Michael Franti has toured the world for three decades playing socially conscious, politically charged music. But the San Francisco resident’s new album, set to drop June 19 in the middle of the most intense political campaign in a generation, is nearly politics-free.
That is by design, Franti told The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast. To him, it’s not all political anymore.
Instead, the longtime activist is appealing to our human commonality at a time when racist rhetoric is peaking, people are filling the streets protesting police brutality, and Americans reflexively retreat into their partisan camps instead of seeking compromise. The title of Franti’s new album reflects his mantra in this era when shades of gray have disappeared from public life: “Work Hard and Be Nice.”
“I think it’s important to do (political music) from time to time, but I also feel like it’s important to express the full rainbow of human emotion,” said Franti, 53. “What music helps us do is … unlock those feelings that are so often bottled up.
“Our goal in politics is not to get candidates elected,” he said. “Our goal in life is to get candidates elected who can then improve the quality of lives for people so that people can be happier.”
Franti said his attitude began to change around the time he recorded one of his most politically charged albums, 2006’s “Yell Fire!” written at the height of the Iraq War.
In the title track, Franti sings:
“They tellin’ you to never worry about the future
They tellin’ you to never worry about the torture
They tellin’ you that you’ll never see the horror
Spend it all today and we will bill you tomorrow
Three-piece suits and bank accounts in Bahamas
Wall Street crime will never send you to the slammer
Tell all the children in the arms of their mommas
The F-15 is a homicide bomber.”
Franti had traveled to Iraq 11 months after the war started, disturbed that he hadn’t heard more about its human toll in Baghdad, whose population of 5.4 million was roughly half the size of the Bay Area.
Shortly after Franti landed, an Iraqi family showed him where they hid in the basement of their home during U.S. bombing raids. The father described how they covered themselves with blankets as protection from the spraying shards of glass from their windows.
Franti was moved, imagining how he’d have to protect his three sons if his home was under attack. When he returned with his hosts to their living room, he played them “Bomb the World.” He wrote the antiwar song in 2003 as the Iraq War ramped up:
“We can chase down all our enemies
Bring them to their knees
We can bomb the world to pieces
But we can’t bomb it into peace.”
“I thought this family would be like, super moved and say, ‘Thank you for identifying with our struggle,’ ” Franti said. “But I was stunned when his face just soured.”
Franti recalled that the Iraqi man told him, “in very harsh tones, ‘How dare you come into my house and sing a song about peace when your country is actually bombing me?’”
The man told Franti that he wanted to hear “songs that make us laugh, dance, cry, sing, move and somehow move our hearts right now, because we are stuck in our home and we can’t do anything else but be right here. We need some relief.”
That is what Franti wants to provide now — some relief at a time when he hears an increasing amount of racism.
The Oakland-born Franti is of mixed race, the son of a white mother and a father who was African American and Native American. His mother put him up for adoption when he was very young, he says, because she feared her family would not accept him.
He was adopted by Charles Franti and Carole Wistl, a white couple, and he grew up in Davis, where Charles Franti was a professor of epidemiology at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Back then, Franti recalls that the Republicans he encountered were “fiscally conservative, but they weren’t mean, and if they were racist, they generally kept it to themselves. And I’m not saying that Republicans are the only ones who are racist, because all of us have prejudices.”
Americans are less likely to keep their racist thoughts to themselves now, he said, as “the political dialogue had changed so much since Trump started running for office.” In November, the FBI reported that it had recorded the highest number of hate crimes based on prejudice in 16 years.
Franti said Trump is “giving voice to this kind of hatred has allowed people who maybe had those kind of feelings to now bring them out into the open. … And that’s why I feel like the title of the record became so important to me.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Franti was scheduled to be on tour now with country star Kenny Chesney. That might seem like an unlikely pairing to Franti’s longtime fans, given that his music ranges from hip-hop to funk, soul and reggae and Chesney — who voted for Republican John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008 — is “is not political at all in his music,” Franti said.
But Franti said he and Chesney, who have become friends over the years, are primarily focused on bringing positivity and connection to the world. Franti hopes that when they do finally tour, their fan bases can intermingle and … connect.
“It hurts him as much as it hurts me to see our country have so much debate,” Franti said. “I don’t care who people vote for necessarily. Ultimately I’m concerned with the state of our country, and I hope that Trump doesn’t get re-elected. But every person has the right to choose whoever they want to vote for.
“But I don’t think it’s every person’s right to just sit behind their keyboard and be an a-hole to every single person they come across,” Franti said. “Whether you have the right to do that is not is not really the question to me. I feel like it’s morally wrong to just be mean to people for the sake of being mean.”