Michael Franti makes upbeat music, but that doesn't mean he isn't outraged. From hip-hop agitator to festival headliner, Franti's career is a study in how activism and artistry can coexist. The singer's new documentary, "Stay Human", confronts what he dubs an "epidemic of hopelessness." In it, Franti highlights the battle between cynicism and optimism and his efforts to combat the former with the latter. The film profiles individuals who help Franti find the good in a world that disappoints daily. We meet a midwife in a typhoon's aftermath, a young couple dealing with ALS, and at-risk youth in South Africa achieving their dreams. It's serious stuff. And seriously moving. Like Franti, we emerge more empathetic, possibly more human. He spoke to DOPE about the movie, music from its forthcoming companion album, and what keeps him looking ever upwards.
DOPE Magazine: Your outlook is relentlessly positive, both in your music and the documentary. How do you keep from losing faith?
It's something I actively do because I'm prone to depression and anxiety. I wake up afraid to read the news. I've learned if I change my thoughts I can change my feelings, but it's a muscle you gotta exercise. One of the reasons I made this film is because I get inspired by people who can do that. All these stories are about people in challenging situations finding a way through them.
The song "This World Is So F*cked Up (But I Ain't Ever Giving Up On It) from your forthcoming record "Stay Human Vol. II" almost sounds like a mission statement. How did you arrive at that title?
It was one of the last songs I wrote for the record. I was in Indonesia saying, "this world is fucked up." Then I caught myself and was like: Mike, if you say that, it's all you're gonna see. So I added, "but I'm never gonna give up on it." It became my mantra.
Were there individuals you wanted to include in the documentary but couldn't due to time limitations?
There were other stories we could have covered, but we did this on a shoestring budget and only filmed what we knew we could use. Making this movie, I discovered that there's no one in the world you wouldn't love if you knew their story.
Throughout your career, music has taken you all over the globe. What stands out?
I've performed in prisons and in the favelas of Brazil. Tomorrow, I'll be at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. We were there three weeks ago, and they invited me to come back. While I was there, a social studies teacher who lost two students during the shooting was covering the Holocaust in her class. She brought a survivor in to speak who said, "From great pain comes great energy and no pain should ever be wasted." That struck me. Everyone has pain. We've gotta learn to channel that pain into something that serves the greater good.
While making the movie, you developed a close bond with Steve, a young man with ALS, and his wife Hope. There's a powerful scene of you singing to Steve while he's hospitalized due to the disease. How did you feel watching that footage back?
When I saw Steve mouthing the lyrics, it changed me. He made me think about the reasons I make music and how it affects people. Steve was so sick at that time and had lost so much weight. I thought he was gonna pass away. Miraculously and relentlessly, his wife Hope has kept him alive.
Now that "Stay Human" is in theaters, are you still in touch with Hope and Steve?
We text and stay in contact. He's happy. Steve and Hope are kind of like the benchmark for how I see the world, but also for my relationship with my wife. Look where Hope and Steve are at: they're able to find that happiness.
"Stay Human" Documentary
Can you tell us how you found yourself shooting a segment in the Philippines, in the wake of biggest storm to make landfall in human history?
We were done shooting a video in Bali and I thought, we should film my friend Robin Lynn, a midwife with a great story. Robin told us she was in the Philippines where Typhoon Yolanda had just hit, and she was there to help. We arrived and there were massive boats beached on dry land.
As the camera follows Robin's work delivering children, the image you capture of the flowers in the placenta stands out.
Well, I owe the beauty of the film to videographer John Roderick. Robin was in a school with no roof and had a basket of flowers for the placenta after the birth. Amid all that chaos and destruction, she found time to pick flowers for that purpose. It was so beautiful and sums up Robin.
How does the process of making a film compare to recording an album?
I can go to the beach, write a song, then walk onstage and play it. There's a certain immediacy you don't have making a movie. Film is collaborative. On a Hollywood feature, there are thousands of people contributing. There's something intimate about writing a song, finding the emotion and putting it into words through storytelling and music.
The way you meld politics and music is very NorCal. How has being from the Bay Area shaped you?
I feel pride in having been raised in Northern California and still live there. It's a multicultural place with a history of being on the cusp of social movements, from the Black Panthers and '60s counterculture to punk rock and the LGBTQ community. Nor-Cal is all about adventurousness, openness, and a bit of toughness. People are willing to stand up for what they believe in.
In these difficult times, what motivates you to keep going?
Everywhere I go I find something inspiring. We're returning to Parkland to do yoga with kids and meet with activist groups. The Holocaust survivor I mentioned will be there. We'll be with parents who lost kids, kids who lost friends.
We have to engage constantly. I've realized during the Trump-era that every generation has its battle. My wife and I visited the Civil Rights Museum. It starts with slavery, works up to the '70s and '80s, then physically ends. They don't have a room beyond that. They need to add another wing for the Black Lives Matter movement. Then the next generation will add another wing. It doesn't stop, and neither can we.