With his band Spearhead, Michael Franti has spent the past quarter-century throwing big dance parties overflowing with peace 'n' love, the scent of reefer on the wind, and, of course, "The Sound of Sunshine." These parties have been known to occur during major protests and in war zones, because fighting darkness with light is Franti's life philosophy. And he's doubling down. Despite our nation's seemingly unbridgeable gaps between races and genders and political parties, he says the real battle is the personal tug-of-war between cynicism and optimism.
"It's like no matter what we're facing, if we go into it thinking there's no hope, it's futile - we're going to get that result from it," he says. "But if we go into it thinking there is a possibility - there's a way through, there's a plan we could make, there's an opportunity to reach out and connect with somebody - then there's a willingness that kicks in and helps us get through the most intense challenges of our day. And right now, we're in an intensely challenging time."
Franti's new full-length documentary, Stay Human, follows his search for humanity in the face of trauma and loss. It focuses particularly on how people around the world cope with harsh everyday realities and thrive during challenging times. It also becomes clear that Franti has spent his career making hopeful music with positive messages because he personally battles depression and anxiety.
"I've learned that if I can change my thoughts, I can change my feelings," he says. "But it's something you've got to practice - you can't just show up and say, 'Oh, today I'm bummed out,' and then snap your fingers and feel better. You have to practice it on a daily basis. But it's also the thing that drives me to make music."
Michael Franti & Spearhead will play Revolution Live in Fort Lauderdale Wednesday, October 24. Speaking with New Times from his home in San Francisco, Franti says he made the Stay Human film and the corresponding album of the same title because he wants them "to be part of people's medical arsenal they can go to when they need that extra inspiration."
His own arsenal includes practicing yoga, spending time in nature, and finding catharsis through songwriting and performing. Indeed, the celebratory nature of Spearhead's live shows is no accident. Says Franti: "During the songwriting process, I'm always thinking about lyrics people will want to sing along to [and will] this beat get people out of their seat? So it starts with songwriting, but then everybody on our team is dedicated to creating those moments onstage. They all believe in it as much as I do, that the power of music can bring people together."
Franti emphasizes that there's no replacing human connection, that isolation and tribalism only fuel discontent. But it goes both ways: Making himself an accessible musician means people gravitate to him when they're looking for answers to impossible questions and reassurance that things will be OK. It can be a heavy burden, but he bears it with humility.
"People look to me, but I'm just like anybody else," he says. "I just tell people that we are what we search for. If you're searching for fear and hatred and darkness, you're going to find them. But if you go through life searching for friendship and courage and humanity and love, you'll find those things too."