It’s the evening of the parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal and Michael Franti is pondering the question of whether music really has the power to change the world. He jokes that if he could sing a song to trigger a second referendum (regarding the UK’s fractuous decision to leave the European Union) then he would do it at tonight’s gig. I wistfully urge him to give it a go, before pushing him for an answer to the matter in hand. Here is a man who has dedicated his life to playing music that promotes justice, unity and hope, does he really believe music can have an impact on society?
“Is music going to make people vote Trump out of office or vote for a second referendum for Brexit? Probably not,” he sighs. “I don’t know if it can save the world overnight, but I know for sure that it can help someone make it through a difficult night and sometimes that’s what we need. Just to get into tomorrow.”
From the world political stage to the intimate fragments of an individual’s dark moments. Franti has spent his 30-year career connecting the dots to inspire people with a sense of purpose, connection and compassion, in both the broader and personal arenas. His current visit to London is to promote his second documentary, Stay Human, and a new album of songs from the film.
Franti’s artistic journey has taken him from fronting the raw political/social commentary machines of The Beatnigs in the late1980s and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in the early 1990s through the smoother, laid-back soul/funk sounds of Spearhead. His current touring schedule includes full band shows and also a vagabond folk singer incarnation, playing his acoustic guitar solo and barefoot around the world with songs that are acutely and unapologetically uplifting.
“I’ve come from being a sort of angry punk hip hop musician to, at a certain point, realising that anger is not my superpower,” he laughs. “I can get really super angry and there’s still somebody who can be more angry, more mean and more hateful than I could ever be. There was something more powerful in finding connection with people and my music has evolved in that way. It’s important to express anger, I just don’t feel it’s the most powerful state to be in and empathy, compassion and being on the side of solution-based politics is where I want to focus in my life.”
Franti’s first documentary, I know I’m Not Alone (2005), saw him travel to Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories, to sing to and talk with people on all sides of the conflicts. This snapshot of what life was really like for them hinged on finding the underlying commonalities between each side and between all of them and us. Using home video cameras, and with minimal preparation, he admits he had little idea of how to make a film, resulting in a raw, though heartfelt and interesting film. Stay Human is an altogether different affair. A professional videographer from the action sports world, John Roderick, captured vibrant and compelling imagery of the diverse locations and characters.
“John’s used to hanging out of a helicopter and filming somebody diving off a cliff on skiis, so he can get beautiful images. I think it’s really important when you’re doing any kind of documentary, if you want to cut through, that it’s not just about talking heads.”
The film, which has won multiple awards on the film festival circuit, has a split focus. The narrative partly revolves around visits to four countries where Franti has encountered courageous individuals who have inspired him. He tells their stories sensitively – ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the face of some of life’s toughest circumstances. Working in disaster areas, struggling to break through poverty, seeking solutions to environmental crises, living through aggressive terminal illness. The challenges are profound and often bleak. The spirits of the individuals, however, are towering, engaging and humbling. Their accounts of overcoming and enduring are moving and, at times, quite astonishing.
Weaving through their stories is the unifying thread of Franti’s personal history – an idea inspired by his wife who, he says, persuaded him that opening up about his own struggles provided context. He describes being given up for adoption because his mother believed he wouldn’t be accepted by her family due to his mixed race, his struggle to fit in and his ongoing battles with depression. The revelations provide some insight into Franti’s drive, character and success. By bringing all these globe-straddling stories of challenge, survival and thriving together, he pinpoints the need for a rigorously positive mindset and direction, whatever the community, country or issue.
“There’s this battle in the world today and it’s not between left or right, or rich or poor, or black or white, or gay or straight or any religions,” he says. “The great battle that’s taking place in the world today is between cynicism and optimism. I face it every day. It’s hard to feel like the world is still worth fighting for and I get depressed.”
He points to the dismal political situation in his native US, including the current government shutdown, and the racism that has led to the ill treatment of refugee families.
“In America, we’re a nation of people who came from other countries – Europe, Asia, South America – all over, and African people who were brought as slaves and now people who are coming as diaspora from Africa, and then the indigenous population who had all the land stolen from them. So when people start saying ‘we gotta shut other people out and build these borders’, it’s like, well, you just got here a few generations ago! So you can’t really say ’this is my land and not yours’. But that’s what we do.”
So how does he hope people will react to the film and how do they ‘stay human’ with the world in its current state?
