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Taken from StarTribune (July 7, 2011)

Franti still spearheading change

He's basking in "Sunshine," but he's not deflecting controversy - even at this year's Basilica Block Party.


Michael Franti - Photo: James Minchin IIIDespite his recent bubbly radio hits about sunshine and love, Michael Franti is still a man of action when it comes to social causes.

Case in point: When he heard about calls to boycott this year's Basilica Block Party over Catholic Church support for a state constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, Franti worked out a solution. He's taking a pay cut to raise money for the other side of the fence.

"I'm taking 10 percent of the fee that we're getting, and I'm donating it to a pro-gay-marriage organization," said Franti, 45, who performs Friday at the block party with his rock/reggae/rap hybrid band Spearhead.

Calling from the road last week, the San Francisco-area music vet -- whose 25-year career started in his radical groups the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy -- defended the importance of his recent, less-than-radical radio hits "Sound of Sunshine" and "Say Hey (I Love You)," which became his first Top 20 single.

Q: You seem to step into firestorms in the Twin Cities. How do you look back on playing outside the Republican National Convention in 2008?

A: Four years previous when I was at the Republican convention in Philadelphia, we got right up close to the actual convention. In St. Paul, we couldn't get within several miles [laughs]. But I also remember performing on the steps of the Capitol, and there were lots of great people and a positive energy to it.

Q: Where do you stand on this Basilica boycott idea?

A: We agreed to do this show many, many months ago before there was any controversy. Everybody is welcome to attend or not attend based on their personal beliefs. I think it's important for people to raise their voice in whatever way they see fit. They can do that by staying away, or they can do that by coming to the show and wearing a T-shirt that expresses their views, or by finding some other positive way of supporting inclusion for all people.

Q: How do you explain the transformation over your last two albums to more optimistic and upbeat songs?

A: Ironically, my biggest songs have been ones I've written in some of the most difficult positions. A song like "Say Hey" came out of performing on the streets of Baghdad. People there would say, "We don't want to hear political songs. We want to hear songs that make us laugh and dance." Same thing when I went to the favelas [ghettos] of Brazil, where I ultimately finished that song. People there were saying they wanted to hear happy music. So I think that making joyful music is a powerful way of addressing change.

Q Is it also maybe a case of you mellowing with age?

A: No, I don't think I'm mellowing. I've grown more clear on how I can effect change. I used to just write songs about the things that I cared about, but now I get directly involved in those things. I went to Iraq. I went to Haiti. I play in prisons all the time. I live part of the year in Bali, and when we're there we support this natural birthing clinic for women. So wherever we go, we find ways to get involved directly and not just write songs about it. I actually think I'm more radical than I was years ago.

Q: How did a song as happy as "Sound of Sunshine" come out of your near-fatal burst appendix in 2009?

A: My body had gotten all infected, and the doctors couldn't figure it out. I really thought I was going to die. So after I got out of surgery, I wrote all these songs about gratitude and enjoying the simple things of life and the people around you. My perspective had completely changed. And I think that's a good message for the way the world is going right now. There's a lot of crises, a lot of war, a lot of economic upheaval. People can at least find joy in the people and the good things around them.

Q: Is it true you wrote "Say Hey" on Woody Harrelson's toilet?

A: I was staying at Woody's house in L.A., working on music while he was away, and I was in the shower listening to some guitar chords I had put on my iPod. The song came to me, and I started writing the words on the window of the shower. Woody called, and I said, "I'm sitting on your toilet writing what I think is a hit song." His response was, "Is it a No. 1 or a No. 2?"


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