Taken from Science & Spirit (Sep/Oct, 2005)
The Entertainment Enlightenment:
Singing His Peace
by Chhavi Sachdev and Karen Freeman
Pop culture often gets a bad rap for enforcing stereotypes and glorifying violence, but singer-songwriter Michael Franti stand out for spreading messages of tolerance and harmony.
Michael Franti knows what it feels like to be an outsider. The singer, songwriter, and frontman for the band Spearhead was born to an Irish-German-French mother and a black-American Indian father thirty-nine years ago, but was given up for adoption by his mother, who was afraid her family would not accept him.
Raised in Davis, California, by adoptive parents of Finnish descent, he was taken care of materially, but never felt like he truly belonged. His adoptive father was an alcoholic, and the atmosphere at home was tense. ?I always identified with the underdog, and I looked beyond just my immediate family circle to complete my family,? Franti says.
He could have turned to gangs and violence, but got hooked on books instead. He learned about liberty and human rights, slavery and the American Indian people. He read Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and Malcolm X. When he was thirteen, he discovered music.
From Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Sly Stone, he learned music was not just rhythm and melody. ?They were talking about love,? Franti says. ?They were talking about peace on a world level and peace on the inner level.? In ninth grade, he found Bob Marley and learned how an artist can inspire people.
Though Franti always had faith in a higher power, traditional organized religion wasn?t for him. His songs, like Marley?s, are influenced by the Rastafari movement, which arose in Jamaica and stresses a reverence for nature and for Jah, a contraction of Jehovah. ?I believe in oneness, which is the concept that if I see somebody playing music, playing a drum, and I run over and start playing music with [him], the combination of us playing together is us coming together as one,? Franti explains.
Politics is not his passion, but Franti pays attention anyway because he believes politicians must be held accountable, people need to be allowed to express dissent, and ?music is the way that we can begin to start discussing some of those [dissenting] views.?
?We can bomb the world to pieces,? he famously sang when the United States invaded Iraq, ?but we can?t bomb it into peace.? His words were chanted at peace rallies the world over. His music, ethic, and ?politics,? he says, stem from ?a place of commitment to compassion, commitment to humanity, commitment to the natural world, and making sure that corporate or military interests are not placed above the human, the natural, and the spiritual.?
But is he preaching to the choir? Granted, he admits, most of his fans share his views. Franti says his music gives them affirmation, letting them know they are not alone in their beliefs. What really motivates him, though, is the ability to reach people not yet acquainted with his message. ?We play in front of tens of thousands of kids every night on a festival lawn, and a lot of them don?t care or don?t want to care,? he says. ?For a lot of young people, we?re turning them on to it.?
Franti frequently gets e-mails disparaging his unpatriotic attitude (?I?m on the side of the peacemakers,? he says), but he also gets devotion. Joerg Trumpfheller, who runs the German fan site Spearhead-Home.com came across Franti fifteen years ago and says that when he first listened to the musician?s lyrics, he was overwhelmed. ?I had an exSpearience,? he quips via e-mail. A frequent contributor to the message board on Spearhead?s official Web site, Trumpfheller says the fans are different from those of other bands. ?There are no words of anger, hate, or rage,? he says. ?Everyone has respect for each other and can also discuss different points of view without hurting anyone.?
Lyrics aside, Franti and his bandmates also hope to lead by example. Earlier this year, Spearhead and the other artists on a national tour eschewed water bottles, choosing instead to reuse personal jugs. Their trucks ran on biodiesel. ?We try to put [our ethic] into practice ourselves,? says Franti. ?We hope that it shows other people and inspires other people to do it.?