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Taken from TreeHugger (Jul 26, 2010)

The Sound of Sunshine: Michael Franti of Spearhead on Peace, Justice, and Zeppelins

by Sami Grover, Carrboro, NC, USA

Michael Franti
Image credit: MichaelFranti.com

From his appearance on TreeHugger Radio, to chatting with Planet Green while on tour with John Mayer, Michael Franti has become somewhat of a regular around here. And not without good reason.Both with Spearhead, and his previous bands the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Michael has been an advocate for peace, justice, human rights and respect for the natural world. With a new single, The Sound of Sunshine, hitting number one on Triple A radio, and a new album with the same name due out in September, we thought it was about time to catch up with the man and talk about the role of music in inspiring social and environmental change. We even got to speculate about the launch of a Spearhead Zeppelin along the way.

TreeHugger: You talked with Planet Green earlier this year, and at the time you were working hard on capturing "the Sound of Sunshine". Did it work?

Michael Franti: Well, I hope so. We ended up calling our album "The Sound of Sunshine", and we have a single that's out right now tby the same name. It reached number one on Triple A radio, so I guess it's working for somebody.

TH: I guess the world must be ready for some sunshine.

MF: I guess so.

TH: What role does music play in inspiring social and environmental change? Does it galvanize the committed, or can it also win new hearts and minds?

MF: I think it can do both. I've always felt that it's not hard to become an activist—you just have to show up. But you get involved in something going on in your community, or happening around the world, and it can seem easy at first. As years go by, however, it gets more and more difficult—you think "change isn't happening as fast as it should", and you get frustrated.

Music can be there to get people involved, but it can also be there to get people through difficult times and help them to remain positive.

TH: I guess it also plays a role in connecting the dots—bringing people's attention to issues that they hadn't been aware of.

MF: Yeah. When I travel, I try to find out the issues going on wherever I am going—and find out what matters to people there. I remember when I was a kid, The Clash put out an album called Sandinista. And I had no idea who the Sandinistas were in Nicaragua. Just from that album title I found out about what was going on over there, and I got involved in that issue.

TH: Your music often veers between serious political social and environmental activism, and lighter, more joyous tones. I'm guessing you feel it's important to do both.

MF: It's really important to have a balance. If you're not enjoying your friends, and your family, and the people you meet along the way, then what's the point in doing any of the other work that you are doing? This was a big realization for me when I was traveling in Iraq in 2004 as I was making I Know I'm Not Alone.

I was in the street playing music for Iraqi families, and I would play these serious, political songs that I thought would move their hearts—show them that there were people around the world in solidarity with them. But they'd say to me "that's a great sentiment, but you're country just bombed us. So what you can do right now is play us something that makes us laugh, and dance, and sing. "

So that's what I did. It made me think about the way I do things in a whole new light.

TH: Practicing yoga, giving up plastic bags, eating vegan, going without shoes—you are clearly very committed to an ethical lifestyle in terms of personal action. How can we make sure our personal actions have an impact on the broader, political level?

MF: In the case of plastic bags, I really just feel the world would be a better place without them. If I can't wean myself off of them, then how can I expect 6 billion other people to do it? I have to walk the talk first. But it is important to strike a balance between what I do as an artist, for example, and what I do in my personal life. It is important to be able to practice what you preach.

It really does happen one person at a time. We've been going through it on our own tour bus—eliminating plastic bottles. For a while we were bottle free, and then they slowly started filtering their way back onto the bus and the backstage area. And now we're trying to do it all over again and get people back into reusable bottles.

TH: So besides bottles, what else is going on in terms of greening the latest tour?

MF: We're using biofuels wherever possible on the bus, and we are about to go completely paperless with all of our tour books and documentation. That's our next challenge.

TH: Obviously touring involves a lot of travel, and your music often speaks of the joys of knowing, and loving, people all around the world. But there is a flip side to that in terms of environmental impact. How do we exist in this globalized world, and still strive toward some semblance of sustainability?

MF: That's one of the hardest things for us. Because we use so much fuel. I was at a science hall in San Francisco that allowed you to explore your carbon footprint. It went through how many lights you burn in your house, how much you drive, what do you eat etc. And my carbon footprint was looking pretty low. And then it got to air travel, and it said that if you fly more than 4 times a year, then you're way off the meter. Last year I flew over 100,000 miles!

My booking agent paid for carbon offsets to account for my travel last year, but I always feel like I am still putting that fuel into the air. I can pay to do carbon sequestering or whatever, but I don't know if it's really doing any good.

TH: I guess you too are waiting for them to reinvent the airship too.

MF: Yes! We need a Spearhead Zeppelin. I'm sure we can generate enough hot air from the members of my band to keep it running

TH: The environmental and social challenges we face are inevitably vastly complicated issues. And yet to create music about them requires simplification. How do you avoid the dangers of slipping into the clichés of good and evil, them and us, etc, and still make music that resonates with folks?

MF: I have a belief that the issues of today are going to require everybody to get on board. Take climate change, for instance. We're going to need the resources of the corporate world. We're going to need governments. We're going to need the best that science can offer. We need the ideas, and the hard work, of the grassroots activists, and we need the dollar-power of everyday people in order to really change things.

For a while I believed that it could be just me and my treehugger friends at a tree-sit, and that was all we needed to do and things would change. Today I realize that it's much bigger than that. I don't want to make music that alienates people. I want to make music that opens people's hearts, and challenges people to think differently. So my music has really changed—from pointing the finger outwards at others—to directing it inside, and saying "what can I do?", or "what can we do?"

TH: TreeHugger's focus is very much on environmental issues. And yet there are all these other social challenges out there too. Is it even possible to tackle one without the other, or are social and environmental issues just two sides of the same coin?

MF: Social and environmental issues are so often directly linked. Most of the time when we think about the environment, the first thing that comes to my mind is a beautiful redwood forest, or whales in the ocean. But really, the environment is everywhere where we live. I'm driving back into San Francisco right now, looking at this immense skyline of skyscrapers, and urban sprawl, and that's the environment that I live in.

We have to be able to address the human needs, and the needs of the environment. You can't even separate them. It's all one thing. Environmentalism today is as much about learning about the economic and emotional impact of all the things we create, as well as the scientific, and how all of these things have a lasting impact on the sustainability of our planet.

Michael Franti and Spearhead's new album the Sound of Sunshine launches September 21st. The single by the same name is available now.


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