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Life Is Better When You’re Smiling: Pop reggae singer Michael Franti believes that change starts with the right attitude 

Whether writing political songs or party songs, Oakland reggae singer Michael Franti draws from a childhood that helped shape his world view.

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Whether writing political songs or party songs, Oakland reggae singer Michael Franti draws from a childhood that helped shape his world view.

“I was adopted,” said Franti in a recent phone interview. “My birth parents, for whatever reason, didn’t think they were able to raise me and gave me to another family."

And according to Franti, that upbringing was critical in developing his connection to humanity.

“It gave me empathy for people who are different,” said Franti. “People who raise a child in a same-sex or mixed-race home, or speak a different language at home than they do at school. People who love who they chose to love.”

Franti uses hip-hop-inspired, upbeat reggae rock to bring those values to life. But the overarching desire for his music is much more generic.

“I believe in the power of positivity,” said Franti. “I want to be a spreader of positivity and inspire others to think beyond their sphere.”

And in Franti’s opinion, getting the younger generation on board with that philosophy is key.

“When you think positive thoughts, it all tends to start rolling in the right direction,” said Franti. “Like supporting kids so they don’t push down the next kid to feel better.”

While Franti claims that positivity is the place he writes from, he has certainly recorded songs in the past that delivered very stern messages. These songs were often aimed at politicians whom he viewed as perpetuating the struggles he sings about. His 2006 album Yell Fire! was written at the height of the Iraq and Afghan wars, and multiple songs reflected his anger with the loss of lives overseas. It’s a cause that he cared enough about to also make the  documentary movie I Know I’m not Alone about his experience traveling in Iraq, Israel and Palestine documenting the human cost of war and the healing power of music.

But still, Franti sees the heated debates over such geo-political issues as an indication that the world is entering a new era of public involvement.

“Right now is a really amazing time on the planet,” said Franti. “You see all these problems that we face today and yet millions of people who are concerned [and] want to address them.”

Attend a Franti concert, and the first thing you’ll likely notice is that the guy is larger than life. At six foot six inches tall, Franti, who went to the University of San Francisco on a basketball scholarship, is at first intimidating on stage. But the next thing you’ll notice is his wide and easy smile—he quickly turns into a loveable bohemian teddy bear.

Seeing thousands of people bouncing and shaking to his pop-reggae beats at every concert is a big reason why that smile is there. It’s also not an outcome that a younger Franti saw coming when he started dabbling with poetry in college. Music, however, seemed a natural outlet.

“I liked the creativity of [music]. I liked having a way to express what I felt about the world and conflicts between nations.”

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Franti used his new-found creative outlet to release a handful of albums with bands like The Beatnigs and The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

Now with seven Spearhead albums under his belt, Franti still spends a lot of time thinking about the world around him and sometimes finds those thoughts flooding his mind in a way he can’t control.

“I have a yoga teacher and he calls it monkey mind,” said Franti. “I try to take pride in my ability to juggle a million things. Then I realize that unless I calm down and clear my mind I’m not going to do any of it effectively.”

Franti has been an advocate for his causes, ranging from peace in the Middle East to just plain getting shoes on the feet of those without them through the Soles for Souls project. But Franti’s latest album, 2010’s The Sound of Sunshine, shed a lot of the macro-world view that dominated early records with Spearhead. Instead, Franti focused on day-to-day life and even threw in the rump shakin’ song “Shake It.”

Regardless of what type of songs he writes, though, according to Franti, the formula for all of them is simple.

“The important thing is, ‘Do we love?’” said Franti. “That’s where I write my songs from. It’s what’s in my heart.”

It’s the kind of thought process you’d expect from someone who has relied on the love of others to get where he is today.

“Whatever you do in your life, do it for the sake that you love it,” says Franti. “Not because someone else told you to or to make money, but because you love it.”

Michael Franti & Spearhead

Wed, August 22, 6:30pm

Les Schwab Amphitheater

344 SW Shevlin-Hixon Dr

$35 at


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