NEW ORLEANS -- When he was growing up in the 1970s, Michael Franti listened to lots of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley -- musicians who weren't afraid to risk album sales in order to make a statement about issues in the world around them.
Today, fewer and fewer artists use music as a platform for that kind of commentary. But Franti, the lead singer of the reggae, jazz and rock-inspired group Spearhead, has a lot to say about war, poverty, hunger and other issues plaguing the world. And like Bob Marley before him, he's not afraid to use music to get his message out.
"I don't feel like anybody is required to make political statements in their music, but I do feel that all of us as citizens of Planet Earth have to express what's in our heart about the state of the world -- or at least about the state of our own communities," Franti said in New Orleans late one afternoon in May. His San Francisco-based group was in town to play a few shows during Jazzfest, a key stop on their tour schedule for the past few years. They had played until 5 a.m. at the House of Blues in the French Quarter the night before, and Franti was getting ready for his regular 2 a.m. 'Fest slot at the historic Uptown funk magnet, Tipitina's that night.
Despite some dark rings under his eyes, he was full of energy and ready to play, and given the ongoing struggle to fight problems such as violence and poverty since Katrina devastated the Crescent City in 2005, plenty of New Orleanians were ready to hear him.
Franti, who first came to prominence in an experimental jazz-rock outfit called The Beatnigs before co-founding The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, has built a career on outspoken music. He recently released Yell Fire!, an album that takes issue with the war in Iraq, among other things. The singer-songwriter also recently traveled to Iraq with his guitar to explore the human cost of the war there for a documentary film called I Know I'm Not Alone. And, as NPR pointed out in a story this spring, "Franti likes tough crowds," and has played shows in Gaza, Baghdad and the San Quentin prison.
He's also shared numerous stages with members of the Marley family, especially Ziggy. In 2004, Michael Franti and Spearhead opened Ziggy's first solo tour, with Franti performing material from his 2003 album Everybody Deserves Music and Ziggy touring in support of Dragonfly. The artists also shared a bill this past weekend at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee. Aside from the obvious shared reggae and soul influences, Franti, like Ziggy and Stephen Marley, uses music to communicate a message about how to make the world a better place in part because of the inspiration he's gleaned from Bob Marley.
"Bob's music has had a big influence in my life," said Franti, who added that as a kid, he remembered disco replacing the kind of conscious R and B that Wonder and Gaye personified. "At that time, I started hearing reggae on underground stations," he continued, "and I resonated with that voice of speaking about what's happening. Since that time, reggae's been a big part of my life."
Like Bob did before him, Franti pairs songs about raising consciousness against tunes about having a good time and enjoying the music, singing, "Don't tell my people that they got to go/ We wanna keep 'em til the early morn," on one track of his new album and, "They're telling you to never worry 'bout the future/ They're telling you to never worry 'bout the torture/ They telling you that you will never see the horror," on the next.
While Franti admits that he has a "burning need" to speak out, he understands that other artists might not approach their art from the same perspective. But he'd like to see that change. "It's not a responsibility that people have," he said. "It's a request from me to other artists to find that seed and plant those lyrics that will affect other people."
After Bonnaroo, Michael Franti and Spearhead return to the Bay Area to perform at Mezzanine for a Power to the Peaceful benefit on June 23. His first children's book, What I Be, a story adapted from a song on Everyone Deserves Music is due out July 1.
--Jennifer Odell / BobMarley.com