“I hope that people really think about their basic values, of kindness, empathy and compassion towards other people, and then extend them throughout our politics and throughout our societies,” he responds. “One thing that unites us as humans is that we’re all born imperfect. To be human is to be observant of all that and to be able to come to grips with being your authentic self, no matter what that means. I think that the way that we stay human is to be able to find it in ourselves and then to be able to see it in others and to be able to say ‘I get you, I see what you’re struggling with and I see how really beautiful you are. I see you and I get you’. I think that in all the discussions that are out there today in the political world that that’s one I don’t hear. I hear people saying ‘let’s build a wall, let’s create more borders and let’s prevent people who are poor from getting ahead and let’s not reach out to those who are lowest economically in our societies’.”
Franti’s message of reaching out and connecting has clearly hit home with many through his music. In the film, we see multiple instances of him meeting fans and their appreciation for how his music has comforted and inspired them. His ability to connect with those around him is evident when you meet him in person – you genuinely feel like you’re being greeted by an old friend. As he says, when introducing the film screening later that evening, “there’s no one that you wouldn’t love if you knew their story”.
Circling back to Franti the musician, the London screening of the film also featured an acoustic set of songs old and new, performed with bassist Carl Young, a longtime cohort from Spearhead, and Victoria Canal, a singer/songwriter and keyboardist with an extraordinary voice, who appears on the new album.
The album of songs from the film is called Stay Human ll, differentiating it from his 2001 album Stay Human, which pivoted on the issue of capital punishment. Unusually, Franti has chosen to collaborate with other songwriters on the new album, having previously taken on the writing role along with engineering and mixing his own records.
“I’m really happy with the results because it sounds different,” he says. “When I first started in music, or even recently in music, I always thought if I write with somebody else it’s going to somehow be less of what I’m feeling personally, but I found that the opposite is true.”
He reveals that when he hits a wall with writing, having someone else there to offer ideas sends him off in a new and welcome direction, adding “it’s always a joy to just be able to focus on the words for me”.
In the post-film performance at Bush Hall, they played some of the most poignant and motivating tracks from Stay Human ll, including the soulful clarion call for healing of Flower in the Gun, the comforting hug of Nobody Cries Alone (which he describes as a motto in his household) and, my personal favourite, the riotous and blisteringly hopeful When The Sun Begins To Shine. He was also joined by Sonna Rele for her guest appearance on 11.59.
However collaborative the creative process has been with this album, he’s found it’s nothing compared to the necessary multiple roles and extensive production period required of film-making. “I can write a song this afternoon and then walk onto a stage or walk onto a street corner and perform that song immediately, as opposed to with a film – you spend years and years and then someone comes and sees it once and you hope they like it! But a song can live on and it can evolve and change.”
That brings us neatly back to the power of song, which is clearly still at the heart of Franti the film-maker. Back in the late 1980s, Franti toured in support of Billy Bragg, a singular British exponent of politically infused music for several decades (who describes the Rock Against Racism movement of the late 1970s as inspiring his political and musical awakening). I draw attention to Bragg’s recent comments that he no longer believes music can change the world (acknowledging that he’s tried for many years) – now, he says, his faith rest with the audience to change the world. Franti nods and enthusiastically recalls Bragg’s influence from those early tours.
“What really struck me was his monologue in between songs that was part humour and part politics, part soul and part personal stories. He really showed me how an artist could use their storytelling not just in their songs but in between the songs and then during interviews or, in my case, making a film. You weren’t just confined to having to get on stage and shut up and sing, and it was really inspiring for me. He really was a mentor to me.”
Franti’s message of motivation and community continues to uplift his audiences and, he concludes, remains the way he keeps his own spirits up and stays human.
“It’s healing for me to play music,” he says. “There’s no greater joy for me, as an artist, than to look out into a crowd and see thousands of people come to a concert – they’re all carrying in the world with them and then, as soon as you start playing, smiles light up and people cry and they high five their friend. They hug a stranger and they sing out loud and out of tune, and they dance like no one’s watching. Then they go home and they feel different, they feel transformed, and they feel like ‘whatever happens in my life next, I got this, I can take it on’.” Franti smiles with satisfaction and adds: “That’s what gets us excited and what keeps us going”.
Stay Human is available on iTunes and Amazon for download, rental and purchase from January 25. There is an anticipated May/June release date for subscription based video on-demand platforms (including Netflix). The album, Stay Human ll is also be available from 25 January. More information about Michael Franti can be found at michaelfranti.com.
Interview and photography by Imelda Michalczyk on 15 January 2019 at Bush Hall, London.