In the early 1990s, Michael Franti led the influential and provocative band The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The band was political, sometimes angry and the furthest thing from being a hit-maker. But in 2009, Franti did in fact score a hit with a song called "Say Hey." It reached the Billboard Top 20. Though his sound may have changed, his message hasn't. His latest album is called The Sound of Sunshine, but it still deals with issues that he's passionate about: social justice, the environment and peace in the Middle East.
"I think my soul is intact, but my methods of reaching people are completely different," says Franti in an interview with Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "When I first started out, I thought it was enough to make an angry song that pointed out the problems of the world."
Franti says that once he ventured out into the world and saw how his music affected his audience, his outlook on making music changed.
"Playing on the streets of Iraq, or in Israel or the Gaza strip, I'd sing angry protest songs against war," says Franti. "People would say, 'Make us clap, make us dance, and laugh and sing.' It really made me think about the importance of happy music."
The Sound of Sunshine was actually recorded after a very serious health scare.
"I was out with the Counting Crows and I had this abdominal pain. I felt this pop in my abdomen," says Franti. "My appendix had ruptured."
The time that Franti spent in the hospital inspired the sound on this album.
"Every day in the hospital, I'd go over to the window and I'd pull back the curtain to see if the sun was shining, and if it was, I'd get this feeling like, 'Yes, I'm gonna be better today," says Franti. "I wanted to bottle that feeling for people, because right now is a really difficult time in our country and in the world. There are so many things to be worried about, and I wanted to make a record that people could put on, and it would lift them up the way the sun did for me each day."
(Soundbite of song, "California Uber Alles")
DISPOSABLE HEROES OF HIPHOPRISY (Music Group): (Singing) I'm your Governor Pete Wilson, you know, the baddest governor to ever grab a mic and go boom, give me a budget and watch me hack it.
GUY RAZ, host:
This is how a lot of music fans got to know Michael Franti in the early 1990s. He was the front man for the hip-hop band Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The Disposable Heroes were political and sometimes angry and the furthest thing from being hit-makers.
But then, in 2009, Michael Franti did in fact score a hit, a song called "Say Hey" that reached the Billboard Top 20.
(Soundbite of song, "Say Hey")
Mr. MICHAEL FRANTI (Musician): (Singing) I say hey, I be gone today. But I be back around the way.
RAZ: Now, while his sound may have changed, his message hasn't. Michael Franti's new album may be called "The Sound of Sunshine," but it still deals with issues that he's been passionate about: social justice, the environment, Middle East peace.
(Soundbite of song, "Hey Hey Hey")
Mr. FRANTI: (Singing) So tell me why do the birds that used to fly here, tell me why do they come to die here. And all the kids that used to run here, tell me why do they load their guns here.
RAZ: And Michael Franti joins me from our studios at NPR West in Southern California.
Welcome. Great to have you.
Mr. FRANTI: Thanks. It's great to be here, Guy.
RAZ: What do you think of that Michael Franti we heard, that Michael Franti from 1992, the Disposable Hero Michael Franti? Do you think you're a completely different artist?
Mr. FRANTI: Well, I think that my soul is intact, but my methods of reaching people is completely different. When I first started out, I thought it was enough just to make an angry song that pointed out the problems of the world. And then when I got out into the world and started seeing how my music was affecting people and meeting people who were directly faced with those problems, like for example playing in a prison, I'd go in there and sing an angry song about how messed up the prison system is.
And they'd say - man, we want to hear songs about how much we miss our girlfriend.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANTI: And it really made me rethink the importance of happy music.
(Soundbite of song, "Hey Hey Hey")
Mr. FRANTI: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey. No matter how life is today, there's just one thing that I got to say. I won't let another moment slip away. I say hey, hey, hey.
RAZ: You've traveled all around the world as a musician, but you also spent some time in Iraq, in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank and in Israel. Talk about why you went there.
Mr. FRANTI: Well, I went there because I got tired of watching the news and feeling like I wasn't hearing the whole story about what was happening in Iraq.
I'd hear these explanations by generals and politicians and nothing from the soldiers or from people who just lived on the street. And so I took my guitar and a video camera and six of my friends and flew on a little 16-passenger plane from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad. And I'd play music on the street for people there.
And they would listen and then take me into their homes and their hospitals, their mosques, their schools and tell me about their lives. And I made a film about it called "I Know I'm Not Alone."
And at nighttime, I'd spend with off-duty U.S. soldiers who were in their bars, and, you know, I'd kind of walk into a bar with my wooden guitar, and these guys would all be in there polishing their M-16s and have a beer in one hand and a rifle in the other hand.
