Taken from Post-Gazette (June 28, 2011)
Health scare prompts Michael Franti to look on sunny side
by Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Michael Franti says he got a look at what kind of music people in desperate situations responded to.
Michael Franti's career track has been a gradual progression away from the brash, young hip-hop rebel he was in the late '80s toward a more upbeat and balanced adult.
With his latest record, "The Sound of Sunshine," he's practically the U.S. Ambassador of Positivity.
There was a reason he wrote and recorded feel-good reggae-rock songs like the title track, "Shake It" and "Hey, Hey, Hey." Eighteen months ago, his appendix ruptured in the middle of a tour and he says his whole body became infected.
"I thought I was going to die. They didn't figure out what was wrong with me until seven days after it ruptured, so I became very, very ill. After I had this surgery and came back from the infection, I felt this new excitement for life. I was so appreciative of the simple things in life like eating an orange or hanging out with my kids or seeing the sunshine for the first time in the morning. That's what this record has come out of, wanting to express gratitude for all those simple things. And also a desire to help other people who are going through a rough time.
"Right now is a difficult time in our world with the economy the way it is and climate change and the two wars and all turmoil and change in the Middle East, and earthquakes and tornados and floods. It's really easy for people to get down, and I wanted to make a record for people to get up."
Having traveled to hot spots such as Baghdad and the Gaza Strip for 2006's "Yell Fire!" and his stirring documentary "I Know I'm Not Alone," he got a firsthand look at what kind of music people in desperate situations responded to.
"I played music in a lot of countries where people are going through difficult times," he says. "Like I went to Iraq and played these political songs speaking out against the war and they would stop and say, 'Look, man, we're living in this world. We don't need to talk about how messed up it is. Play us something that makes us laugh and dance and sing.' [Recently] I was in Haiti and playing in these tent refugee camps and people would say the same thing to me. I would start to play and people would take out their instruments and join in."
His image now as a smiling, barefoot, dreadlocked, yoga-practicing 45-year-old is a long way from the Oakland, Calif., native's beginnings as the ringleader of industrial punk band The Beatnigs and politically charged rap-rock crew Disposable Heroes.
"I was really punk rock, hip-hop, rebel. My message was basically, '[Screw] the system' and 'The government is all bad' and 'Anyone who has anything to do with money or corporations is evil and inherently bad and wrong' and what I've found as I've grown is that the issues we see in the world today are not going to be resolved by one person or one group of people.
"For example, climate change. We're not really going to address climate change with just my tree-sitting friends in the mountains of Northern California protesting to save some ancient redwood forest. I think that's an important thing to do, but we also need the resources of the corporate world, the cooperation of governments, the best that science has to offer, the common sense and spending power of everyday people, the teaching of educators to pass this message on, and advertisers. And that's how we're really going to make the 6.5 billion people on this planet aware of what they can do to help slow down climate change. So that's how I look at everything I do today. I'm not afraid to go to Haiti and play in the street and I'm not afraid to come to Atlanta and play for a group of millionaires.
"I don't want to just sit back and complain about how bad things are," he adds. "I want to go out and do everything I can to inspire myself and others to make a difference."
Over the past five years, with Michael Franti & Spearhead playing more dates and more jubilant shows, and also scoring their first Top 40 hit, "Say Hey (I Love You)," he's seen the fan base grow and respond.
"I think that [positive] attitude has opened my mind to the fact that music shouldn't just be for yourself -- for myself as a writer and songwriter. It's got to be for the people who are out there listening to music and it should be for as many of them as possible. I wrote a song many years ago called 'Everyone Deserves Music' and I really believe that. Through music we have this opening up of emotions that changes us. If you hear a song on the radio and you're going through a difficult time with your girlfriend of whoever, this song says everything that you feel about your love for that person at that time, and that doesn't discriminate. It could be any person in anywhere in the world, in any walk of life, any religion, even any language. I try to make songs today that make people dance and inspire people, and most importantly that are easy to sing along to."