Michael Franti: A rocker with a soul

by Jaime Becktel

Since 1994, Michael Franti, a San Francisco-based singer-songwriter, musician, poet, filmmaker and massive advocate for a wide spectrum of social justice and environmental causes has been touring the globe, often barefoot, with his band Spearhead. Among dozens of other inspiring projects, he created the annual Power to the Peaceful Music Festival in San Francisco in 1998, and in 2013, with his now wife, Sara, he created the Do It For The Love Foundation, granting more than 600 live music concert wishes to people living with life-threatening illnesses, children with severe challenges and wounded veterans.

For Saturday’s show at Three Springs in Durango, part of his SOULROCKER album release and tour, Franti checked in with DGO to discuss how to keep your cool in a world gone crazy, why he’s not voting for Trump and why it’s more important than ever to come together, make music and dance.

How do you manage to stay so damn positive?I go through ups and downs like anybody else and find my life and the world to be incredibly challenging. I believe in the power of positivity and that it isn’t something you’re just born with. You have to practice, like shooting free throws, or getting good at playing darts or anything else. If day after day you say positive things to others, practice positive thoughts toward yourself and take positive actions, it becomes easier for that to be your default mode.

Yoga is a way for me to reset – a good practice for looking inside myself to see what emotions are coming up, what’s stressing me out and making me not live up to my full potential. Learning to quiet those judgmental voices that say, “Michael, you’re not good enough,” or whatever the situation is that’s bringing me down.

And if all else fails … chocolate.

It’s great how you’re always so positive in the public eye, but it’s good to hear that you’re also human.It’s a different thing every day on tour, these really exhausting days, but I get to meet people who have been somehow moved by my music. I get to talk to them about their life, their experiences, and you know, I am so grateful for every day that we get to do this. For me, it’s the best job I could ever imagine.

Having turned 50 this year, born in 1966, you’ve seen some cycles socially, culturally, politically, environmentally, and you still say this is the best time to be alive. Why?I was given up for adoption at birth because my mom was Irish, Belgian and German, and my father was African-American and Native American. My mother felt like her family would never accept a brown baby and that’s why she gave me up. I look around our country today and see families of all different blends and never would have imagined even 10 years ago that we would have marriage equality in 32 states. That just blows my mind, and yet, we still have an incredibly far way to go with the criminal justice system the way it is, the police shootings that we see, civilian shootings of police and the attack in Orlando. We’ve come an incredibly far way and still have a long way to go, but the main thing that I’m heartened by is that I’ve seen this change with my own eyes in my lifetime.

I remember in 1996 doing an event in Berkeley about the prison industrial complex and how much money was spent on prisons in California directly taken out of education. Now I see people from the Republican Party calling for criminal justice reform, the legalization of drugs and who are even in opposition of the death penalty. It’s incredible for me to see that kind of turnaround in my lifetime, so I think, where can we be 20 years from now? I look at everything happening in the streets, in politics and in the world and I think this is going to be a time we look back on in the same way we look back on the civil rights era. We’re going to look back at this time and say, “Wow, there was so much lethal force being used in our communities that wasn’t necessary.” 20 years from now we’ll have solved it, fixed it and changed it. I really believe that.

How do you suggest we get there? People in the media drastically underestimate the intelligence and capacity for empathy that everyday people have. When somebody’s on the ground and a cop puts a gun in their back and blasts them on Facebook Live, there’s no justification for that.

And it’s possible to see that for what it is, and at the same time have empathy for police officers. I have a brother who’s a cop. My brother goes to work and I don’t want him coming home dead, you know? I respect their job. It’s the hardest job you could ever have, to make snap decisions and basically be feared and disliked by almost every single person you meet. You walk into a situation and never know what’s going to happen next. It’s the toughest job you can have, no question about it. I believe it’s possible for all of us to hold both of those things in our mind – it doesn’t have to be one or the other. I can see that these killings are unjust, and I can see that it’s unjust that police are being killed. It’s possible to have empathy and it’s also possible to have the intellectual capacity to say, “Hey look, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t in support of police. We just want them held accountable when they mess up.”

So much of what’s happening in our 140-character, news, sound byte media doesn’t allow for those conversations to take place, so it’s troubling to see the bullying that then goes on. It’s one of the main reasons why I’d never want Trump as president. I don’t want my kids growing up seeing that anytime somebody criticizes you or critiques a philosophy, that your response is to call them “Crooked Hillary,” or “Lying Ted Cruz,” or to make fun of the way they move their body, or their gender, or call whole groups of people rapists, or say that we’re going to ban a whole religion and people from entering our country. I don’t want my child growing up seeing the president doing that every day on Twitter. I feel like this bullying, trolling culture we’re in right now is something I wrote about in 1992. I put out a song called “The Language of Violence” about a kid who’s bullied in school, being called faggot, sissy, queer, punk, and eventually it leads to him being beaten up. The kid dies, and the one who was doing that is now in prison being called the same names by other prisoners. It’s all about the cycle of violence, it never ends and that sort of language is dangerous. I see it taking place now and I’m horrified by it.

I believe that words matter and that language is violence. I remember walking home from school and some kids called me a nigger when I was in kindergarten. My parents who adopted me had never had to deal with this situation before and they didn’t go into, “Well, this is a word that’s used against black people.” They just said, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never harm you.” But it did. It did hurt me, and it hurt every other kid in school who was teased and belittled and called names. It hurt more than getting punched, and it affected the way that we grew up. It’s one of the reasons I feel so much empathy for people who are treated poorly, whether it’s for their gender, their sexuality, their color, their economics, because they’re new to this country, because they’re older, because they have some sort of special need, whatever it is – the language we use to hurt and belittle people matters. I don’t want a president who doesn’t understand that.

What are your thoughts on extending empathy toward yourself during these tumultuous times? In the first yoga class I ever went to the teacher talked about ahimsa, the practice of nonviolence and how it has to start with you. The judgments you place on yourself end up becoming toxic in your way of being. It has to start with being able to quiet that judgmental voice, to see your authentic self, the authenticity in others and when somebody’s acting out from a place of insecurity, shame or fear, to hold space for that.

A key element I’m taking away from this interview is that it’s good to be informed by the past to see how far we’ve come, but to also know that we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Yeah, and to not discount each of our ability to be part of that work. All of us have a role to play. The way we navigate kids in a sport situation, how they get along with each other, solve conflicts and work together as a team – those things are incredibly important in shaping our neighborhoods and communities and what our children grow up to be. Supporting local foods and organic farming and the way we spend our dollars makes an incredible difference. Also, the way we communicate, talk to each other and engage in conversations really sets the tone for how we wake up and feel about the world. For better or worse, we’re all waking up looking at our phones and thinking, “What’s going on in the world today? Was there another bombing? Was there another shooting? What’s happened that is potentially going to make me feel a certain way?”

The support we have for our neighbors, the way we talk to each other, the way we treat each other, the music we share, the food we eat and the experiences we have together – finding reasons to bring people together is so important now because there’s so many things pulling us apart. That’s really why I make music … because I care about people and the planet.


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