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20 Questions: Michael Franti

Known for his social activism as much as his fusion of musical styles, it’s clear in PopMatters' latest edition of 20 Questions that Michael Franti is always just being himself, as he will on President Obama's inauguration on Tuesday 20 January 2009.

Michael Franti & Spearhead

All Rebel Rockers

Contributors: Sly and Robbie, Zap Mama
Label: Anti-
US Release Date: 2008-09-09
UK Release Date: 2008-08-18

Michael Franti & Spearhead

Yell Fire!

Label: Boo Boo Wax
US Release Date: 2006-07-25
UK Release Date: 2006-07-24

When Michael Franti speaks into the receiver, he is relishing the unseasonable 70-degree weather in San Francisco. All that will change when he heads east to the currently Arctic climate of the nation's capital to participate in the inauguration celebration for President-Elect Barack Obama.

Franti does not have a history of endorsing political candidates, but he respects many of the ideas that Obama represents, not the least of which is energy renewal and efficiency. Franti even foreshadowed Obama's pledged closing of Guantanamo Bay when he sang "Someday Guantanamo will fall" on "Life in the City", a track from his most recent album with his band Spearhead, All Rebel Rockers (2008). Inspired by the November 2008 election night festivities, Franti wrote "Obama Song" in tribute to the 44th President.

Obama isn't the only thing on Franti's mind, however, when I speak with him on a recent winter evening. It's the day before his song "Nobody Right, Nobody Wrong" is sent to readers of (RED) Wire, a digital music magazine that sends its subscribers free tracks donated by musicians in a fund-raising effort to end disease on the African continent. Known for his social activism as much as his fusion of musical styles, it’s clear in PopMatters' latest edition of 20 Questions that Michael Franti is always just being himself.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Slumdog Millionaire, which is a fantastic movie, an incredible movie. It's a film about this guy who lives in India, grew up on the streets of India as an orphan, and he goes on the Indian "Who Wants to Become a Millionaire?" He answers all the questions correctly and they can't understand how this kid from the street could know so much. It wasn't that he was a genius, it was just that they asked him the questions that were perfectly suited for his particular upbringing.

The movie is, in some ways, about destiny. It was really moving to me because it was like the story of every person. It was like how all these things in your life could lead to be where you are today. That really moved me. In addition to being a bit of a tearjerker, it's also incredibly uplifting and life affirming.

The last book that made me cry was Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time .

2. The fictional character most like you?

Willy Wonka. I just love the story. I love Gene Wilder's portrayal because you don't know if he really likes kids or if he doesn't like kids until the very end of the movie and then you realize that he's just putting them all through this test. They all succumb to the greed and the gluttony and jealously and they all lose except for Charlie. Charlie is able to take that everlasting Gobsucker -- this thing that is so sweet, that lasts forever, it's like eternal happiness, eternal bliss – and he's willing to give that back to Willy Wonka to receive the ultimate prize, which is taking the elevator through the glass ceiling.

You get all of it. You get everything you could have ever wished for if you're willing to give that eternal bliss away to somebody else, to give it back. I just love the message of that movie. More than anything else, I just think Willy Wonka is a bad mutha-shutyourmouth!

3. The greatest album, ever?

You know what? The greatest album ever is my iPod! Probably my favorite record that I've listened to more than any…there's a few. There's Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971), there's Bob Marley's Kaya (1978), and probably third would be Radiohead's OK Computer (1997). Still I'd have to vote for my iPod (laughs).

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Wars without a doubt, because of the storytelling. Star Trek, I feel, is like TV, where everything is resolved in 42-minutes or however long the program is. Star Wars is mythology. It's like Greek mythology or Shakespeare. It's the story of good versus evil over a very long span of time. The storytelling is universal and timeless.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Cashews, man! I eat bags and bags of cashews. I've got them in the kitchen and about ten feet away I've got another bowl on the kitchen table. In my backpack, I’ve always got a bag of cashews. I started eating them in the airports because that's the one food that you can find in every airport that's actually nutritious. I started eating them and now I kind of live on them. They're good energy and there's no sugar in them. Good food to think by.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

It's a bit of a paradox. My greatest sense of accomplishment has come from having two amazing sons, but it's also a paradox in that the times when I felt like the biggest failure have been times when I felt like, as a parent, I wasn't making the right decisions or succeeding in the way that I should. Being a parent is both the biggest joy and, at times, when I have judged myself the hardest.

7. You want to be remembered for…??

I'd like to be remembered as somebody whose music made a difference in people's lives. It could just be that there was somebody who was having a difficult time in their life and trying to turn themselves around and my song meant something to them in that moment.

People ask me a lot, "How does music work? How does it change the world?" I don't believe that music can necessarily change the world overnight but I know it can help us through a difficult night. If my music consistently did that for people, then that would be great.

