Not long ago, the idea of a politically charged act like Michael Franti & Spearhead headlining at a mellow outdoor summer festival would have been as likely as Barry Manilow playing Ozzfest’s main stage.
But things are different now. Since the beginning of July alone, Franti and company have brought their seamless, socially conscious blend of reggae, hip-hop, Afrobeat and funk to the Ottawa Bluesfest, the All Good Festival outside Masontown, W.Va., the inaugural Rothbury festival in western Michigan and WXPN’s XPoNential Festival in Camden, N.J.
“Six or seven years ago we started hitting the festival scene hard,” says Franti during an interview from Ottawa. “We were better known outside America than here. We were something a lot of promoters didn’t know about, or weren’t sure fit in with their thing. Then we played acoustic festivals, folk festivals, reggae festivals ... People found out that we were a great band that included everybody. That was the main thing. We always let the songs speak for themselves. I don’t preach.”
Spearhead’s primary concern, says Franti, “is moving people’s bodies and emotions.” And while he can expound eloquently on matters of social justice and human rights, he also writes songs about his life as a father and his hopes and dreams for the future.
“I have two sons, one 21 and one 9,” says Franti, 42. “My older son is a painter. I wrote the song ‘I Got Love for You’ (from Spearhead’s upcoming CD, ‘All Rebel Rockers,’ due in September) for him to have on his trip from San Francisco to New York City on a Greyhound bus.”
His youngest “loves music. We’re always on iTunes together downloading music, everything from Snoop Dogg to the Chipmunks.”
Franti points to his own upbringing when asked what influenced his world view and his art. “My (birth) mother was white and my father was black, but I was adopted by a white couple,” says Franti, who grew up in Davis, Calif., about 75 miles northeast of his current hometown, San Francisco.
“I always felt like an outsider,” he notes. “I always identified with that feeling of being an underdog. So I always was looking to connect with and meet people from other cultures, to experience people living a different life that I am.”
The 6-foot 6-inch Franti was playing basketball for the University of San Francisco when he became enamored of music. In 1986 he started avant-garde industrial act The Beatnigs and in 1991 political rap act The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, whose 1992 debut disc, “Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury,” thoughtfully critiqued homophobia, the conduct of the Gulf War, religious zealotry and “melting pot” assimilation. In 1994, he formed Spearhead.
Franti’s extramusical exploits include working with human-rights organizations ranging from Oxfam to Amnesty International. In 2005, he became the first recording artist since Johnny Cash to perform at the maximum security, level-4 section of Folsom State Prison. In 2006 he traveled with his guitar and video cameras to the war-torn neighborhoods of Iraq, Palestine and Israel. His journey is chronicled in the documentary “I Know I’m Not Alone.”
Franti’s wanderlust also inspired “All Rebel Rockers’” sinewy reggae opener, “Rude Boys Back In Town,” which name-checks several Asian and African countries. Always on the move, Franti reports that next February, he will be playing a festival in Tanzania.
Spearhead journeyed to Jamaica to record “All Rebel Rockers” with drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. “We worked with them before, but only on one or two songs at a time,” says Franti. “This is the first time we did a whole record.
“Recording in Jamaica is like nothing else,” he says, enthusiasm and admiration in his voice. “The studios are always closed in America. But in Jamaica the studio doors are wide open and there’s music blasting out in the street. You can see the reaction of people immediately. In Jamaica, the music is recorded for the sound system, not the iPod. It’s about experiencing music together, with other people.”
Though Franti has seen the ravages of war up close - check out Spearhead’s 2006 CD, “Yell Fire!,” for details - “All Rebel Rockers” seems suffused with optimism.
That vibe comes from the people he has met. “I travel to a lot of places where life is very difficult - there’s war, poverty, natural disasters. But people in those circumstances are the most optimistic. They laugh and try to enjoy life.
“People worry that gas prices are high and how they are affecting their pocket book. But they want to know about renewable energy. People are really starting to question things, and that’s made people look to the future in a positive way.”