Michael Franti has been an artist, poet and musician for nearly thirty years. With 8 albums albums under his belt as Spearhead, thousands of miles and hours logged performing in front of the masses, and a continuous desire to promote ‘better world living,’ the vibe was right in Santa Barbara to welcome this dreadlocked, 6’6” changemaker.
It was 11:59AM as we took our seats on the upper terrace at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Our interview was scheduled to start at noon, but Mr. Franti was still on stage finishing up sound check. As timing would have it, though, he and singer/songwriter Sonna Rele unknowingly gave us a private performance as we waited, exchanging harmonies on “11:59” and foreshadowing what would later be one of the night’s ultimate highlights.
The sun was high as we waited, and we were excited to chat with one of modern music’s most socially conscious, positive, and energetic rebel rockers. Michael soon appeared on the deck, walking towards us barefoot and smiling. A warm welcome, a hug, and an acknowledgement of the beautiful surroundings were a natural intro as we sat down to catch up on life, music and the current Soulshine Tour.
The following are excerpts from our conversation.
From the beginning, you’ve been preaching conscious music. How have you used your growing prominence and influence to create change?
The greatest gift you can ever give anyone is the gift of inspiration – the inspiration to go out and change the world, to seek a new horizon, or to love someone that’s close to you with everything you’ve got. But it’s tough. You wake up every day and see what’s happening in the world and just kind of want to bury your head in your pillow and go back to sleep.
But those of us who decide to become difference makers – who were inspired by someone else to become difference makers – it’s a great gift to get. It leads to helping make the world a better place, and also leads to a sense of personal fulfillment that you don’t get from buying a new car or moving into a bigger house.
As I’ve grown as a musician, I’ve tried to highlight this in the people I meet along the way, turning the spotlight on them.
Your ability to inspire people is clear. What inspires you?
I get inspired by people. I just finished a film called “11:59.” It’s about 3 people I met over the course of my travels that have inspired me. One is a woman, a midwife, in the Philippines who I met on a recent trip after the hurricane over there. Another is a man who is dying of ALS, and his wife. I was inspired by how the two of them support and love each other and fight against that disease. The last one is a surfer and environmentalist in Indonesia who is working on reforestation issues using bamboo, working with indigenous tribes to help them earn a living in the areas that have been hit the hardest by deforestation that’s occurred there.
So, I get my inspiration from meeting people – just ordinary people who do extraordinary things.
How would you characterize the way the movement has changed since you first got started? How have things changed and where is the opportunity now as a movement?
I started my first band (the Beatnigs) in 1986 and began touring in 1987. I remember on my very first tour, we’d stop at a truck stop and try to find something healthy to eat. The healthiest thing we could find was a box of Saltines and some sardines (laughs)! Everything else was packaged, hydrogenated, horrible food. But now, everywhere we go, there’s either a mom n’ pop shop that’s selling local food or a Whole Foods. There’s this consciousness now of what people are putting into their bodies – about organics.
But there’s a recognition that it’s not just what you eat. It’s also about what ends up in our rivers and lakes and oceans. Everywhere we go, I’m seeing this sort of change. I hear what people are talking about, and there’s this world consciousness that people have today – it’s greater than I’ve ever noticed. People want to know about what’s happening in other parts of the world and how what they’re doing is affecting others.
What is the role of social justice in your music? How has that evolved?
As an artist, I’m always searching for something new to give. I don’t want to be playing the same rhythms or sounds over and over again. I’m always looking for something new.
In terms of the messaging in the music, I want to make records and put out music that promotes positivity and compassion. I feel like people are really moved to create change in their lives and in the world when they feel it emotionally. I want to create music that invites everyone to it. Republic, Democrat, left, right, black, white, rich, poor – everybody. We need all 7 billion people on this planet to help address the issues that we face. When you tell someone that they’re wrong because they voted this way or that way, or were on a certain side of a political issue, it’s very hard for them to wrap their heads around anything else.
The main message that I have has always been compassion – understanding where other people are in the world and then having a connection. Maybe there’s someone else’s experience that you can let into your heart and into your life.
