Michael Franti champions the ‘Human’ element


Michael Franti is a man of the people. Over the course of three decades, the Bay Area-based musician/songwriter has gone from ardent political commentator to fully fledged humanist, dedicating an ever-increasing amount of his creative works (and personal life) to the pursuit of peace and social justice.

All of Franti’s music includes some kind of socio-political commentary — from the hardline activism of early projects such as hip-hop band Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy to Franti & Spearhead’s 2008 breakthrough hit Say Hey (I Love You).

In recent years, the 51-year-old bandleader has backed his words with action.

In 2004, Franti played a series of unsponsored shows in the war zones of Iraq, Israel and occupied Palestine. His intent was to experience the cost of war firsthand, on the ground level. He documented the trip with video cameras, and in 2006, the footage was made into the film I Know I’m Not Alone.

And while music has long been their weapon of choice, Franti and his long-running backing band, Spearhead, are now set to release another documentary. Titled Stay Human, the film, as well as new album Stay Human 2, are set for release this month.

Five years in the making, the new film highlights a series of ordinary people doing extraordinary things — all of whom Franti met while traveling around the globe.

Featuring such moments as a midwife delivering babies in the devastation of a hurricane to a South African student putting himself through university while living in a scrap metal shack, Stay Human is a visual love-letter to hope and optimism.

“I feel like the message of those two words is so important today,” said Franti in a recent phone interview. “How can we hold onto our humanity in this world where we are constantly bombarded by negative messages? With this constant division we see, the tribalism, left and right, Republican and Democrat, black and white, different religious affiliations, gay or straight — how do we hold onto our human decency, kindness, and appreciation of each other? To me, the message of Stay Human is more important than it’s ever been.”

Although the bandleader collected a wide variety of stories for the film, he certainly didn’t foresee one of them making the final cut — his own. Yet when he was helping to edit the new documentary, Franti found that his own participation was an integral part of the project.

“I thought I was done with the movie two years ago,” he said. “But I realized that if you don’t see how these people touched me, it doesn’t ring with as much emotion as it does when you understand how they all changed my life.”

Franti’s own beginnings — he and another African-American orphan were adopted by a Finnish couple who already had three other children — were unequivocally shaped by the kindness of strangers. And growing up in such an eclectic household undoubtedly helped to shape the singer’s worldview.

But it was the current onslaught of global negativity — or rather those doing whatever they can to fight it — that was the real genesis of the film.

“The endgame here is really about optimism,” said Franti. “It’s about how realistic optimism can be an opportunity to make other people’s lives better and grow as an individual. And I think that with everything that’s going on with our country and planet right now, that’s very important.”

Stay Human 2, the album that accompanies the film, will include both songs from the actual soundtrack, as well as songs that relate to the overall theme. The current Stay Human Tour, which stops in San Diego on June 7, runs through November.

But Franti isn’t stopping there. He’ll also continue to run the non-profit he recently started with his wife, Do It For The Love, which brings people with serious injuries or illnesses to live shows by any artist, in any city, across North America.

Franti said he plans to take some time off in December when he and his wife are expecting a new baby. But that only seems likely to keep the activist troubadour on message.

“I’ve just met so many people who are doing little things to make big differences in the lives of other people,” he said. “And I really, really believe in that. I’ve seen it in my own life over and over again, and it always restores my faith and reminds me of our humanity. There are so many people doing incredible things to try to achieve peace on all sides. And that’s the side I choose to be on.”

Michael Franti & Spearhead: The Stay Human Tour

When: 8 p.m. June 7

Where: Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Dr., Shelter Island

Cost: $58.50