs attributable to being quarantined or did you just have a lot to say?
I put it all together before the quarantine happened. I had like 25 songs or something like that and it was really hard to narrow them down. Most of my records have had about 13 songs on them. But, this time around I really wanted people to hear this song in this moment with what’s happening now around the world, and so I was I was just like, let me put all these on there.
Well thank you!
Tell me a little bit more about “I Got You.”
So, “I Got You” is a song that really just says to the people or the person you love the most that no matter what you go through – all these highs and lows that we’re experiencing right now – all this questioning and wondering – that what it’s gonna do is get us to a place where we can love deeper and fly higher, see clearer and burn brighter. And that through it all, I got you! No matter what happens, I got you. I’ve got your back. I’m here to hold you physically, I’m here to hold you emotionally. I’m here to just be your comrade and partner in life. I wanted that message to really be the first message that people heard from this record because it’s a really, really challenging time. I have friends say to me it’s a challenging time or a stressful time or it’s a painful time or it’s an arduous time or it’s a troubled time. And I look at all those adjectives and I say, yeah it is all those things and I feel all those things. But I think more than anything else it’s an important time. It’s an important time because all of us are being asked to look inside of our hearts and say, how do we want to be showing up for the people in our lives, for our own physical health, for our own emotional health, for our country, for the planet. And we’re all being asked to do things that bring about change. Right now, the big changes that we’re seeing are how do we stop this virus? How do we stop systemic racism in our country? How do we bring about environmental stability, which could be the thing that caused this virus in the first place? How do we show up for each other as friends, as family members through all of this? We’ve gotta do things differently and the world is telling us that.
We’ll touch on some of these things that you’re bringing up a little bit more in the conversation as we get into the other songs. I guess now I can say again, thank you for that song because not only is it a dancefloor filler, but it also fills the heart with the perennially positive vibes that you always provide. So, thank you, brother!
Thank you, man.
So, by my count this is the fourth conversation you and I have had over the years. The most recent was in 2017 just ahead of your performance at the Worldfest up here in Northern California. And, as in our previous conversations I always remind you that the first conversation we had was right after Barack Obama was elected for the first time.?
Now of course we’re speaking during a worldwide pandemic that you brought up earlier. So, we’ve seen good and bad s**t happen brother. And I think you know where I’m going with this (laughs). Talk to me about track three, “Good S**t Happens.”
“Good S**t Happens” is a song – like you mentioned – bad s**t happens but good s**t happens, too. We’ve gotta be prepared and open and working to make that good s**t happen. And sometimes the bad s**t like we see right now can be the fertilizer to bring about really positive change. But we’ve gotta set our eyes on that. We have to hold that optimism in our heart that says that we can envision a new and better future. And that we’re willing to take risks and that we’re willing to fight for that kind of future. And that’s what that song is about. Right now, I look at everything that’s happening in the world and although it hurts, and although it’s really intense, I’ve learned from my practice of yoga that sensations are just that. That you don’t have to put labels on them. Ultimately, we can take whatever sensation it is and turn it into positivity. This last year I was at Parkland High School, you know where the shooting took place (Stoneman Douglas High School) and there was a Holocaust survivor who was visiting one of the classrooms that day. He spoke and he said something I’ll never forget. He described his life as a teenager being put into a concentration camp. Losing his entire family. Being there for several years and then eventually going back to his village where he was from and that out of some 50 thousand people there were only two thousand that remained. He said for one year he cried every day. He would get up and cry and cry and cry until he couldn’t cry anymore. And he said that through that though he was able to heal himself. He was able to heal to the point that he was able to let go of all this intensity and sadness and pain that he had felt. But he said something I’ll never forget. He said, “from great pain comes great energy. And therefore, no pain should ever be wasted.” He said he should use your pain to work towards creating a better future. It was so powerful. And now I think about all the pain that’s happening in the world right now. And I think, how can each of us not waste it, but use it for something that’s positive. And that’s what the world is asking all of us to do right now.
I wake up every morning and I think about how I can do that? How can I be more positive? Give blood. So, something. One of the lines I picked out that is a favorite of mine from that song is, “Life goes quickly so take it slow.”