And they'd kind of be looking at me like, couldn't they have sent, you know, Jessica Simpson here or something to entertain us, you know? I would sing this song called "Bomb the World," and the lyrics say: We can bomb the world to pieces, but we can't bomb it into peace.
And suddenly, these soldiers would look up, and they'd come to me, and they'd go, you know, it takes some big, you know, cojones to walk in here and sing a song like that.
(Soundbite of song, "Bomb the World")
Mr. FRANTI: (Singing) You say you're sorry. Lord, there is no other choice. God bless the people, no, who cannot raise their voice. We can chase down all our enemies, bring men to their knees. We can bomb the world into pieces, but can we bomb the world to peace.
RAZ: I'm talking to Michael Franti. He's the front man with the band Spearhead. Their new record is called "The Sound of Sunshine," and it was written and recorded after a pretty serious health scare. You thought you were going to die.
Mr. FRANTI: Yeah. I was on tour with the Counting Crows, and we were opening for them. And I had all this abdominal pain. And I kept going to many doctors over a long period of time, and no one could figure out what it was. And finally, I felt this pop in my abdomen and my appendix had ruptured.
And it was still seven days after that before they did a CAT scan and figured out what it was, but by this point, my belly had become very distended. I looked like I was four months pregnant, and my girlfriend assured me that I wasn't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANTI: But I was...
RAZ: And you were in pain, presumably.
Mr. FRANTI: Oh, incredible pain. And each day that went by that they couldn't figure out what it was, you know, I kept going deeper into: Well, it's not my appendix; it's not my gall bladder. Oh, now I have cancer. And I was building up all these things in my head.
And so, by the time I get the diagnosis and the surgery, I felt such incredible relief that I was still alive. And the simplest things, like eating an orange, they just really stuck out to me. And so I wrote all these new songs about simple things like that.
RAZ: So there's this idea that you have this sort of near-death experience, and almost all the songs you write are actually happy and joyful out of it.
Mr. FRANTI: Yeah, because every day in the hospital, I'd go over to the window, and I'd pull back the curtain to see if the sun was shining. And if it was, I'd get this feeling like, yes, I'm going to be better today. I'm still here. I'd touch myself and say, I'm still alive, you know.
And I wanted to bottle that feeling for people because right now is a really difficult time in our country and in the world. And I wanted to make a record that people could put on and it would lift them up the way the sun would do that for me each day.
(Soundbite of song, "The Sound of Sunshine")
Mr. FRANTI: (Singing) I wake up in the morning at 6 o'clock. They say there may be rain but the sun is hot. I wish I had some time just to kill today, and I wish I had a dime for every bill I got to pay. Some days you lose, you win and the water's as high as the times you're in. So I jump back in to where I learned to swim, try to keep my head above it the best I can. That's why here I am, just waiting for this storm to pass me by, and that's the sound of sunshine coming down.
RAZ: Earlier, we heard "California Uber Alles" that you recorded in 1992. It's about then-Governor Pete Wilson of California and some of his policies that you disagreed with.
And obviously, you know, somebody like you with a really devoted fan base, hardcore fan base, is bound to get some criticism from some of those fans. You might say, hey, you know, where is that Michael Franti, the one who was writing these sort of impassioned lyrics. Where is he? What do you say to them?
Mr. FRANTI: Well, the first thing I say is that there was a time when I wrote songs about things but really was not involved in the issues as directly as I am today. So I just look at it like it's a kind of a 2.0 thing.
You know, activism has changed. I remember in the first Gulf War, there was protests in San Francisco, and there was a group of people who went out onto the Bay Bridge, and on the news, it was covered as war protestors shut down the Bay Bridge.
And then in the next Gulf War, people went out on the bridge and shut it down, and it didn't make the news. It just made the traffic report - there's some crazy people on the bridge, you know.
And so, you have to find new ways that fit with the technology that you have available and that fit within the social noise. You have to find ways to get through.
RAZ: You once sang: If ever I could stop thinking about music and politics - I guess you can't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANTI: Not with people like you asking me all the time, Guy.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: That's Michael Franti. He's the front man for the band Spearhead. The new record is called "The Sound of Sunshine." If you'd like to hear a few tracks, they're at our website, nprmusic.org.
Michael Franti, thank you so much.
Mr. FRANTI: Thank you, Guy.
(Soundbite of song, "I'll Be Waiting")
Mr. FRANTI: (Singing) The best things in life aren't things, they're living, breathing. The best things in life aren't things, they're something you can believe in. Do you believe me? Do you believe me when I say tonight won't last for long. Soon it will be gone, but I won't leave you alone, no, no. Whenever you call me, whenever you need me, wherever you wander until you see me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.