MICHAEL FRANTI has spent the past three months crossing America in a tour bus and what he saw out there, in the great wide open, did not fill him with hope.
“People in our country are divided,” says the singer, rapper, poet and advocate for shoeless living (he has gone unshod since 2000, though he will don flip-flops if a restaurant insists). “Donald Trump is selling is a brand of conservatism filled with division, racial rhetoric, religious discrimination and prejudice.”
Despite the gloom, Franti (50) does his best to stay positive. For the past three decades, optimism has been one of the songwriter’s trademarks. Now, more than ever, he feels it is important to stay upbeat. Look at where Trump and his negativity has brought us.
He movingly articulates this vision on his latest album, Soulrocker, an unashamedly feelgood mash-up of reggae, electronica and acoustic pop. The key track is ‘Good To Be Alive Today’, the melody to which popped into his head as he was taking a shower in the home of his friend, the actor Woody Harrelson.
“But what if this song’s number one,” he sings in his rich baritone. “Would it mean that love has won.”
“People are more aware of what is happening in the world,” says Franti, explaining his buoyant perspective in the face of a potential Trump presidency. “It’s hard to keep things hidden thanks to the internet. It takes a lot for governments or corporations to bury their garbage. That is a huge positive.”
Franti has been spreading his message of tolerance and brotherly understanding for decades. He broke through leading left-field hip hop outfit Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, whose 1992 anthem ‘Television, The Drug of the Nation’ predicted reality television and Fox News (Disposable Heroes would go on to demonstrate their mutability by serving as backing for a spoken-word project by William S Burroughs).
With Spearhead, he has followed a mellower, less didactic route — especially on Soulrocker which, in places, is a straight-up party record, which breaks new territory for the group by incorporating EDM beats and dance-floor friendly bass ‘drops’.
“I want to get people dancing,” Franti nods, who credits producer Dwayne Chin-Quee, for overhauling his sound. “To get them just moving and having a great time.”
Yet politics inevitably crept in too. As a conscious human being in America today, how could it not? Soulrocker’s recording sessions took place against a backdrop of what felt like unprecedented upheavals in the US. Trump’s rise, police shootings, tensions between Red and Blue states — these were not events that could be left at the studio door.
“All of those things were playing out and influenced the record,” says Franti. “There always seemed to be another police killing. The Eric Garner incident was being tried [Garner, a black man from New York, died in a police ‘chokehold’], the election was happening, the Paris attacks…. It all went into the music.”
Franti talks a good talk. But he is also been prepared to follow the rhetoric with hard action. In 2004 he traveled to Iraq, Palestine and Israel to learn first hand about the roiling conflicts that gripped the region.
The results are chronicled in the documentary I Know I’m Not Alone. Far from yet another celeb slumming it in a distant trouble spot, he displayed genuine empathy with the individuals he encountered and did not condescend to the viewer.
In Baghdad people frankly told him they were better off under Saddam; in the Gaza Strip he gave Palestinians and Israelis their say. Combatants who had remained intractable for decades willingly opened up to a shoeless man with an acoustic guitar strapped to his back.
Franti was born in Oakland, across the bay from San Fransisco. His mother put him up for adoption because she feared her family would not accept a mixed-race child. He was adopted by a middle-class Finnish-American couple and, excelling at school, won a place at the University of San Fransisco, a Jesuit college with a strong tradition of advocating social justice.
It was a perspective he would channel into his music. His first band, The Beatnigs, spliced punk and spoken word. With the Disposable Heroes he added hip-hop and became the toast of the early ’90s alternative culture.
Franti continues to speak out against injustice. The curse of gentrification, in particular, is a subject close to his heart. “My family and I live in Hunter’s Point, one of the last black neighbourhoods in San Fransisco. We have a lot of police violence — a lot of gang situations, drugs, all of the problems of the economy of drugs. It’s not just our community that consumes them — but others that come to our community from outside.”
Having grown up in San Fransisco, he has been astonished by its seemingly un-poppable tech bubble and ensuing property boom, which has now reached a point where anyone earning less than $100,000 a year can find it difficult to get by. He’s lucky in that he was already a decades-long resident as the city become unaffordable. But he wonders how a young person could possibly get a foothold here.
“It’s very different,” he says. “San Fransisco was once a place hippies flocked to. You used to able to get an apartment for six people and start a band.
“The idea of starting a band in San Fransisco now… I mean, holy shit. Who’s going to come here from Oklahoma? It’s not possible. But then, in other ways, it was always a tough place.
“It felt expensive to me when I was 21 and working as a bike messenger and had just had my first son. You had to struggle then too.”
He is looking forward to returning to Ireland. Franti’s birthmother is second generation Irish and he has long felt a connection. Getting back is always a highlight, he says.
“I feel an affinity with the warmth, with the tradition of storytelling. And with the openness. I always enjoy coming and playing to my people there.”