American poet, musician, and composer Michael Franti and his band Spearhead have been rocking their message of peace, love, and social justice since 1994.
Blending funk reggae, jazz, folk, and rock, their album is “All People.” Their high-energy shows, which they perform around the country, get the audience jumping, singing, and dancing.
Often the band is part of ensemble shows, including their performance on Dec. 14 at the 25th annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam in Ashville, NC. We were privileged to meet Franti and interview him at his hotel just before the concert.
Check out our podcast interview on the Inkandescent Radio Network. And scroll down for our Q&A.
Be Inkandescent: Let’s start off talking about your Do It For The Love Foundation. What inspired you and co-founder Sara Agah to create this nonprofit organization?
Michael Franti: My better half, Sara, is an emergency room nurse, and for the last couple of years we have been trying to figure out a way to combine what she does in healthcare with my music. Our Do It For The Love Foundation brings people to live concerts who are in an advanced stage of a life-threatening illness, as well as kids with severe challenges and veterans.
It’s the perfect fit because I’ve been making music and touring for 27 years, and over the years, I have had a lot of people tell me they know someone who is dying and would love to meet me. I’ve been in Iraq to play music on the streets for both Iraqi civilians as well as soldiers. I have played in Walter Reed Hospital and I have met a lot of veterans along the way, and a lot of families who have kids with special needs. We started the Foundation in August 2013 and it has really taken off. We started out assuming just the two of us could do it all ourselves, and now it has grown so large we have one full-time worker and are about to hire a second one.
The best part of my work with the Foundation is meeting people. Just last night I met a young woman who has lymphoma and has had a difficult life. Although she is an honors student, her disease has worsened to the point where she has had to stop going to school. A friend of hers got in touch with us and they all flew down to our show as a surprise to her. When I sat and talked with her, she told me she has lived with pain her whole life, and it is just getting worse and worse. She says she doesn’t have much time to live, but that she is worried about the world, and that if she could take away everyone’s pain even just for 15 minutes, she would take it on herself.
I was so moved by hearing this 20-year-old woman say that, and by meeting her younger brother and his friend who were both 17 and who had pulled off this whole plan to get her here through our Foundation.
Be Inkandescent: That’s a big theme for you, too, the idea of taking on the world’s problems as your own and trying to come up with solutions. What inspired you to have that as your mission?
Michael Franti: When I was a born, my birth mother carried me for nine months and then she held me for one hour and gave me up for adoption. I was adopted by the Franti family. They are Finnish-Americans, second generation in this country. They had three kids of their own, and they adopted me and another African-American son, and I grew up in this very mixed household.
My mother was a public school teacher in California for 30 years, and she was very much a leader in our house. She insisted that even though we were all very different—different heights, different colors, different views on the world—she would treat all of us the same, and we would all have the same opportunities to succeed. I really learned that ethic from her, and I believe it’s the same for the whole world. We all should share the same rights and should be given the same opportunities to succeed. We see places where this is not happening, and it takes the efforts of the rest of us to try and give a boost to people who need it. You see it whether it’s war, poverty, or because of climate changes affecting people around the world.
For example, I was in Southeast Asia visiting with a family in East Timore who was raising ducks instead of chickens. I asked why they had switched to ducks, and they said, “We used to have this long rainy season where the rain came slowly, but now the season is shorter and drier, and when the rain comes, everything floods. Ducks swim.” So these are the things I write about and try to work on as much as I can.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us more about the work you do traveling around the world to promote your message of love and social justice.
Michael Franti: I’ve had the opportunity to play for people in so many different countries and under so many circumstances. We have played in prisons, schools, on the street … we play all over the world. But I’ve found that it doesn’t matter where you play, it doesn’t matter what economic sphere people are in or what education, culture, language, or religion … people are the same when the music starts. You look in their eyes and see smiles, people start to dance, they start to move, eventually people laugh, they cry, they hug their friends. Music really is a universal language. One of my favorite things to do is to travel and play with people of other cultures and other musical experiences that I didn’t know about.
Before I was traveling as a musician, I worked as a doorman in a nightclub, and I was a bike messenger for three years. When I was a bike messenger, I would deliver checks to people for hundreds of thousands of dollars and deliver architectural plans for buildings that were worth millions of dollars … and no one ever clapped! They barely said thank you, it was usually just “sign here,” and that was it. Now I really get to make people happy. It’s fun.
Be Inkandescent: How did you hook up with Warren Haynes to play at his 25th Annual Christmas Jam in 2013?
Michael Franti: I met Warren 10 or 12 years ago at a festival we were both playing at. Warren is one of the nicest people I know; he’s really a kindhearted person. One of the beneficiaries of this Christmas Jam is Conscience Alliance, which is a food bank; they collect food all over the country and distribute it to people in need. He’s also a giver with music.