Yeah. I’ve just learned that life is gonna go by fast, no matter what, and so, we’ve gotta take the time to appreciate every precious second.
I’ve got this crazy philosophy: live life while you’re alive. It goes fast.
Yeah, there you go.
Speaking of good and bad s**t happening, you mentioned at the top of the conversation that touring was put on the shelf, due of course to Covid-19. But you’re doing a “Stay At Home Concert World Tour.” Why don’t you tell us about that?
As soon as the quarantining started happening, we created this (online) mock tour. Everyday we would do a song from a different part of our house. We would do a song in the bathroom, the next day something from the kitchen, the next day it was the bedroom. It was like we were on tour just in our house. And people really dug it. So, we thought, why don’t we try to do an actual ticketed concert. So, that’s what we’re doing. We’re doing these shows that are full-length, 90-minute concerts. You know when you do something online it’s like someone is experiencing it just sitting in front of their screen. And so, you can talk to them one-on-one and you can take the time to tell stories about the songs. You can get people up dancing in their living room. The first one that we did was a couple of weeks ago and it was awesome. The fans really took it upon themselves to create this virtual experience that was super fun.
Sounds like the ultimate house party. Where do they go to check these out?
You can go to michaelfranti.com to sign up. The next one is July 18th and the one after that is August 15th.
So, I wanted to ask you about track seven on the album “Breaking Down The Door,” which to me has a Mumford & Sons-meets-U2 musical vibe. Both very good things in my opinion.
Thank you! Well, first of all I agree with both of those references. They’re both bands that I love. The lyrics in the song say, “I learned to ride a bicycle by falling down a lot/I learned to swim in the river by trying not to drown.” The way that we learn things in life sometimes is through making mistakes. In the chorus of the song, it says, “I wanna thank all these things that have held me back.” What I’m most grateful for in life at the end of the day are my mistakes and the things that kicked my ass at first. They made me a better person. That’s what that song is about. It’s about breaking down all those things that block us from feeling alive.
That’s a good one. And U2, one of my favorite bands.
You know I toured with them.
It was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. We opened for them when I was in my second band The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. My music then was all rap. There was no real melody to the lyrics. Very intense, very in your face, very political. And I saw U2 perform and their music wasn’t as overtly political, but it was about the politics of the heart. It was about, how do we get through these challenges of life and still find happiness and joy. And how do we through a melody unite people. And I learned that melody is important. It was impowering to see that. It was another way of doing things, and I really tried to invite that into my music and still stay true to who I am and my voice and my message.
I think you’ve done a terrific job since then, brother. Putting that across. Let me quote a lyric line here, and please feel free to tell me if I screwed this up or got it wrong: “The whole worlds got a lockdown on your soul.” Did I get that right?
That’s from “Late It All Down,” track nine. Tell me about this one.
Sometimes I feel that way. I feel like the pressures of the world, they lock my heart down. It’s like, I don’t wanna be judged. I don’t wanna put myself out there in a way that people are, maybe, gonna attack me, or make me feel less than who I am. And so, then I don’t express myself. In that song I’m saying, you gotta find that courage. Just lay it all down. Whatever’s in your heart, put it out there for others to hear and see. You know, there’s gonna be some people who detract and judge you for being who you are, but there’s gonna be more people who are encouraged by who you are, who are gonna find that ability within them to then put their hearts out there. That’s what that song is about. In the verses I say, “We all have problems, we all go through a little pain/we all try to solve them but sometimes you can’t outrun the rain.” We try to fix out s**t, but sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we just can’t outrun the pain of life. It’s there and those are things that we all have to invite in at times and take those moments to just cry; just let our s**t out or scream or do something to just lay it all down and let it all go away.
That is an absolute perfect segue to my next question. Let’s talk about friends. Having them. Spending time with them seems to be very important to you, and of course should be to all of us.
You have two friends-related songs on the album: “The Friends Song” and “All My Friends.” Why are friendships so important to – in some ways – stay human, I guess?
