Michael Franti of Spearhead on His Evolution From Industrial Rapper to Soul Rocker

Since 1994, Michael Franti has been best known for his band Spearhead, a funk and soul outfit with lyrics that commented on social issues with an uncommon level of sensitivity and a measured critique. Prior to that, Franti had been the main vocalist in industrial-rap acts the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The latter's 1992 album, Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury, is now considered a classic of the genre, with songs covering subjects like police brutality, homophobia, racism and the economic and cultural degradation of society by greed. Franti seemed to have grasped all the interconnections and expressed it all with poetry and creativity. But he didn't feel that that particular mode of expression suited his long-term strategy for tackling the social ills.

“When Muhammad Ali passed away a couple of weeks ago, I read this great quote that said, 'If you believe everything you believed at age twenty at age fifty, then you've wasted thirty years of your life,'” says Franti. “I guess I realized that when I was making music that was super-aggressive and super-angry, I felt powerless in the world to be a change-maker or be a difference-maker. As I've grown, I've realized that it's possible to make a difference through influencing people through positivity — showing that there's a possibility of things changing. The style of music has a lot to do with that. I really believe that music is entirely about feeling. Literally, the vibrations that tickle our eardrums is how we experience music; these things that we don't see that tickle our eardrums and change the chemicals in our brain that make us feel adulation, intoxicated with love, anger, fear and sadness — all that has to do with the endorphins and hormones that race around in our bodies.”

Franti himself is multi-ethnic, raised by a Finnish family that adopted him at birth, and part of his upbringing was learning that identity contains great nuance. Franti couldn't view the world in simplistic ways, and his music has always reflected that perspective. Even when he pointedly criticized social ills, there was a basic core of compassion in his approach. And while the music Franti wrote in the early '90s seems prescient now, he feels that the world isn't the same. The new Michael Franti & Spearhead album, Soulrocker, expresses Franti's positive outlook toward encouraging the world to go in a better direction.

“I feel like there's been a lot of positive change,” says Franti. “I didn't imagine even ten years ago that we'd have marriage equality in 32 states. In general, I feel on the street there's more opportunity for different ethnicities having equality in our country than certainly when I was born, in the '60s. One of the most frustrating things is to hear the rhetoric we're hearing in this election. It just blows me away. Not even on a racial basis, but just on the strength of bullying. The fact that any time anybody says anything critical of Trump, he attacks them. I don't want Trump to be my president, because I don't want my kids hearing that's how you treat people in the world. It's like trolling has become part of our national vocabulary. I wrote a song in 1992 with Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy called 'The Language of Violence,' and it's about how we use language to belittle people so that we can do horrible things to them. We called Vietnamese people 'gooks' so we didn't feel bad about dropping napalm on their kids. That kind of rhetoric I see taking place everywhere in society and in social media. Bullying is a major problem.”

“I tweeted the other day, I think after the attack in Nice, me holding a peace sign with '#enough,'” says Franti. “Someone wrote back to me and said someone in ISIS is not going to listen to what I have to say. But everyone that isn't violent learned from someone in their lives that violence is not the way to be. So we have to keep saying it, because everyone that isn't violent was reached in some way. If we continue to say that message, it reaches people before they go to the other side, whether that's in my own community or on the international level. Our elected leaders need that same moral compass and [need to] be willing to compromise and put aside differences and not respond to every attack by bullying and lashing out. We need people who are more steadied in their approach to conflict; otherwise it'll keep escalating and leading to more violence.”

Michael Franti & Spearhead with Zella Day, Sunday, August 7, 6 p.m., Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.