Michael Franti's socially inspired lyrics and Spearhead's infectious mix of classic soul, funk and hip-hop combine forces to take on one of America's biggest issues on their highly anticipated new album Stay Human. The record is built around an imaginary broadcast from a community radio station covering the impending state execution of a black activist accused of murder. Think of it as a musical meditation on social justice, legal injustice and the death penalty set to hip-grinding party music and heartfelt ballads. Stay Human features 13 new songs, interwoven with the tale of Sister Fatima, a healer and activist who is to be executed for a murder her community is sure she didn't commit. "I've been doing a lot of work, both musically and in various activist situations, against the death penalty," Franti explains. "I wanted the album to be about that, but I didn't want to write 13 songs about people in prison. So I wrote the story to go around it."
Between dramatic call-in reports and a highly-charged phone conversation with the governor (none other than actor Woody Harrelson), the deejays spin records full of unflinchingly bold and fundamentally positive lyrics. Ballad-like tracks with a message such as "Do Ya Love" have the lyricism and melody of such great artists as Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. Others, like "Speaking Of Tongues," state their messages in deeply felt rap poetry in the manner of Gil Scott-Heron. Though many styles inform his music, Stay Human could only have been written by Michael Franti.
While the album's storyline unfolds, the music on Stay Human delivers its own message – that strength, either in an individual or in a community, comes from the spirit. And for all its nitty-gritty, street-wise toughness, Stay Human is ultimately a very spiritual recording. "The first song, 'Oh My God,' is almost like a prayer," Franti notes. "It's like, why have you left us in this situation? But in the end, we still have faith in the power of the creator. It puts the whole album in context. And as I grow and tour and speak out, it's more important than ever to have that spirit."
An activist and poet, Franti started out as a bass player for the Beatnigs, who like Fishbone, Living Colour and Arrested Development, were all outspoken African-American artists in the late '80s. Franti subsequently gained increasing attention as founder of the Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy in the early '90s. In 1994, he formed Spearhead, which made an immediate impact with its debut release, Home. The organic sounding Home was a resounding success, eventually selling over 200,000 copies worldwide. Its controversial and provocative depiction of race, poverty, AIDS and other heavy sociopolitical concerns mixed with lightness, love, and other joys of life made for an irresistibly rich R&B and soul album. Stay Human harkens back to this first Spearhead release.
Franti formed a partnership with Six Degrees because he was a fan of the label's hybrid of dance and world music, and as Franti explains, "I felt a sense of commitment to my music from the first moment I walked into Six Degrees' office." Michael maintains his own label, Boo Boo Wax, for "boutique" items like live recordings, remixes, alternate versions of songs, etc.
Stay Human's radio-based storyline also reflects Michael's passion about the issues currently facing community radio stations. "We’ve done a bit of pirate radio and microradio," Franti says. "We've even contemplated taking a microradio transmitter with us on tour, and we're really excited about the possibility of internet radio."
Stay Human is full of surprising twists. The title track alone contains allusions to icons as widespread as P-Funk and the Dalai Lama. "Listener Supported" features vocals by Marie Daulne, leader of the Afropean band Zap Mama and harkens back to the musical poetry of Marvin Gaye. The impassioned "Rock The Nation" is a hard-hitting call to action a la KRS-One. Spearhead’s encore show-closer "Sometimes," one of the strongest songs the band has yet recorded, takes an energetic pop vamp and marries it to a hip-hop beat. "Soulshine" is an energetic acoustic soul song about the beauty of individuality. Franti is enthusiastic about a lot of contemporary music – Jill Scott and Mos Def are current favorites – but he also looks back to earlier sounds. "I’ve been most influenced by those artists who were writing true soul music – not the 'baby I wanna get with ya' stuff, but artists writing about the heart. Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Gil Scott-Heron. I miss that time when R&B really had something important to say."
If Michael Franti has anything to say about it, that time may be coming back – a time when pop music was simultaneously soulful and socially relevant and its community of listeners were socially responsible. As Franti says, it helps to look at the big picture. "To me it's all part of one poem of music that's constantly being written and re-written. It goes in ebbs and flows, between the people who are only interested in how many units you sell and those people who want to keep the real voices out there. I think we’re entering a new period of conservatism right now and more artists will be reacting to that." Michael Franti and Spearhead will be pointing the way.