‘Too much at stake’: Michael Franti discusses music’s role in increasing optimism and understanding

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Michael Franti can’t be labeled, boxed in, or defined. And that’s the way he likes it.

Born in Oakland, the son of an Irish, German and Belgian mother and an African American and Native American father, his identity finds form where these threads meet. A singer, songwriter and filmmaker, his line of work defies typology: he’s an artist and a storyteller, a poet and a “soulrocker.” The music he writes blends genre and style — albums converge at the corner of funk and soul, or pop and reggae, or rock and folk, with a dash of jazz. His earliest work from the 1990s is grounded in industrial hip-hop — scathing social commentaries about corruption, hypocrisy and power. His newer songs, with his band Spearhead, explore lighter themes of love, community, humanity and friendship.

But regardless of time, Franti’s work is almost always rooted where music and politics intersect, where the arts become activism, and where activism inspires action. Franti’s geographic coordinates are ever-changing as he travels the world with his guitar on a quest to spread optimism through music. On March 8, he performed in Kampala, Uganda, at #GirlsFest19 for the nonprofit Reach a Hand Uganda. Through making music — that gift so capable of capturing the prismatic emotions each of us carry through life — he tries to understand what it means to be, and ultimately stay, human.

Daily Californian: Your story started in Oakland. Despite your travels, you continue to be drawn back to the Bay. What is it about this place that brings you back?

Michael Franti: I was born in Oakland. I was adopted by the Franti family who were second-generation immigrants from Finland. Their family came to this country seeking a better life, just like millions of families have for decades and still do today. They had three kids of their own and they adopted myself and another African American son. So I grew up in this super mixed melting pot of a household.

My mom was a schoolteacher, my dad was a math professor. And with five kids on a teacher’s salary, it was challenging. But my mom wanted all of her kids to explore creativity and be our unique selves and not be pigeonholed into the slots that society tells us to be because of our skin color, or our body shape, or our sexuality. So I really feel that in that way, the Bay Area has shaped my life. As much as my mom encouraged me to be my authentic self, the Bay Area is a place that is more welcoming of that than perhaps any other part of the country. As I have traveled around the country, I know how hard it is for kids in other communities that aren’t as open-minded and open-hearted as the Bay Area.

Just as I feel a sense of gratitude for having grown up there, I also feel that as I go out into the world, I should carry the message of where I came from and this community. I want to spread that openness and connectivity to people in other parts of the country and the world through my music.

DC: Can you provide a framework for your creative process? Perhaps run through your songwriting experience and what themes you try to convey through your music?

MF: I believe that music is found(ed on) feelings. I use a wide range of colors in my palette for whenever I approach anything creatively. (Do I feel) sadness …joy …passion… rage… what is the emotion that’s coming through me? What does this feel like in my body? Then I let it flow. It never comes out the same way twice. One moment it might be a phrase of words and the next a phrase of a melody. Usually when I’m working on a song I start on the acoustic guitar and I start to hum melodies and find words. I start to fill in the blanks.

My father was a woodcarver. He’d always look at a piece of wood and he could see in his mind what was in that wood that he was going to carve. He could see the shape of the wood. He said his job was to eliminate everything else that was there except for that (envisioned) form.

I want my songs to be anthems for inclusion, or (for) reducing gun violence like with the song “The Flower.” I want them to be anthems for reminding us that even with chaos, and pain, and hard times out there, we can still have gratitude for the little things in life and laugh and care for other people and dance with our family in the kitchen as we cook.

DC: I think a lot about how music can be a source of freedom in tough times, especially some of the darker moments of history, like struggles during the Civil Rights movement. Can you speak a little bit about how, if it does, music gives you a sense of freedom?

MF: When people are suffering, one of the things that keeps people going is faith — a hope that there is something out there — there is something greater than ourselves that will navigate us, that will protect us, that will guide us, that will nourish us. And you have to have some sort of expression of that faith. If all you have are the instruments in your hands — or just your voice — people find a way to create that expression of that faith, that spiritual music that gets them through, that helps them to laugh and helps them to have that tenacity and that spirit of overcoming.

Today we’re at a time where we’re challenged everyday by what we see in the news. The news used to be this small group of people who owned the newspapers and television and radio. Now, everyone can post news… you’ve got billions of people’s stories, some of which are factual… and some that are deviously trying to sway other people’s opinions and it’s difficult to know what is real and what is not. It makes me feel that all of us need to have our internal moral compass, brought to us by our family values, or our spiritual values, or it’s what we’ve discovered on our own. Part of my journey in music has been to learn more about who I am, and then to be able to express those things freely.

DC: Within the music industry, you have gone between being an independent artist and being signed. Can you discuss musical freedom in this context?

MF: I’ve been at labels throughout my career — from doing it totally on my own to being at Capitol Records and Universal — and everything in between in the 30 years that I’ve made records.

The thing that I’ve learned is that it’s all a matter of scale. When you are working at a big record company, they’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to make millions of dollars or tens of millions. When you’re working independent, you’re spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to make hundreds of thousands or a million dollars.

But what really makes a difference is if people are passionate about what they do. You could be at the biggest label in the world with all kinds of money but if the people there are not passionate about your music and excited to go to bat for you everyday, it’s really hard to promote your music. I’m in a situation right now where we create our records independently then we license them to the label Thirty Tigers. They are phenomenal — the people there are so passionate, they are fighting everyday to get our music heard.

