The music of Michael Franti and Spearhead was genreless before genreless was a thing. The breezy combination of acoustic guitar, reggae and hip-hop has been the crew’s trademark since its debut album in 1994, and the latest album, “Soulrocker,” expands that mishmash into dance music with four-to-the-floor beats on songs like “My Lord” and “Get Myself to Saturday.”
But Franti and his crew’s true genre has always been positivity.
“The one thing that’s gone through my music throughout, it’s always been that optimism in the face of great challenge,” Franti says.
amNewYork caught up with the singer-songwriter and emcee the morning after the killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota and the morning before the killing of five police officers in Dallas to talk about staying positive in the face of what feels like an increasingly negative world, the evolution of his music and what obligation, if any, he feels toward social justice as an artist.
The dance music elements on “Soulrocker” came as a bit of a surprise. How do you keep the balance between incorporating new sounds and staying true to yourself?
I love all types of music. The first album I ever owned was a Kraftwerk “Trans-Europe Express” 7-inch. I’ve always loved the “loopadelic” quality of electronic music. With my previous band [the hip-hop group The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy], everything we did was machines and samplers, so I felt comfortable in that world before I picked up an acoustic guitar. But regardless of the style of the song, it always starts from the guitar up. I always write them there and then add whatever comes next.
As an artist, do you feel an obligation to speak out in the face of injustice, or an opportunity? Or is there a difference between the two?
All of us have an opportunity in our lives, but also a calling to be truth-tellers. What we see in social media today is billions of people sharing their emotions every day. ... It’s not necessarily about getting the letter of the law changed overnight. It’s about moving people’s minds and people’s hearts, to the point where those laws tumble.
Even you, with all of the optimism in your music, have to feel down about all of this at some point. What’s your retreat, your way of dealing with it?
I have a daily practice of yoga and meditation. I get on my mat, and when emotions come up I try to sit with them for a while. ... But I also have an incredible team of people who share my values. We don’t always agree with everything all of the time, but the general principle is that we make music because we care about people and the planet. And finally, the music itself. Music really helps me as much as the people who come to my shows. I will often sit by myself with a guitar and just play songs, just for myself.