The story and evolution of Michael Franti going from a mid-tier festival act to an artist moving in the mainstream is fascinating. For most people, this was an overnight success, a band appearing out of nowhere to have a massive hit single. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and Franti and his band bad been mixing rock, reggae, and hip-hop for 15 years before ever coming close to the mainstream. However, after years of building a loyal fan base, the band is currently enjoying an exciting run of mainstream popularity. But it was anything but an overnight success.
The band’s journey starts with Michael Franti himself. As a biracial child adopted at a young age by a white family, Franti was pulled and influenced by a variety of elements and cultures. By the time he graduated high school, he had lived throughout most of California, although primarily in Davis. Franti described in an interview as a place where “white kids didn’t hesitate to call me nigger.” He fought back, but avoided getting in any real trouble. At 6”6’, he was an avid basketball player, and he played well enough to earn a scholarship to the University of San Francisco.
Living in San Francisco was a far cry from the suburban life he was used to. He was exposed to liberal politics and the San Francisco lifestyle, and began gravitating towards music, poetry, and politics. He befriended professors, revolutionaries, musicians, and anyone else who could help him understand and expand his worldview. He picked up his first bass guitar and soon quit the basketball team to concentrate on his music. In music and poetry, he found a way to relate to the world and express himself. He formed the Beatnigs, an abrasive, angry hip-hop/punk/industrial band focused on lashing out at society in the most hostile way they could. The band recorded an album and gained notoriety for underground shows they would throw, but they broke up after a couple of years.
After the Beatnigs, he and Beatnigs member Rono Tse formed the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopresy, a somewhat more straightforward hip-hop project. Franti continued to put his politics front and center in the music, which kept the band from reaching any real mainstream success. While hip hop and rap were firmly entrenched in their “gangsta” era, the Disposable Heroes were taking vocal stands against the first Gulf War, racism, violence, and other social issues. They became well known as an underground band, and were able to use that to open for such diverse acts as Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Arrested Development, and U2.
After a couple of years, however, Franti tired of putting forward a hostile and angry front on a nightly basis. He was proud of the work that the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprasy had done, but, as he put it, their music “wasn’t even a record I would listen to at home. The problem with the Disposable Heroes was that it was a record people listened to because it was good for them – kind of like broccoli.”
After disbanding the Disposable Heroes, Franti set his sights on making music that, while still political, was also accessible and was closer to his evolving political and social point of view of peace and community. The goal wasn’t to avoid political statements, but it was about putting the music first, and then listeners could digest the politics after hearing the music. His influences strayed far from the aggressive hip-hop that he had made a name for himself performing.
This diversity and change of focus led to Franti bringing together an eclectic group of talented musicians to form Spearhead. Franti’s vision for Spearhead went far beyond just political hip-hop. He wanted to put together a melting pot of influences and styles, and, most importantly, make music for people to enjoy first and foremost. The first result of this vision was the aptly titled Home, released in 1994 on Capitol. The album garnered almost universally positive reviews and gave Franti an opportunity to have his voice heard on a wider scale. The album was at times angry, fun, peaceful, and controversial, but it was always diverse. While the album was a critical success, the diversity of the music made it difficult for radio to categorize the band, which led to very little airplay.
Over the next couple of years, the personnel in Spearhead evolved considerably, but Franti kept the band moving forward. The band’s second album Chocolate Supa Highway was harsher than Home, and dealt with more difficult subjects. The album included guest appearances by Stephen Marley and Joan Osborne.
After Chocolate Supa Highwaythe band left Capitol Records, frustrated with the fact that the label was encouraging the band to collaborate with artists that didn’t fit their style. Because Capitol owned the rights to “Spearhead,” the band changed their name to “Michael Franti & Spearhead” and formed their own record label. Stay Human was released in 2001, and the album took a strong stand against the death penalty as well as other issues. The album was split between songs highlighting the wrongs and injustices of the world and songs helping people cope with what they saw.
