All You Need Is Love
Musician / Activist / Filmmaker Michael Franti on the healing power of music

By Lee Valentine Smith

For three decades, Michael Franti has preached his swirling gospel of social renewal to a steadily growing audience. His activism has propelled his music around the world, balancing on a funky rock/soul/jazz/hip-hop/spoken word platform of styles - all cradled within an uplifting message of personal and global evolution.
At the core of his message is the eternal spirit of love. It has permeated his material from the nascent output of The Beatnigs in the '80s through the early '90s with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. By '94, his message was in sharp focus and presented with his typically varied approach. Today the Spearhead experience continues to pulse with bold expressive swaths of danceable R&B, reggae and delivered with unbridled enthusiasm and heartfelt empathy for his fellow man.

The band's recent release, Soulrocker has been on the market since last spring, but he's currently on the "Love Out Loud" tour which looks back on his entire catalog. Since Franti's coming back to Atlanta this month, Insite caught up with him by phone from Maine.

Tell us about the "Love Out Loud" tour.

I wrote a song a couple of years ago and I didn't put it on any album. A line in it said, "I will love out loud and live without permission." I believe right now, with everything going on with the environment, in politics, in sexuality and so many other things, it's so important for people to speak out about the world we want to live in - and the world we hope to see. But at the same time, if you're just speaking and not listening to anyone else, then you're not really loving. I feel like the roadmap to the future is to learn to listen to people with opposing viewpoints and other perspectives with an open heart and an open mind.

That's the only way to grow or learn, especially in today's volatile climate.

Yeah or to try to solve any of the problems in the world. I started making records during the Reagan administration and now we have a president who tweets things on a daily basis that I would ground my teenage son for. With that bullying spirit, I'm fearful our country will become a place where it's common to just troll people daily. I feel like the love, the kindness, the ability to listen to each other is more important now than ever. I feel that music is one of the ways to do that. You bring people together in a venue or at a festival or wherever, even on a street corner - it doesn't matter what walk of life they're from, at least they have that moment together, just to feel what it's like to be around people who may come from a different perspective or walk of life.

A live performance is a very unifying event.

Yeah but it's not to say that music is gonna change the world overnight. But I know for a fact that music can help people make it through a difficult night. Sometimes that's even more important in turning people onto being more emphatic for others and wanting to do compassionate deeds to help other people out. In this sort of bump in the road we're in right now, people seem to be yelling at each other and not really listening to each other.

Yeah, it's like the world stage has devolved into an episode of Jerry Springer.

(Laughs) Yeah, exactly. And that's not to say that people shouldn't speak with passion, but we should come up with solutions that do more than just meet the needs of one small group of people.

This has been your message since the very beginning of your career.

Yeah, since I started, I've believed that every single person on the earth deserves to be happy, healthy and equal.
That's why I do it.

The central theme of your music is also the centerpiece of the Do It For The Love foundation. Can you tell us how it started?

Well it was inspired by a couple who live in Atlanta, actually, Steve Dezember and his wife Hope. He has very advanced stages of ALS. Hope tweeted me saying her husband was a big fan, but he might die soon and he would love to come see the show. We invited them to a show in Florida at the Wanee Festival. We invited them to come onstage. I heard their story about when Steve found out he has ALS and he perhaps only had a few years to live, he was told that by his doctors at least. He said to Hope, "I'd understand if you leave. But if you don't, will you marry me?" She said yes immediately. So there they were in the middle of the stage, and mind you, his whole body has rigor. He whispered to Hope that he wanted to get up and dance. With all her strength, she lifted him up and they had this beautiful slow dance in front of 20,000 people at the festival.

That's beautiful.

It really was. Afterward, I asked what it was like for him. He said, "the first day I was at the festival, people were ignoring me or just looking at this funny-looking guy in a wheelchair. Then the next day after that, I was Steve and people came up to me and said, 'Hi Steve, it's great to meet you.'" I said to my wife Sara, "We've got to find a way to do this for as many people as possible." So our mission now is to bring children, adults and veterans with serious medical conditions, PTSD or special needs to see any live concert by any artist in North America. It's been years, and we've sent over 900 families to shows.

That's a lot of shows.

It's almost one a day now, with everything from Jay-Z and Beyonce, Garth Brooks to Justin Bieber to Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift. I never imagined I'd buy as many Taylor Swift tickets as we have but she's our most popular artist at the moment. It's amazing to see how the families react, but also the artists themselves.

The healing power of music is universal, isn't it?

It is. When someone has a life-threatening illness, it also becomes a full-time job for the family. So we do this for the family as much as the person who has been diagnosed. And you know, one of the first ones we ever did was here in Maine. A woman had contacted us and wanted to come to one of my shows. When I was waiting to see them at the concert, we got a message that she was really sick, in hospice and wouldn't be able to come to the show. So I went to the hospice to meet with her and I brought my guitar. I played some of her favorite songs for her. Here she is, within a few days of dying, and she tells her friends that she wants to get up on the bed and dance, and she's jumping on the bed as I was there playing the guitar! She passed away just a few days later. I've played at Yankee Stadium opening for U2 and on the streets of Iraq and so many places. I never would have imagined one of the greatest musical moments of my life would be in a hospice in Portland, Maine.

Michael Franti and Spearhead play August 8 at the Variety Playhouse. For more information on the Do It For The Love Foundation, visit doitforthelove.org.

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