By: Greta Cornett
Michael Franti is known for breaking musical and cultural barriers with his feel good music and humanitarian efforts. He’s not only a musician, but a poet who is able to put the words to stories that have no voice. His best story may be his own and how he made his way to headlining festivals around the world, including this year’s Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest.
While attending the University of San Francisco, Franti bought a bass at a pawn shop and began experimenting with different styles of music. He played in a string of eclectic groups before starting Spearhead in 1994. Their first album was laced with soul and funk but garnered little success. For their second attempt, the band returned with a lineup change and a different sound. Hip-hop and reggae were on the forefront of 1997’s Chocolate Supa Highway with guest appearances from Stephen Marley and Joan Osborn. After putting out their first two albums with Capitol Records, the band wanted to start their own label. Capitol Records owned the name Spearhead, so all subsequent recordings were released as Michael Franti and Spearhead.
As the band continued to churn out records, Franti’s songwriting continued to connect his music and lyrics into meaningful messages. He sang of the death penalty, corporate globalization, and peace. The sincerity and honesty in his words allowed him to navigate through tough subject matter with grace.
Franti’s commitment to peace led him to make his own film about the costs of war. In I Know I’m Not Alone, he explored not only the political and economic price of the war in the Middle East, but also the human cost. He traveled to Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian territories with no government groups and armed only with his guitar. In 2001 Franti was awarded the Domestic Human Rights Award for his work to end the war.
Michael Franti and Spearhead had developed an international fan base but commercial success continued to avoid them. It wasn’t until 2009 that Say Hey (I Love You) landed in the Billboard Top 20, but Franti almost didn’t get to experience his success. While on tour he suffered a ruptured appendix and was rushed to the hospital. He explains in interviews, “The funny thing is that ‘Say Hey’ went into the Top 20 right as I was being wheeled into surgery. I got the text, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve finally got a hit record, and I’m not even going to live to enjoy it.’ That put everything in perspective too.”
It was during his hospital stay that he wrote the songs for what critics call his best material to date. The Sound of Sunshine is an intimate look into Franti’s life. He puts it best, “With time, you get a better sense who you are and how to put together all your musical passions into your own sound. I feel like for a long time, I dabbled in other sounds, like ‘let’s do something with a reggae vibe here’ or ‘let’s really rock here.’ But now, I write everything from the acoustic guitar up — which keeps you honest.”