With Stay Human the band really began finding their voice around how to express not just anger but also hope in the music. This tightening of their sound became even more pronounced with 2003’s Everyone Deserves Music. From the more pop-influenced title track to the quieter “Bomb the World” and the funky “We Don’t Stop,” the songs first were able to engage the listener and then convey their message. The band still wasn’t experiencing any radio success, but worldwide touring, consistent festival performances, and their own annual “Power to the Peaceful” festival, the band was developing a solid following not only in the hip hop community but in the jamband community as well.
In 2004, angered by the new war in Iraq, Franti traveled to the Middle East, accompanied only with his manager and some friends. He visited Iraq, not under the banner of the U.S. government but simply by himself, and also traveled to Palestine and Israel. He performed acoustically on the streets of Baghdad, in the homes of Iraqis, and for U.S. soldiers. This experience not only led to the creation of Spearhead’s next album,Yell Fire!, but also to a movie that Franti released that chronicled his trip. That movie, I Know I’m Not Alone highlighted not just what Franti saw in Iraq but also the different sides of the story, from families living in the war zone to what the Americans thought about the conflict.
While Franti’s first experience in filmmaking was a positive one, the album that came out of that experience was an even bigger success. Yell Fire! is simply an amazing mix of rock and hip-hop, of idealism and realism, and of angry political commentary and hope. Front to back, the album was both an amazing success both musically and in conveying it’s message. The album had better sales than any of the band’s previous efforts, although it still wasn’t a mainstream success. What it did do is lay the groundwork for the band to build off of. Franti got heavily involved in politics, including actively campaigning for Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign. The band continued to tour non-stop, including dates at major festivals.
The band returned to the studio to record 2008’s All Rebel Rockers, an album that was significantly more hip-hop and reggae influenced than Yell Fire! The band brought in the production team Sly and Robbie for the album, as well as a variety of guest vocals. The album’s sales were initially solid, and on the same level asYell Fire! In 2009, the band released their first single from an album since 2003’s “Everyone Deserve’s Music” with “Say Hey (I Love You).” The song was started a slow rise until it eventually peaked at #18 on Billboard, and the success of the single brought plenty of sales for All Rebel Rockers as well.
The success of “Say Hey (I Love You)” and All Rebel Rockers led the band’s fanbase growing very quickly. The song became a regular track in dance clubs and on pop radio stations, as well as in movies. The band went from playing small clubs to large theaters, and got much higher billing at festivals. That didn’t change the band’s message, however. They continued to highlight political issues in concert both through their songs and through speakers, booths at concerts, and other opportunities.
In early 2010, the band went out on the road with John Mayer to open a string of arena shows. During this tour the band would often play free acoustic sets outside of the arena early in the day before playing their opening set. They were also writing and recording a new album, and would often debut brand-new songs on tour that had been put together just hours before. The result of this process was The Sound of Sunshine. This album differed from previous Franti efforts in that it focused almost completely on the positive. The protest songs were put on the back burner, and it’s an album that is certainly derivative of “Say Hey (I Love You)”.
The band spent the next three years on the road, promoting the new album and constantly writing new music. They released their follow up, All People in 2013 to moderate but consistent mainstream success. The album appealed to those looking for fun music to dance to no matter what age. In 2016 the band released Soulrocker. This album showed some more movement by Franti, including new electronic elements and a move away from the overly-pop polished sound of the previous few albums. A little more of a reggae groove made an reemergence on the album as well.
In the end, the story of Michael Franti & Spearhead is not one that would normally have ended with mainstream success, and I believe that the story with this band is far from over. They’ve had both commercial and critical success, and they’ve continued to tour to keep up their momentum. Franti himself continues to speak his mind politically and put his beliefs into his music. It’s always exciting to see an artist finally get their due, and Franti has put the work in that has been paying dividends for the past few years.
From the road
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