It was Michael Franti’s fans, encountered during a tour through war-torn Iraq, who set the singer-songwriter on his path of positivity.
“They said, ‘We want to hear more than just protest songs. We want to cry and dance and sing and activate other emotions in ourselves that the war pushes down,’ ” recalled the Spearhead frontman, who once specialized in “political songs about what was bad in the world.”
Now Franti, who performs Saturday at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo, is motivated by a powerful desire to “make songs that make a difference in people’s lives.”
“I want to create music that inspires other people. That’s the greatest gift you can offer anyone — the inspiration to try something new or do something different,” he said, praising the “mind-altering and heart-opening” power of a good song. “I want people to come to shows feeling like ‘I had a rough week this week, but through the music, I can let it go.’ ”
Franti, who grew up in Oakland, credited his adoptive mother with giving him wings.
“Basically, she worked tirelessly to make sure all five of us kids … had every opportunity to succeed,” he said, a feat she achieved in part by teaching them to prepare their own lunches and do their own laundry. “It was her belief that when you left home, you knew how to do those basic things (so) your mind was freed to do higher things.”
Franti’s higher calling was evident from an early age. As a kid, he saw Jamaican-born dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson recite a poem about a young man behind bars for killing the police officer who beat up his younger brother.
“It blew me away,” Franti recalled. “I remember my hands getting sweaty and starting to tear up … and saying, ‘That’s what I want to do.”
As he grew older, he was drawn to punk rock’s rebellious spirit and do-it-yourself attitude.
Franti began his career as part of the industrial punk/spoken word band The Beatnigs, later starting industrial hip hop band The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy with Beatnigs bandmate Rono Tse. He founded Spearhead, known for its peace-loving, life-affirming message and freewheeling sound blending hip hop, reggae, funk, jazz and folk, in 1994.
Although Michael Franti & Spearhead have always enjoyed a loyal fan following, the band achieved its greatest commercial success to date with the hit single “Say Hey (I Love You).” Released in June 2009, the sunny reggae fusion song featuring Jamaican vocalist Cherine Anderson reached No. 18 on the Billboard Top 100.
But Franti wasn’t able to enjoy his newfound fame initially. As “Say Hey (I Love You)” climbed the charts, he was in the hospital recuperating from a ruptured appendix.
“I came close to dying,” he recalled. “When I came out of surgery, I had forgotten about this hit song. I just wanted to see my kid and my family.”
Ultimately, he said, the experience left him with a fresh perspective on his career — and a deeper appreciation for the power of music. (“I reach for my iPod the way that doctors prescribe medicine,” he said.)
“People will come up to me and say, ‘We played one of your songs when we got married’ or ‘We met at your concert’ or ‘Your music is the only music my kids and I can agree on,’” he said. “Those kinds of comments … mean the world to me.”
Franti will surely win over more fans Saturday when he visits San Luis Obispo on his first-ever acoustic tour, playing a mix of songs from his 2013 album “All People” and some new material. He’ll be accompanied onstage by Spearhead bassist Carl Young and guitarist Jay Bowman.
“Playing songs acoustically, you get down to the essence of the song — the words, the melody, the chords,” he explained. “It’s one of the tests I use when I’m creating music. Can these songs stand up to being (performed by) just me and a guitar?”
Like music, he added, an uplifting attitude sometimes requires work.
“I believe that positivity is like anything you want to be good at. You have to practice at it,” Franti said. “You have to make an effort to find things that inspire you and make an effort to inspire other people …”
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