by JEFF ECHERT & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & ctivism in music isn't anything new. Entire movements have been impelled by the desire to bring a political message to people. Troubadours such as Phil Ochs and Bob Marley have set the bar pretty high, though, and for every fascist-killing machine with good intentions, there are 20 looking for easy acceptance and in-crowd congratulations. Fortunately, in Michael Franti, there's a modern equivalent. Coming from the Bay area, a locale long known for both vast multiculturalism and active politicking, Franti's a happy amalgam of both musical talent and compassionate morality.
Getting his start in the University of San Francisco college radio scene, Franti spent time with industrial and punk styles before finally settling on his current milieu with Spearhead. It's an odd mix of hip-hop, reggae, funk and jazz, with each song seeming to be drawn from a different musical well. It's all bound together by Franti's voice, which is a warm, expressive baritone with a hint of smoke and grit, almost akin to Marvin Gaye, a true soul man's instrument. After bouncing around from major giant Capitol Records to self-started label Boo Boo Wax, Franti's found his home in ANTI, who also boasts such musically schizophrenic artists as Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Never a commercial success, Franti has nonetheless found a great measure of success amongst the alternative media by touring extensively and wearing his politics on his sleeve.
Franti's talent lies not just in his messages and beliefs (though they're admirable) but in the way he expresses them -- while never outright vindictive, Franti is able to weave narratives together around particular issues with aplomb. He's dedicated entire albums to specific topics: Stay Human focused on capital punishment and the injustice of taking human lives, while Yell Fire! is a compelling portrait of the volatile situation in the Middle East, ably paired with a reggae sound that becomes a leitmotif framing Jamaica's contemporary struggles for independence from Western control. Franti doesn't take sides either; his desire is to be the voice of peace in any conflict, begging for a little human decency. His observational abilities are keen, in a way, noting, "Those who start wars never fight them." Each topic he chooses is delivered in a way that makes the human cost resonate, rather than the larger societal or religious consequence.
Though Franti's convictions tend to be the most visible of the bunch, credit's got to be given to the backing band. Shifting seamlessly from dub-influenced funk with deep and springy bass to the high tilt of a violin over a shimmering gospel track, Spearhead provides Franti with the backdrop he needs to perform at his best. Much like Franti's humanistic faith, Spearhead is rooted in individualism, creativity and a vast love for what they do. Franti himself can't seem to stop expressing love at every turn, a deep and endearing love for all people from all backgrounds. Though this world may be too violent and bitter to ever truly embrace his ideals, at least he's living them.
Michael Franti plays with K'Naan at the Knitting Factory on Sept. 11 at 8pm. $26. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.