Walking on Sunshine
Barefoot philosopher Michael Franti basks in the glow
When it comes to the upper echelons of world-beat hip hop culture, Toronto may have Somalian royalty K’naan (also known as the Dusty Foot Philosopher), but San Francisco can also claim its own unshod hero of hiphopricy in Michael Franti. It’s been an uphill climb for the 45-year-old reggae-revival heartthrob since he made the decision to eschew all footwear over a decade ago. Always open to new collaborations, Franti — who recently appeared on the television series, What About Me? with 1 Giant Leap — has thrown in his lot opening for guitar shaman Carlos Santana for their upcoming West Coast tour, which is something Franti considers both an honour and a challenge.
“Obviously, I’ve been a Santana fan my entire life,” Michael Franti says. “It’s amazing to be working alongside such a legendary singer and songwriter who’s sold millions of albums, but he’s much more than that. Carlos has taken the lead in San Francisco in terms of speaking out for things like social change, environment issues and the equality of different people and so on. So many times someone with that kinda success gets to a level where they don’t want to risk alienating themselves. I admire artist’s who can supersede that barrier to higher progress.”
Melding elements of soul, funk, dancehall, rock-steady and hip hop into his very own vegan stew, Franti bridges cultures and generations with an intuitively groovy sense of timing and a compelling gift for delivering brazen lyrics with a velvet tongue. Critics and fans alike were wowed by the red-eye master’s incendiary 2008 release All Rebel Rockers and subsequent hit single “Say Hey (I Love You)” in 2009.
Franti and his ebullient band Spearhead reunited with Capitol Records almost 15 years after leaving the label in the mid-90. Once again produced under the sage tutelage of rock-steady gods Sly & Robbie, his latest album The Sound of Sunshine effectively encapsulates the singer-songwriter’s renewed sense of thankfulness and purpose following a near-fatal bout of appendicitis in late 2009.
“I’m looking forward to working on some really cool projects in the future,” Franti says. “I’m always collaborating with guys in my band and we’re already working on the next recording with Sly & Robbie. We’ll be taking the studio on the road again and trying out new songs on tour. I drive the guys crazy because I’ll go into dressing room and ask them to play a song we just wrote that day, or make changes based on the way it went the night before. I’m so anxious to try things out.”
By now an expert at gauging a crowd’s reaction to a given song, Franti has found that the satisfaction of bringing joy to other people may be his highest calling. From travelling the Middle East in search of lasting harmony to mixing up a masterpiece at his Balinese retreat, Franti has come full circle in returning to the city and the circle of supporters that inspired his Beatnig past and sparked him to catch a fire.
“At this point, I write songs for audience rather for personal reasons,” Franti explains. “It’s coming from that place of gratitude. It’s different when you don’t write for yourself. Writing for others drives me to hone each song to its best essence. Our songs can be so uplifting, positive and danceable, but on The Sound of Sunshine the songs are also so personal.”He elaborates: “That record is about my experiences with almost dying and being so grateful to be alive. This new record is concerned with trying to make sense of the planet. Not that I have answers for economic crisis, climate change, earthquakes and tsunamis. I’m just trying to put it all into perspective. What does it all mean? It’s about me wanting to see signs that things are improving, as if I’m watching the world as a snapshot from outer space. And, every day I’m alive I try to see one of those small signs.”
Santana with Michael Franti & Spearhead
Scotiabank Saddledome Monday, August 29
by Christine Leonard
Originally published August 25, 2011 in FastForward Magazine.