Interview: Michael Franti, On Beyond Tree-Hugging

If every administration gets the pop star it deserves, the current White House resident could do a whole lot worse than Michael Franti, with whom he has more than biracial parents in common. Franti released an optimistic single, "Obama Song," shortly after the election, ended up playing three inauguration galas, and, per his comments below, continues to support Barack Obama even as political reality begins to overshadow hopeful idealism. Franti, the granola circuit's original party-for-peacenik, is one of rock's too-few uniters. Nobody feels alienated at a Michael Franti & Spearhead show, even when he's criticizing the Patriot Act. Likewise, his 2008 documentary I Know I'm Not Alone was a sincere attempt on this outspoken lefty's part to understand all sides of Middle Eastern issues, from Israeli settlers and Palestinian refugees to the American soldiers on the ground in Iraq.

Franti's latest album, the Jamaica-flavored All Rebel Rockers, hit Billboard's Top-40 when it was released in 2008, while his love-is-all-around you single, "Say Hey (I Love You)," topped out at #18. That's the kind of popularity that gets you invited on tours with the likes of John Mayer, and the pair will hit the road on February 4.

Having released "Obama Song" shortly after the 2008 election, what’s your assessment of its subject's first year in office? Any big surprises or disappointments?

It's about what I expected. I knew he’d be under a lot of strain because he inherited the worst situation: a couple of wars and the economy. The biggest surprise was how Fox News became the Obama 24-7 attack center. I was a little surprised that he went after health care reform so quickly. I’ve been really impressed by his resilience. He’s been under incredible attack but has continued to press on to do what he said he was gonna do.

Did you feel like there's any disconnect between the promises he made during the campaign and what he's done since inauguration? I'm thinking about Guantanamo and various lapses in transparency.

I never had those illusions. He’s President of the United States, so that kind of goes with the job. You’re going to disappoint a lot of people. Everybody who votes for you is going to think you hold their agenda dearest to your heart. I'm not anti-military, but I am against using military solutions for social issues, and that’s something I see happening. We’re using hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the ground to do what civilians should be doing: helping people to go to school and create lives for themselves so they don’t feel like they have to strap a bomb onto their bodies and walk into a supermarket.

Is that something you became more aware of during your travels in the Middle East for I Know I'm Not Alone?

It’s something I’ve always felt that was reinforced for me. I travel a lot, and most places you see that it's poverty we should be fighting. You could solve a lot of problems by doing that, because that’s where problems start.

After I Know I'm Not Alone came out, did you hear from people who felt offended or betrayed by it?

Yeah, some people did. That’s part of what you do. There were times I’d be out showing the film and people would be speaking up about it. And I felt like I had defeated in those moments. But that was the idea – to get people talking about what’s happening. That's the reason I went to Iraq. I felt I wasn’t hearing or seeing the voices of anybody with the U.S. military, under the Bush administration, and I wanted to see more.

Did you experience any fundamental change of belief while you were traveling or afterward?

I did. I felt empathy for our soldiers who were there. They told me they signed up September 12 – the day after September 11. They said they thought they'd be seeking weapons of mass destruction because Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. And finding out that neither of these things were true, they wondered, "What are we doing here?" Since I came home, I've worked with several veterans groups. I've played music several times at Walter Reed Hospital for guys who've just come back. I don't want to see what happened to veterans from the first Gulf war, and the first world war, happen to the veterans of this war.

How many soldiers do you think enlisted because they couldn't find jobs anywhere else?

Yeah, some that did. And others were well off economically but went there for ideological reasons.

Now that you've had a hit single and you’re going on tour with John Mayer, how will you tweak your show for a perhaps less politically inclined audience?

When I first started, my songs were about very specific political issues. As I've grown, I've realized in order to take on the large issues the world faces today – the environment, for example, or slowing down global warming – it’s going to take more than just my tree-hugging friends in California [laughs]. It’s going to take the resources of the corporate world, the cooperation of government, the ideas of grassroots people, and the hard work and spending power of everyday people as well as best science can offer. We’ve got to get everybody working on this problem simultaneously. And in concert we bring about ideas that start to work. So really my music is about bringing people together; it's not about policy or making political speeches. I know in my audience we have all kinds of people; I hear from them all the time – politicians, democrats, gay, straight, black, white, rich, and poor. I make music to make people, not to make people switch to one party or another [laughs].

And if you could do that, you're in the wrong business. Have you ever been to Haiti or have any Haitian musician friends?

I haven't. I toured with Wyclef when the Fugees just started. I've known him since the early nineties. And last May I was an ambassador for this organization CARE. As part of my job I had dinner with the Haitian ambassador in DC when I was on a trip out there. There’s been so many different times when I was invited to Haiti and haven’t gone. I worked with Boukman Eksperyans. I did some recording with them in the late nineties but I have yet to go there.

Are you doing anything for the earthquake relief in Haiti?

I'm doing several benefit shows, and we’re organizing with CARE to do something with them. We’ve been waiting for the recon on the ground to start to put together a picture of what’s needed there: Do they need clothing or canned food? What’s the best way to approach the crisis through an NGO’s standpoint?

What would you say to a college kid today who might be confused about where to turn his or her political ideals and talents especially in this screwy economy?

People ask me all the time, "What can I do to make a difference?" I say do what you can. Some people have the ability to do different things. Some people can be involved directly in politics, working in an office for a political body. Others might not have the time or ability to do that, but they might have other abilities. They could help out in their neighborhood schools or do some other thing to contribute to the community. That's what gives each of us value is what we can contribute to this country and planet. The other thing is voting — it’s the one thing each of us as Americans should have in common. I don’t care who you vote for or what political party you belong to. What reunites us as Americans is that we all vote. So everybody should make sure they're registered now, not scrambling the day before the election and saying, “Dang, I missed this one.” Do it in your downtime. Make sure that you’re registered so that when the time comes, you can vote.

Well then, thank you for affirming the HeadCount credo, Michael.