In traditional business terms, being conscious and keeping your integrity can often cost you something. Have you found that your way of doing business has cost you anything?
You don’t take shortcuts. You don’t just decide to do something because it’s going to be cheaper. You do it because it’s the sustainable choice. Over the long term, your integrity is what’s going to keep your brand of music, your store, or a product that you’ve created alive. Integrity is what’s going to keep people wanting to connect with you over the decades.
What’s your experience with yoga and why did you incorporate yoga into this tour?
I started practicing yoga 13 years ago on tour. My body was breaking down. I was a mess mentally, physically, and emotionally – I was not in synch. So, I went to a class with the whole band and I walked out of that class feeling a sense of ease that I had never felt. I felt a little bit taller, more relaxed and with this greater sense of clarity. I decided on that day that I was going to do this every day. So I started practicing, going to different yoga schools all over the country.
Eventually, I started inviting people to practice with me before shows. Last year at Red Rocks, we ended up having 2,000 yogis show up! So, we decided to try it out on an actual tour – and here we are. We’re bringing along some well known yoga teachers to every venue, we’ve invited people to bring their mats, and then I’ll play an acoustic set. And today is the first day…the launch of the tour! No one’s ever done this before so we’ll see how it goes.
But looking back, I found that when I first started into yoga, I was a lot heavier. I was eating poorly, I wasn’t sleeping enough and I wasn’t limber. Things that I loved doing – like different types of outdoor sports – I just couldn’t do them anymore. I felt like my basketball, soccer and snowboarding years were done. But when I started practicing yoga, my body came back to me! I’m 48 years old and I’m more fit than when I was 38.
Yoga has become a big part of my life, and part of this tour is me wanting to spread that.
We have a favorite refrain from you that we’d like you to answer for us. How you feelin?
You know, I’m feeling very raw to be honest. I’ve had a number of major health issues in my family recently. My son was just diagnosed with a chronic kidney disorder that happens to some people – he happens to be one of them and has lost 50% of his kidney function. My girlfriend’s mom is going through chemo for breast cancer right now. So, it’s been a bit of a rough time, and a rough time to be starting this tour.
My girlfriend and I started a foundation last August called Do It For The Love that brings people with advanced stages of life threatening illness, kids with severe challenges and wounded veterans to live concerts. We’re kind of like the Make a Wish Foundation for live music. At tonight’s show, we have our first wish being granted to a double amputee war veteran. People can see any band, anywhere, by just writing us at Do It For The Love. We’ll hook them up with tickets, meet-and-greets with the artists and things like that. But it’s been kind of weird with the timing of everything. We started this Foundation and eight months later we both have family members that are in these very tough situations.
It’s been emotional, but we’re excited about this tour. All of the bands on tour are friends from way back and here we are getting together to do this thing.
How would you encourage people to Live for a Better World?
People talk about consciousness, but the term means different things to different people. To me it means being aware of everything that’s taking place in your own life – from your emotions to what you’re consuming economically and physically – and then being aware of how you can give back and become a difference maker in your own community. Leave your own mark and leave this world a better place.
The opening notes of the #SoulShineTour were belted out in Santa Barbara at 6pm, with Trevor Hall, Brett Dennen, Soja, and Franti all bringing their best to a fired up crowd. With their smiles wide, Franti captivated the audience from the stage as he sang with full body – mind, heart, mouth and soul. And while his stage presence was awe inspiring, it was when he jumped off stage at the Santa Barbara Bowl, hopping from seat to seat and terrace to terrace, that cheering fans got to witness Franti up close and personal spreading his message of unity and love.
“One love, one blood, one heart, one soul. One drum and only one rhythm, one tribe and all of us singing.'”
With the tour now officially underway, the Rebel Rocker brought the energy we’ve grown to expect. And while his words of wisdom had touched us at the onset of the afternoon when we first met up, it was his raw emotion and energy throughout the night that showed us the man within the man – the yogi, warrior, lyricist, changemaker – Michael Franti.
Written by Eric Cardenas and David Fortson, LoaTree. All photos by Russ Spencer.