Taken from Good Times Santa Cruz (Sep 19, 2017)
Michael Franti Headlines Mountain Sol Festival
Bay Area musician and activist reveals the unexpected turning point in his personal journey
by Steve Palopoli
Michael Franti headlines the first day of this weekend’s Mountain Sol Festival.
Michael Franti’s legacy may very well be his gift for perfectly timed political anthems that capture the zeitgeist by combining his passion for music and activism. The first of these, a rap cover of Dead Kennedys’ “California Uber Alles” that he did with his band the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in 1991, announced this talent with a heavy dose of seething rage. Franti rewrote the lyrics to Jello Biafra’s anti-Jerry-Brown dystopian fantasy, turning it into a grittier, more realistic, but every bit as vicious takedown of then-governor Pete Wilson: “I got a plan for the minorities/Send ’em to the California Youth Authorities/From San Francisco Urban Elementary/To Pelican Bay State Penitentiary.”
But what Franti realized when he formed Spearhead in 1994 is that rage isn’t everything. There was a disconnect, he discovered, between his political intention and his empathy.
“I might have been playing stuff that identified the prison-industrial complex,” says Franti by phone from his San Francisco home, “but back then I wasn’t playing in prisons. Now I play in prisons all the time. And when I play in prisons, they don’t want to hear songs about prison. They want to hear songs about how much they miss their girlfriends. It’s one thing to do a song like ‘California Uber Alles’, where all my activist friends get it and love it. But I play in Kansas City, and people there are like ‘What the fuck is he talking about?’”
Perhaps that’s why his next musical anthem to masterfully distill a moment was delivered in the form of a mellow groove and a lyrical question. “Positive”, off Spearhead’s 1994 debut Home, brought a nation’s mostly unspoken fear of HIV to the airwaves: “How am I gonna live my life if I’m positive/Is it gonna be a negative?”
Still, it wasn’t enough. The story of how Franti evolved as a musician from the Beatnigs—a mid-’80s spoken-word, punk-noise band with a small cult following in the Bay Area—to frontman for a festival-headlining hip-hop/funk-rock/reggae-soul jam band with a large and devoted fanbase is also the story of his personal evolution. The turning point came at an unlikely time—the day after 9/11—and in an unexpected form: Franti discovered yoga.
“When I first started with the Beatnigs, I was just this angry punk rock kid who didn’t know how to play any instruments, so we just started beating on pieces of metal and shouting on top of them,” he says. “Yoga became a part of my life at a time when I was feeling broken down physically. I was feeling emotionally blocked, and that blockage was just making me feel like an angry, pissed off person all the time. And I didn’t want to be that. Yoga became a way for me to take care of my body and to meditate.”
Not long after, Franti wrote what would go on to be his most famous protest song, “Bomb the World,” a Marvin Gaye-esque plea for an end to “military madness” that declared: “We can chase down our enemies/Bring them to their knees/We can bomb the world to pieces/But we can’t bomb it into peace.” The song was released on Spearhead’s 2003 album Everyone Deserves Music, and its chorus quickly spread around the world—seen on signs, T-shirts and CNN.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that yoga had such a profound effect on Franti’s life and career, as he had been looking for years for a way to bridge that disconnect between musician and audience.
“The ultimate goal of yoga is to connect—your ability to connect your heart to the world, and to God, and to nature, and to your fellow humans. That is the end goal of yoga. People can do all kinds of shapes and cool tricks, but the whole purpose of yoga was to open up your body so you could sit and meditate for long periods of time. And then through that meditation be able to find Ahimsa, which is nonviolence, and do Seva, which is giving back to your community,” says Franti. “All these things became part of my musical dialogue as well—how can I connect to people who don’t necessarily understand where I’m coming from? That’s why my music has evolved.”
There can be no doubt that Franti is practicing what he preaches: on the day of every show, Franti leads a yoga session with fans who want to participate.
“We have what we call a ‘meet-up,’” says Franti. “It’s kind of like a yoga tailgating party. People bring their Frisbees and their boomboxes, and then 100 people roll out their yoga mats. Then we share food afterward, and people hang out and talk. It’s just a great way for what we call our ‘soul rocker’ community to hook up.”