UtneCast: The Music and Politics of Michael Franti

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Michael Franti has never been shy about his politics. The latest album by Franti and his band Spearhead, called All Rebel Rockers, mixes the songwriter’s progressive-minded lyrics with some of the best music of his career. It’s also been his most commercially successful album, showing that people are hungry for consciousness-raising music.

In the latest episode of the UtneCast, senior editor Keith Goetzman talks with Franti about recording All Rebel Rockers in Jamaica, Franti’s politics of inclusion, and his music’s role in rallying progressives.

Listen to the interview below, or subscribe to the UtneCast for free through iTunes.

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Here is a full transcription of the interview:

Quite a few songs on All Rebel Rockers seem intended to sort of give a morale boost to progressives. Is that what you set out to do?

“Yeah, definitely. When I was writing this record, I was thinking about all the things that the world is facing at the moment, from climate change to the price of gas going up and down, to the stock market and the auto industry, and we were leading up to this new presidency. And I really wanted to make an album that made people feel like they could stay engaged. Because I really believe it’s going to take the efforts of everybody on this planet to get things on the right track again. Some days you wake up and you just go, ‘Oh, my god. I can’t watch the news; I can’t face it.’ So I said I want to make a record that helps people get up in the morning and drive their kids to school or clean their bathroom or do simple things to stay engaged.”

Of all your albums, this one has made the highest debut on the charts. Is that the case?

“Yeah, yeah.”

Has that continued? Is this your best selling album yet?

“Yeah, this album has been our personal best seller, our most popular record. When it entered the chart at number 38 or 39 or whatever–throughout the years, people would say, ‘What kind of music do you make? Is it funk, is it rock, is it reggae, is it hip-hop, is it acoustic folk–what is it?’ So now I just turn to them and say, ‘Oh, it’s Top 40.”

You’ve previously incorporated reggae sounds in your music, and you’ve worked with Sly and Robbie as producers before, but this album has a stronger reggae vibe than any of your previous albums. What made you decide to go in that direction?

“Well, when we’ve been touring, we’ve redone a lot of our songs from previous albums in reggae versions, and people really like them. When we’ve been out on tour, people have really loved the combination of mixing reggae with loud rock guitars. So when we approached this record we said, well, let’s do that: Let’s mix our favorite elements of rock with reggae. So we started working with producer Matt Wallace in L.A. He’s a great rock producer. And then we took the tracks down to Jamaica and worked with Sly and Robbie and really got the rhythm factor up on them.

“And you know, working in Jamaica is a unique experience because you’ll have people who’ll just come in off the street who you’ve never seen before, and they’ll start commenting on your record, you know? They’ll say, ‘On the second verse, you should add a keyboard’ or something, and you’re like, ‘Who the fff … hell are you, man? I’ve never seen you before.’ But then you realize, ‘Oh, man, they’re right.’ Because in Jamaica reggae is so much a part of everyday life–there’s a sound system on every corner, and people really know what moves them.”

It comes through on the album that there was a loose vibe down there. “Rude Boys Back in Town” has a very classic reggae feel. Were you trying to create an old-style Kingston vibe on that one?

“Yeah, definitely. We were trying to get that sound because when you’re in Kingston, you really feel that, and a lot of the musicians that we were recording with, like Robbie Lynn and Sly and Robbie and others, they all played on those records during that era. So it was fun to be around those guys and listen to the stories of that time. But also, I really love that those records today still make people dance. And in this time when there’s so much music that is really drum-machine driven, in terms of dance music, I wanted our record to be one that you could play live and it would still really get people dancing, and also in a club.”

“Say Hey (I Love You)” is an upbeat song about the overarching power of love. What do you mean with the lyric “The more I see the less I know”? Is that about having your beliefs challenged?

“Yeah. You know, as I travel around the world I think, wow, I’m really learning and really seeing–like when I went to Iraq and Israel and Palestine and traveling to the favelas of Brazil and all over Indonesia and Asia, you start to feel like, I’m really getting a grasp on how the world works. And then you realize, man, I don’t know anything. The more places I go to, the more I realize I understand so little about the world. I’m really grateful for the opportunity of music to have the chance to see places and to connect with people that I never would have connected with otherwise, just through playing the guitar in the street–you know, sitting down and through that experience being able to meet an Israeli mother who lost her son in the conflict and a Palestinian woman who lost her sister–to be able to sit down with the two of them and hear them tell the tale of how they met and grieved and were able to move to a place where they said, we don’t the death of our children to be a cry for more war. We want it to be a cry for peace, to end all wars everywhere. To have experiences like that through just having played a song on a streetcorner is like–it’s the greatest blessing in my life.”

In the buildup to the presidential election, you played politically themed concerts but as far as I know you declined to publicly endorse or campaign for a candidate. Why not?

“I really believe that as an artist, my opportunity to help to bring about awakening is one that should come from a personal process that someone has, and not from me telling somebody that this is the way it is. And so, at our shows, whenever there was a political party who called and said, we want a table at your show, I would say you’re welcome to come as long as the invitation goes out to other parties and we do everything to get everybody here–the Green Party, Republican Party, Democratic Party, Libertarian Party, Peace and Freedom, whichever party–reach out to all of them so that when a fan came to the show, they would have an opportunity to hear from everybody. And also so that people would feel welcome to come to the shows. I would hate it to be that somebody said, oh, well, I’m not a Democrat and I hear they’re going to be tabling there so I don’t feel welcome to come to the show.

“I voted for Obama, and the reason is because I felt like he’s a person who has that same message. He wanted to bring people from both parties together, he wants to bring people from around the world together, to create equality for sexuality, for gender, for black, white, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, everybody. It’s that message that really resonated with me, and that was the message that I wanted to bring, not ‘Vote for the guy I like, or the woman I like.'”

Now that the election’s over, I see that you’ve recorded something called the “Obama Song,” so it’s pretty clear where you stand post-election. Are you excited about the prospect of an Obama presidency?

“Very much. I already feel the energy that he’s brought to the whole world. As I’ve traveled around the country and around the world, I’ve seen the spirit that people feel now. It’s almost like a dark cloud has been lifted off the shoulders of everyone, and they say, now we can finally address these things. And you know, maybe he’s not going to be the perfect guy, and I’m not going to agree with him all the time, but climate change–that’s going to be something that we’re going to have a conversation about. And energy policy that works and is sustainable–we’re going to have a conversation about that. And the wars that we’ve seen taking place–we’re going to talk about those. These are going to be part of the agenda. And during the Bush administration, I feel that so many people felt hopeless–like he and Karl Rove and the people in his administration were completely unilateral in their domestic policy and completely unilateral in terms of their attitude toward other nations.”

I get the sense that you try to maintain a holistic lifestyle. I’ve seen you on the cover of an instructional yoga DVD, and I know that you try to eat healthy and stay healthy. How do you maintain a holistic lifestyle amid the craziness of a pop star’s life?

“Well, I have to be organized. Some days I’m successful; other days I’m not. (laughs) That’s the key–to be able to have a routine on the road. I know I’m going to get up at a certain time; I know I’m going to be on the yoga mat at a certain time; I know that I have a certain food that I’m going to eat, and I know where I’m going to get it from; and I know when I’m going to go to sleep, or doing promotions–all those things have to be really well thought out. And so that’s it. My usual day is I get up around 11 o’clock and do yoga and then eat afterwards. Then I have sound check and play soccer and do running with the guys in the band after soundcheck, and then do the show and eat dinner after the show and usually get to bed around 3 o’clock by the time we get everybody on the bus and get rolling. I have a schedule every day.”

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