For this festival, Warren brings in individuals from nearly 70 different bands, and then he creates collaborations based on his intuition. The first one we did was about four years ago. Warren came backstage and said, “Michael, you got a minute? There’s this guy who wants to sit in with you.” I said, “Who?” He goes, “John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin. Do you mind doing a song with him?”
My mouth hit the floor. Through nearly tears I responded, “Of course I’ll do a song with him!” He walks into the room and takes out his mandolin and starts playing this song with us. We were so blown away and happy. We played a whole bunch of songs, and finally we had done a whole set of probably 12 songs backstage. Right before we were walking on-stage, I said, “John, is there a song you wanted to play on?” and he said, “Well, Michael, I thought I’d play mandolin on the first four, then I’d play bass on the next five, then drums on the last three,” and I just said, “All right, Dude, let’s do it!” and he ended up playing the whole set with us!
That’s the kind of magic that happens here.
Be Inkandescent: Greg Allman, Government Mule, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals … it’s really cool! We are all so excited to be here and watch all of you play. So, tell us a little bit more about your career. You started Spearhead in ’94, and that was your third band?
Michael Franti: Yes. My first band was a little punk rock band called the Beatings in 1986 through 1988. Then in 1989 and ’90 I had a band called Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. We had a video and a song called “Television, The Drug of the Nation,” which became somewhat of a minor-league hit internationally. It didn’t really do much here, but U2 heard the song and loved the video, so they used the video to open up their Zoo TV tour in 1992, and then they invited us to become the opening act.
I remember after the show we played at Yankee Stadium, at the time the Pope, Nelson Mandela, and Billy Joel were the only people who had done a performance there apart from U2. After the show I joked with Bono. I said, “You know, the Pope played here, and Nelson Mandela and Billy Joel, and then we played here, and then you guys played. We played here before you.”
Be Inkandescent: Did you ever think when you were a little kid that you would be doing this?
Michael Franti: It really was not an ambition of mine. Throughout my childhood, all I wanted to do was be a basketball player, and I eventually played basketball at the University of San Francisco. My dorm room was right above the campus radio station, so I’d hear these bass lines coming up through the floor all of the time and at first, it was kind of annoying. And then I started getting the thrill of music, hearing all of these different styles of music coming out of the campus radio station. For two hours it would be hip-hop; for two hours it would be punk rock; for two hours it would be jazz; whatever it was, and then at 6 a.m. they would switch to a Chinese news program and they would only play Chinese music for a little while.
It was a great musical education. So I bought a bass and I would just copy the bass lines that I heard coming up through the floor, and that was sort of my initiation into music. But mainly I was writing lyrics. I would write poems, and then I started performing these poems with other artists and it was not until many years later when I actually started to play guitar. The mixture of the melody and the chords and the portability of just being able to go out onto the street or beach, wherever, and just sit there and play; that’s what I love about it.
Be Inkandescent: What’s your favorite song that you have written?
Michael Franti: There are many. On this new record I really like the song “Life Is Better With You” that I wrote for Sara. There is a song called “11:59” that will be our next single. The first single, “I Am Alive,” I really love, too. Many people ask me whether or not I have a favorite song, and the answer is usually the song I am playing right then or whatever song I have just written.
Be Inkandescent: Do have a new record coming out?
Michael Franti: We should have one probably by the end of next year. We never really stop writing. When we are on tour, we always carry a tiny little portable recording rig, and any time we have ideas we just put the ideas down on little recordings and then we go back later and pull out the best artifacts that we can find and try to put them in more concise songs from just random ideas.
Sometimes I come up with a title in the beginning and it then influences what I write about. The last record we put out before “All People” was called, “Sound of Sunshine.” My appendix had ruptured on tour four years ago and I came really close to dying. Every day I was in the hospital, I was so grateful to be alive that I would lean on the window and just feel the sun on my face, and think, “Wow. If I never felt this way again, I would feel such loss.” And then to see my two sons there, and all my friends. … I was just so grateful to be alive.
I then started writing this song about the sun—what the sun feels like, what it sounds like, what it tastes like. So I came up with the title, “The Sound of Sunshine.” Then all the titles on the record followed that theme.
Be Inkandescent: Who are some of your musical influences?
Michael Franti: Musically, I love artists who write songs about their concern for the planet and write songs about how much they love their girlfriend. For example: Bob Marley, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Johnny Cash. John Lennon wrote “Imagine,” this Utopian view of what the world could be. And then he would write a song like “Beautiful Boy” or “Woman,” and that always made me feel like he doesn’t just care about the world because it is in his head; he’s concerned because it is in his heart. He wants to see his child grow up in a better place. That always moves me.
Be Inkandescent: Switching gears a little bit, tell us why you don’t wear shoes.
