By Eleni P. Austin
What the hell has happened to Michael Franti? Michael Franti was born in Oakland, California to an Irish-German-French mother and an African American father. He was adopted by a Finnish couple who already had biological children, as well as two adopted African American sons.
During his high school days, Michael Franti discovered poetry. He bought a used bass and taught himself to play. He began his musical career with the Beatnigs, a group that fused Hardcore Punk and Industrial Hip Hop. Franti and Rono Tse broke away from the from the Beatnigs and formed The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy. The Bay Area Rap collective gained national exposure by touring with U2.
By the early ‘90s, Franti struck out on his own, forming Spearhead. The band was an amalgam of all his musical influences: Rap, Punk, Jazz, Reggae and Ska. It was also a showcase for his growing political conscience.
Capitol Records released Spearhead’s 1994 debut, Home, as well as their sophomore effort, Chocolate Supa Highway in 1997. As the ‘90s came to a close, the band created their own label, Boo-Boo Wax. Because Capitol retained the rights to the name Spearhead, they became Michael Franti & Spearhead.
Their 2000 release, Stay Human, railed against political mass media monopolization, the prison industrial complex and corporate globalization. Pretty heavy stuff. But it was their 2003 album, Everyone Deserves Music, struck the perfect balance between the political and the personal.
It was like Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Going On meets the Clash’s London Calling. A brilliant symbiosis that challenged the listener lyrically, even as the music urged you (in the immortal words of Rap philosopher, Mystikal) “to shake ya ass.”
Franti & Spearhead followed up three years later with the incendiary Yell Fire. The record was inspired by Franti’s travels in Baghdad, Israel and the Gaza Strip. Virulently anti-war, never had protest music seemed so danceable.
Franti took his fascination with Reggae one step further with 2008’s All Rebel Rockers. Produced by Reggae progenitors Sly & Robbie, the album is steeped in loping rock steady riddims. Joyful and fun, the album maintained its edge of social conscience.
Michael Franti & Spearhead were never superstars, but they were moderately successful. In 2010, a beer company employed Franti’s infectious love song, “Say Hey (I Love You)” in a national ad campaign. That raised their profile considerably. The band that had built their reputation as musical political activists, were suddenly being marketed as a feel-good party band.
Toward the end of that year, Franti released The Sound Of Sunshine, (ironically, distributed by Capitol Records). The album was awash in good vibes and “don’t worry, be happy” platitudes. It was a crushing disappointment for longtime fans. Naturally, it sold well.
Most fans hoped …Sunshine was an aberration. Hopefully, the next album would be back on track. Unfortunately, All People is chock-a-block with party anthems, devotional hymns to baby-making and generic messages of peace and understanding. It’s as though Franti went down to the crossroads and made a deal with the Corona-devil!
The album opens with the bubbly title track. The melody shares DNA with Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.” It’s all super hand-clappy and rave-tastic. Whereas Franti once peppered his lyrics with references to Istanbul and Halliburton, now he name-checks Bonnaroo, Glastonbury and Coachella, and rhymes that with a nod to Rhianna’s Umbrella song. Maybe he couldn’t find anything to rhyme with Kardashian.
On two tracks Franti collaborates with The Matrix, the hit factory production team responsible songs by Top 40 pop priestess’ like Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne and Katy Perry. “11:59” weds a stutter-step rhythm and plaintive piano to lyrics that angle for a doomsday booty call.
“Closer To You,” is more of the same. Kinetic synth fills accent Franti’s smooth lines of seduction… “It’s half past lonely.. I feel closer to God when I’m closer to you.”
If this album has a unifying thread, it is the preponderance of simplistic, generic lyrics. Maybe Franti’s real agenda is crafting songs that can be licensed for commercials. “Life Is Better With You,” could be used to shill Coca-Cola. The loping “Show Me A Sign” opens with this T-Mobile centric couplet… “Send me a picture on your telephone.”
“I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like)” is the perfect anthem for the Pepsi Generation. A smorgasbord of shite, the track includes Peter, Bjorn & John-style whistling and pays homage to Train’s mediocre “Hey Soul Sister.” It panders with lines like “You be Bonnie and I’ll be Clyde/Like John and Yoko, Ice-T and Co Co, Like Jay Z and Beyonce/Come be my fiancé.” Blecchh.
A couple of melodies seem uncomfortably familiar.“Life Is Better With You” almost replicates Green Day’s “Good Riddence (Time Of Your Life).” While the tropical “Earth To Outer Space” bears more than a resemblance to “Mambo #5,” (the oily Lou Bega version, not the Perez Prado original).
The rest of the selections here are equally tedious and disappointing. The album closes with “Say Goodbye,” which includes this philosophical nugget.. “I wasn’t born yesterday, but I remember the way things used to be.” Aside from the fact that it makes no sense grammatically, it’s depressing. Longtime fans also remember the way things used to be, when Franti was completely engaged in a creative career of music and activism.
That title is completely apropos. Most listeners should be ready to say goodbye. All People is the perfect companion to a frat party, in fact the album should include a complimentary beer-bong. Michael Franti could have positioned himself as the American Bob Marley. Instead, he seems comfortable kicking off his shoes and pitching camp with Jimmy Buffet and Jack Johnson. What a waste.