World Music

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:12

    “Wise folks count their blessings. Fools count their problems,” sings Michael Franti on the song “All I Want Is You” from his group Spearhead’s recently released sixth studio album, the Sly & Robbie produced All Rebel Rockers. This grain of wisdom is just one of the album’s numerous messages of positivity, hope, love and social concern offered up by the veteran political musician. While most recording artists who’ve been in the biz for this long—20 years and counting—are in a digital-age funk, whining and pining over lost music sales, Franti is one of the “wise folks.”

    “I wake up every morning and I pinch myself and say, ‘Is this a dream?’ because I am so lucky to be doing what I love,” says the Oakland-born artist by phone last week. “I never got into music because I wanted to get rich and retire. I got into it because I love making music, and I had a message,” he says. A 42-year-old who has always been equal parts activist and musician, Franti began his career in the mid-1980s fronting socially charged industrial-rap group The Beatnigs, on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles record label; by the early ‘90s, however, the band had morphed into the more polished but equally political Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

    The group caught the attention of Bono and got a major break when he invited them to open for U2 on its Zooropa tour. But by 1994, Franti had disbanded the group and formed Spearhead, which, in subsequent years, has developed a cult following abroad and at home for its message-heavy, hip-hop-and-reggae-flavored rock style. For the last decade in San Francisco, Franti has organized the mega-scale “Power To The Peaceful” free outdoor festival that Spearhead headlines. This year’s festival attracted an estimated 70,000 fans to Golden Gate Park, many there just to hear Franti’s message of peace, love and understanding.

    “My message has always been about compassion, but today I think my message is more about unity than it has ever been,” says Franti, who added the role of filmmaker to his resume three years ago with the release of the documentary I Know I’m Not Alone.

    Shot in 2004, the film follows the always-barefoot Franti, armed only with a guitar and goodwill, as he treks around the war zones of Iraq, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, interacting along the way with citizens and soldiers, gaining insights into the harsh realities of life during wartime—often only communicating with music. “I feel like I saw something in 2004, which is what life is like on the ground in Baghdad, that few people had witnessed then,” Franti says of the experience. “There was constant gunfire, and at night you [would] feel even more scared because that’s when you hear bombs going off. I felt afraid all the time.”

    But pockets of peace came about through music. “Every time I would play music on the street, it was like I was surrounded by angels. Like 10 U.S. soldiers would come up and start dancing and singing with me and clapping their hands. Or I would be on another corner and 50 Iraqis would come out and start smiling and engaging in the music. I just tried to play music as much as possible.”

    Despite the fact that Franti and Spearhead can sell out concerts and festivals around the globe and headline two nights at the 2,100 capacity Nokia Theater, the group’s music rarely gets any kind of mainstream radio airplay. “We are still far from been a staple of the radio and in some ways I wish we were,” admits Franti, quickly adding, “but over the years we have sort of taken it as a badge of courage. We just go out and hit the road and take the music directly to the people.”

    -- Michael Franti & Spearhead feat. Cherine Anderson Nov. 21 and 22, Nokia Theatre, Times Square, 1515 B'way (at W. 44th St.), 212-930-1950; 7, $28-$30 --