Michael Franti: I stopped wearing shoes on my birthday in April of 2000. I had been traveling to a lot of countries where people couldn’t afford to wear shoes, so I would take off my shoes and go play soccer with the kids and I couldn’t even take three steps. There would be these gravely fields and I just couldn’t do it. So I went home and I wondered what it would be like to never be able to afford shoes. So I took off my shoes, and decided I would go barefoot for three days.
I went three days, and my feet didn’t get any tougher. So I went for a week, then a month, then a year, and finally after 10 years of being barefoot, I partnered with an organization called Soles4Souls. They bring shoes to people all around the world who can’t afford them. They started after Hurricane Katrina, and moved onto Haiti, and now they are in about 60 different countries. (See the May 2013 Be Inkandescent feature on Soles4Souls) We work with them at our concerts collecting shoes from our fans as well as just getting the word out about the work that they do.
Be Inkandescent: Can you give our readers tips on three topics: one on business in general; one on getting into the music business; and a last tip on making a difference?
Michael Franti: Definitely.
- In terms of business: To be a musician for 27 years requires an incredible team. The first thing I would say is learn how to collaborate and to delegate responsibilities to people who are better at it than you. At the same time, it also helps you to know every job. It is good to have some diversity so that if one thing goes awry, the other could work out. I also have a yoga hotel in Bali called Soulshine Bali. We do yoga retreats there. I think the best advice that I have ever had is from a book called The Go Giver, by Bob Burg and John David Mann. It’s about giving and making sure that the quality of experience for other people you come into contact with is best. In business, it is all about relationships and connecting with people. Not doing things because you’re trying to get something, but because it is the right thing to do. That leads to the longevity of what you are able to do. You then have people who will recommend you and call you for service when they need something because they remember you in a good light and trust you. It helps you to create community around your business.
- In terms of the music industry: It is a fickle field. One week, one artist is huge; the next week it is a new artist, though some artists have been able to maintain it for many years. I think the main thing you need is passion for what you do, and to recognize that not everybody is on stage singing and holding a guitar. Hundreds of people have worked behind the scenes to make a show happen, as a producer, stage manager, caterer, music producer, videographer, publicist, whatever it is. If you have a passion for music, follow it, but follow it where your nose is really taking you. Don’t try to force yourself to play one specific role. If it’s not working out for you, there are other ways to do it. Whenever there are other people joining our production team, I always say the same thing: The moment you step out of your hotel room, you are on stage. So, when you walk into the hotel, if you do not treat the guy picking up your bags with kindness, he will remember that. You want everyone to remember you in a kind way so they want you back. That way, when you go through ups and downs, people are willing to go through them with you. Otherwise, when you go through the downs, people will think you deserve it.
- When it comes to making a difference: That’s the joy of doing what you do. You can sell records and own a beautiful house and car and have everything look perfect on the outside, but when you go back to your house, you should ask yourself, “What did I do today? What did I make happen for someone else?” Really, making a difference is about doing what you can. A woman came up to me in Denver and said that she was a hairdresser and she saw my film and was so moved by it, but didn’t know what she could possibly do to make a difference in the world. Then one day, a woman walked into her salon who was undergoing chemotherapy; her hair was falling out in clumps, and she sat her down in a chair and knew there was nothing she could do with her hair but cut it all off. So she sat there and talked with this woman who cried as she shaved off all of her hair, and they made her up to look as beautiful as she was from the inside out. And from that experience, the two of them decided they should do this one night a week. So now, once a week, they close down the salon and invite people going through chemo in to let her take care of their beauty needs. There is always something we can do to serve our community. It doesn’t have to be the big-letter-“P” politics, because the small-letter-“p” politics can make the bigger difference.
Be Inkandescent: This joy is conveyed in your two children’s books, too. What inspired you to write them?
Michael Franti: For the first one, I had written a song called What I Be, about being oneself. It was on one of my records, and a friend of mine had an idea to turn it into a children’s book. The whole book is about embodying the best characteristics of nature—so if I was the sun, I would radiate and make others warm, etc.
The other book, called Where In The World Is Away, is about recycling. In the book two kids try to find a place to throw away their empty juice bottle. They sit near a pond going through the reasons why not to throw it in there or in the forest, and then a bird comes along and takes them on a journey to a recycling center where they, and the reader, get to see the whole process of recycling.
At the end, they realize there is no place in the world that is “away,” there is just “some place else.” The two kids learn about reducing and reusing and recycling, and they decide to reuse the bottle by each putting a flower in it.
Be Inkandescent: Here’s to that! Thank you so much for being here with us, Michael Franti. We look forward to keeping up with you and sharing your amazing message with with our readers, listeners, and viewers.
For more information, visit www.michaelfranti.com.