Monday, June 7, 2010

Michael Franti “Sound Of Sunshine”

What is Michael Franti doing, do you think?

We all have our opinion of who an artist is, and what they should sound like. And when an artist decides to defy that definition, we have to ask (often with some annoyance), What are they doing?

It’s harder for artists than you think. For every U2 fan open to a band that tries to forward their sound every couple of records, there’s a Bruce Springsteen fan who asks with each new Boss release, “When is he going to make another album that sounds like ‘Born To Run’?” Elvis Costello can dabble in country and classical and opera, without too much fan repercussion. But Eric Clapton better not even think about it.

So, being aware that my questioning is typical fan prejudice, What do you think Michael Franti is doing?

Franti’s earliest material, with the outfit Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, was decidedly, overtly political. You don’t cover "California Uber Alles" without a revolutionary ax to grind. “Television, Drug Of The Nation” was one of the most scathing songs of its era.

In the late 90s/early 2000s, Franti downplayed the anger, but still focused on social political causes, tackling HIV, poverty and the racial divide, with thoughtfulness.

So there was evolution, but it still a surprise to hear last year’s “Say Hey,” which, on the surface, seemed like nothing but a party song, a crossover hit, a stab at commercialism.

Franti has followed it up with this year’s “Sound Of Sunshine.” And the cynic in me wondered if he’d abandoned his principles, if he’d given up on creating social change through the power of music.

But I started thinking about this documentary he made a few years ago, called “I Know I’m Not Alone.”

In it, he traveled to the Middle East to talk to Muslims and Jews about their views of each other, and of peace.

Noting that there was a language divide between the cultures and communities he was talking to, he dug around, looking for a single word, most of the folks he’d cross paths with, would recognize, that had a positive meaning. He wrote this one word song, “Habibe” (it roughly means “sweetheart”) and performed it, inspiring the Jews and the Muslims and the Christians and the white people and the black people and the old and the young and the angry and the resigned to sing along wherever he went.

And so I go back to “Sound Of Sunshine,” and the idealist in me wonders---did he have a change, not of heart but of focus, on his politics? Has he given himself, fully, over to the notion that maybe he can create the social change he dreams of, not by castigating, but by uniting?

Does talking about love, does producing a song so joyous that people can’t resist coming together . . . does that make more of a real world difference that 100 songs about California Governors?

Let the cynic in you consider Bob Marley, who is perhaps most successfully, of any artist in our lifetime, motivated people to address their political concerns though his music. Let the cynic ask the next person you see, “Quick. Name a Bob Marley song.”

Did they say “Them Belly Full”? “Get Up Stand Up”?

Or did they say “One Love”? “Three Little Birds”? Or “Positive Vibration”?

All are great songs, but which had a farther cultural reach?

So maybe you can write off “Sound Of Sunshine” for its shiny, happy surface.

But maybe Michael Franti just unwittingly engaged you in some deep political discourse.

The “I Know I’m Not Alone” Trailer

The Habibe scene

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