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Taken from Houston Press (Mar 4 2010)

Chatter: Say Hey

Spearhead leader Michael Franti's Middle Eastern trip inspires an unlikely Top 40 hit.

by Chris Gray

Michael Franti
Michael Franti's conscious party music is danceable,
but far from disposable.

After more than a decade and a half of underground airplay and vagabond touring, Bay Area reggae-rappers Michael Franti & Spearhead suddenly hit Top 40 stations coast to coast last year with their dancehall-flavored ray of sunshine "Say Hey (I Love You)," which peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100.

But this is no Black Eyed Peas backpackers-gone-pop story. Although it makes plenty of room for the politics of dancing — with a big assist from legendary Jamaican producers/rhythm section Sly & Robbie — the album that spawned "Say Hey," 2008's All Rebel Rockers (Anti-), is as socially conscious as anything Franti did in his previous groups the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

Chatter caught up with Franti last week in Boston, where the tour that brings Spearhead and John Mayer to Toyota Center Saturday had just entered its third week.

C: Has a promoter or someone from a label ever told you your music is too political?

MF: Never to my face [laughs]. I've always been with great record labels. The first label I ever put out a record on was Alternative Tentacles, and that was started by the Dead Kennedys. The second person I was with was Chris Blackwell from Island Records when I had Disposable Heroes. He of course put out U2 and Bob Marley — he loved having social messages. Ever since then it's been something I've always done, and I've always found a home where people appreciate it.

C: What do you think Bob Marley would think of the music business's present state of affairs?

MF: That's really hard to conjecture, but, you know, Bob was from the street, and he ran his operation like he was from the street. He knew how to hustle; he knew how to communicate with people. I think that he would find this a time of change. You used to be able to sell records and sit at home and wait for the checks to come in, but now you've got to hit the road all the time. Bob was a road warrior more than Peter [Tosh] and Bunny [Wailer], so I think he would have tapped in and taken on the challenge of the digital age.

C: How did the recent trip you took to the Middle East affect you as a performer and songwriter?

MF: At first I busked on the street and played for Iraqi families in Baghdad. The first thing I noticed was that nobody wanted to hear songs about war or politics or social issues. They wanted to hear songs that made them clap and dance and be happy, and things that they could sing along to. I think that really affected the way I approach music today.

Like, for example, the success we've had with "Say Hey." It's maybe the least political song I've ever done, and it's sold over a million and a half singles. It's just touched a nerve with people. People want to feel what's happening out in the world, and know that there's a solution for it, or if they can't see that solution, that there's a way to look up.

It changed me in that way. I really realized that those things are equally important.


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