It's better to be judged over a lifetime than it is to be judged for any one accomplishment that a person has done.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

I would say that my grandmother on my father's side. I didn't meet her until I was 22-years-old because I was given up for adoption. When I finally met my birth parents, I met her.

She worked as a domestic her whole life, taking care of people's houses, and she was raised by her grandmother who had been a slave until she was 12-years-old. My grandmother told me the stories of her grandmother, who was an eye witness to slavery. That was really remarkable to hear those stories and then to hear my grandmother's eternal optimism, even having had a very difficult life.

I remember going to visit her when she was on her deathbed in the hospital. She had tubes in her nose, she was on a heart meter. I walk into the room, and I'm all scared, and I go, "Grandma, what happened? How come you're in the hospital?" She said, "Because I'm pregnant!" "Who got you pregnant?" "Reverend Mitchell!" She always had this way of turning any situation into a positive thing with humor.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

I get insanely jealous anytime I hear a cool song (laughs). It could be any song. For awhile, my son was really into this "Peanut Butter and Jelly" hip-hop song. It has about 25 million hits on YouTube. I was like, Damn, I wish I would have written the "Peanut Butter and Jelly" song.

More than anything else, I feel great when I'm appreciated for just being myself. I think that's the greatest honor.

10. Your hidden talents…?

I can ride a bicycle backwards. I can juggle pretty well. I'm a really, really great roller skater, not in-line skating, but disco skating on rollerskates. There's even stuff of me on YouTube roller skating. People always go, "Damn! He can skate, man!" I got to admit, it's kind of freaky seeing somebody who's six-foot-six, who's then on four inches of rollerskates and who can really get down. I'm kind of proud of that.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

The best piece of advice I've actually followed is to give selflessly without any expectation of return.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

I could tell you the worst thing I stole was a piece of peppermint candy when I was like, seven years-old. The reason it was so bad is because when my dad found out, he whupped my ass so hard, I never stole again in my entire life (laughs). Maybe that was the best thing.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

You know I feel best butt naked (laughs). I'm not really into brands but I like to wear comfortable jeans.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Nelson Mandela. I've always wanted to have dinner with him, you know, just sit down and have a conversation with him.

Michael Franti & Spearhead

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

Absolutely the future and absolutely not the past. Sometimes people say, "God I wish I were ten years-old again". I'm like, Fuck that, then I got to be 13, 14, and 15 again. I don't even want to go back to yesterday. I only want to go ahead into the future.

Sometimes, I project, what would it be like just beyond the time of my lifespan? What would it be like, assuming I make it to the max 100, what would it be like 60 years from now? What would be the new thing that everybody had to have, like the iPod, or where would we be at in terms of our state of energy in the world? Have we accomplished the goals of sustainability that we're so hopeful for today, and have we solved some of the issues in the world like war and hunger and AIDS? Where would we be with these issues that are the questions of today?

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

I practice yoga pretty much everyday and it's hardly spa-style yoga. I practice Ashtanga yoga and Jivamukti yoga, which are really intense. There are times when I definitely feel that overwhelming anger and I find that it's much better to write songs about it than to hire a hit man.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?

Of those, I only eat chocolate and I rarely do that. Essential to life to me is playfulness. Being able to just get up and roll in the dirt or be silly, laugh, joke, stay up through the middle of the night and bullshit with my friends.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

The city. I love people. People are my favorite part of nature. One time I was in Times Square in New York and this woman was like, "I can't stand Times Square! It's so soulless!" I was like, It's fucking Times Square! It's supposed to be that way! Then, when I looked around, I said, but actually if you think about it, there's more people here per square inch than anywhere else maybe in the whole country so in fact, there's more soul here than there is anywhere else. It's just that you got to stop and look for it, stop and spend time in it.

That's what I like about the city. I like the feeling of being surrounded by millions of people but at the same time (being) completely anonymous. Being in a small town, I would feel like a freak. Being stuck in the country, I'd probably drive everybody else crazy.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Enjoy the first night because it ain't going to get any better from there (laughs)! It ain't going to get any easier. I think that my one bit of advice would be: Be the best listener you possibly can. My gift would be to say I'm here to do whatever I'm capable of doing that you request.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on now?

Note: The second leg of Franti's "Hey World" tour begins on 28 January in Salt Lake City, but first, Franti and Spearhead will perform at the Peace Ball and Green Ball to celebrate the inauguration of President-elect Obama. Here, he shares the inspiration behind "Obama Song".

It actually came on the night of the election. I was in Montreal and I was so bummed. I flew from Chicago at 6:00PM, before they'd made the announcement and I was on a plane to Montreal. I could've been in Chicago in Grant Park -- instead I was not even in America. Of all the nights to not be in America!

I wanted to capture the feeling that I had when I heard the election results. Tons of Canadians were just out in the street singing and dancing, just reveling in the motion of the moment, and so I wanted to put that into a song and that's the song that came out.

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