From an artist’s perspective, it’s not important how much you spend or whether you’re with a big label. What’s important is that you believe in your art, that you can find other people around you who are as passionate as you are about your message or shared message, and then you have to go out there and work your tail off — fight for space out there. The final thing is treat everyone that you meet with kindness and respect so that you’ll be invited back. Some years you might have a big hit, some years you don’t, but you still want to be invited back — especially in the years you don’t (make it big).

DC: I know your new film “Stay Human” investigates the diverse ways that people live and experience the world. Do you have one or two short anecdotes of particular individuals — perhaps from your travels — that you’ve met who have really shifted your perspective on life and music?

MF: My film is all about how I wake up everyday and I read the news and I feel bummed out about what’s going on in our country and in the world.

But then I get out into the world and I meet people and I’m reminded that humanity is still out there and there are people doing billions of little things to make billions of people’s lives better. (One shift is) when I met Hope and Steve Dezember. Steve is living with very advanced stages of ALS, and his wife Hope tweeted me (one day) saying ‘he’d like to come to one of your concerts.’ And we invited them and when we met she said this is probably going to be one of the last concerts Steve can go to — his whole body was stiff, he could only move his eyes and his lips from his disease.

In the middle of the show I look over to them on the side of our stage and Steve’s in a wheelchair and he whispers into Hope’s ear, “I want to get up and dance.” And so with all her strength, she lifts his body out of the wheelchair and they have this beautiful slow dance in front of 20,000 cheering and crying fans including myself. Afterwards I said ‘What does this mean to you, Steve, to be up there?’ He said, ‘Yesterday when I was wheeling around the festival, people just looked the other direction, the don’t really know how to connect with me. But after that moment I became Steve.’ People were saying ‘Hey Steve, come dance with us, come party with us, come hang out with us, we’re happy that you’re here.’ He said it was really a game changer for the way that he felt about himself living with his disease in this world. And that inspired my wife and I to start Do It For The Love which is our nonprofit. We bring people with advanced stages of life threatening illness and children and wounded veterans to see any concert.

DC: You’ve spoken about your experience with mental health and how you work to channel your emotional journey toward optimism through your music. When you wake up everyday, what do you do to find peace, be clearheaded and remain optimistic?

MF: Throughout my adult life, even up to today, I have battled depression and anxiety. At one point, I was even prescribed medication for a while. I had to start finding new ways to deal with it.

The first thing I’ve learned is that if I can change my thoughts, I can change my feelings. It sounds super easy on paper, but when you’re spiraling — an action figure trying to swim out of depression and anxiety — it’s being able to practice that ability to change your thoughts when things are good so that when you start to get into the downward spiral you’ve had practice to get out of it. Think positive thoughts.

Doing something physical helps too. I love to practice yoga or go for a walk or run or I get into a headstand so I can physically see the world in a different way.

The other thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to take a “social sabbath.” Today I’m turning my screens off. So much of my anxiety I found comes from the information I’m getting from my screens. My wife and I have started to do that — even if half a day — we’ll check messages and emails in the morning and then take a social sabbath from 11 (a.m.) to 11 (p.m.) and shut it off.

The other thing is to be able to talk. Create friendships with people who get it. People who understand when you’re going through rough times. It’s that idea between connectivity and isolation. When I’m in a state of isolation — the middle of the night by myself in a hotel room — my mind goes totally crazy. But if I can pick up the phone in those hours and call a friend that I have who is awake in another part of the world, it helps me a lot. Find people that you can confide in.

The final thing is chocolate. It always works.

DC: You just released your new album, Stay Human Vol. II. You’ve meditated on this concept of ‘staying human’ ever since your first Stay Human album came out in 2001. The song of the same name from that album is one of my favorites. Can you talk about what this phrase means to you?

MF: When I say stay human, I don’t mean be perfect. In fact, I mean the exact opposite. One of the things that unites us as people is that none of us are born perfect — we’re all born with insecurities, fears, looking different, with different strengths and things we’re not so good at. As we grow, we start to learn what it means to be our authentic self but at the same time there’s this part of us that is trying to desperately fit in. These things come at odds with each other and it causes friction and pain. But as we grow, we take ourselves to our growing edge and we go through those hard times and we find that we are stronger. You understand who you are better. You know that when that (friction or pain) arises again, you can hold onto your authentic self. That’s what I think a strong person is.

How do we stay human? By being able to see the human in others. Being able to say ‘I’m Michael. I love music, I’m a father, I love to make films, go in nature, cook’ and to be able to look at someone else and say, ‘Oh, that’s Joe. And he has a boyfriend. And he also likes to cook’ and ‘Here’s Martha, she’s a schoolteacher and has never been in a successful relationship and she is happy being herself.’ It’s being able to accept each person for who they are and finding commonalities rather than trying to divide us into groups.

I feel like the great battle that’s taking place today in the world is between cynicism and optimism. I’m somebody who wants to be a spokesperson for optimism because I see that it works. And I see that when we get down, when we lose, when we shift to the side of cynicism, we stop trying. We give up, we say ‘The world is fucked, fuck it.’ We can’t be that way now. There’s just too much at stake.

Contact Danielle Miller at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dmillercal.