Right now, our friendships have been showing up in different ways than they ever have been asked to before. It used to be my friends would text me and say, “Hey man, how you doin’?” and I’d write back and go, “I’m cool, how ya doin’ bro” and they’d be like, “great” and then that was it. But now my friends write to me and they go, “How ya doin’ man.” And if I write back, “I’m doin’ cool” they go, “No, I really mean like how are you actually doing? Are you physically well? Are you going through a rough time emotionally? Is your family okay? How’s your relationship with your wife? How you guys doing financially? How are you guys feeling about what’s happening in the news right now? My friendships have been showing up in a much bigger way than ever before. You know, I married my best friend. Not every day is perfect by any stretch, but there’s nobody who I’d rather spend more time with than her. And I just feel so grateful for that.
Two more questions for you Michael, and again thank you very much for your time. Actually, I have one question, and let me set this first one up for you. We’re talking about friends, and with that in mind I recently asked my friends, my great friends Charles and Kara – who are both huge fans of yours of course – to come up with a question for you…
Here it is: amid the chaos and confusion, the strife, of course the grief we currently find ourselves in, Kara wanted to know what small steps we can take and simple things we can do to make things better?
Well, the first thing I would say is follow whatever breaks your heart. Whatever breaks your heart the most that’s what you’re gonna have the most passion for it to want to see it get better. And then dedicate a part of your life to whatever it is. I have friends who are super passionate about marine mammals and they work all the time on efforts to protect dolphins and whales. I love dolphins and whales, but there are other things in my life that are more imminent for me. Gun violence is more imminent. It’s something that takes place in my neighborhood all the time in San Francisco. So what I do is I work a lot in the area of gun violence, but I have friends who work in dolphins and whales and what I try to do is amplify their message and support their message. So, find something that you’re passionate about and work towards it and then find five or ten people in your life that do other things that they’re passionate about and try to amplify their message. Really, at the end of the day, just like I say [with] the title of the record, work hard and be nice. Try to be a good person to other people. Try to be supportive of other people and uplifting of other people rather than tearing them down. We’ve gotta be kind to each other and know that there’s a different lane for each of us. We’re all going in the same direction, we’re all trying to do things, so let’s try to be as supportive and as open to the fact that everybody’s in a different place in terms of their awareness.
Cool! Thank you, and a shoutout to Kara and Charles!
Right on Kara and Charles!
Thank you! I just felt like with these songs I wanted to include somebody else. I wanted to bring someone else into the conversation.
Finally, let’s wrap up here. The album ends with the song “Watching The World Go By With You.” Perhaps the only thing more important in life other than friends is of course family. Would it be a safe bet to assume this song is about your wife?
Yeah, it is. I wrote it for her. It’s a song about the fact that we watch the world go by as we see the problems of the world taking place and that there’s also time when you gotta just sit back somewhere in nature and just watch the world silently go by as the beauty of the world unfolds and life unfolds. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record. I really hope this record can be that for people. It can be something that helps them get through the challenges that we’re facing right now, but at the same time inspires people to keep showing up.
I think you hit the mark, brother…again! Finally, thank you again for this set of tunes, for the time. That said, let me just end with this: if you can, please complete this sentence for me, and I’ll give you the first two words: Hey world…
Well, I have a song “Hey World” (laughs).
(Laughs) I know you do!
“Hey world, whatcha say, should I stick around for another day or two? Don’t give up on me. I won’t give up on you.” And I think that’s it. Don’t give up on me and I won’t give up on you. It’s so easy to look at everything that’s happening out there and want to dip out and be like, there’s very little affect that I can have, so I think I’m just gonna step back. But the world is really calling out for all of us to show up right now, and so, I won’t give up!
Alright, brother. And obviously I copped those two words from your song (laughs)!
I hope you won’t ding me for the rights or whatever (laughs)!
(Laughs) No, man, I love it!
Alright, Michael, thank you!
Alright, Jim. Great talking to you again, brother!
Always great to talk to you, and I hope we’ll be able to see each other again soon. Until then, take care and thanks for another great set of songs to help heal us all. Cool, thanks a lot brother!