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How Michael Franti Found the Sun

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I first met Michael Franti on a Manhattan street corner in 1992. We were scheduled to do a piece for Edge magazine about his then-new "industrial rap" band, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and he was in a hurry. So we decided to do the interview on foot, walking between appointments and buildings.

You can learn a lot about a man by his gait, and Franti's was willful and brisk. Of course, he wore shoes back in those days, and had a fade rather than dreadlocks. He cut quite a strong figure. In the ensuing half hour, I prodded Franti about my favorite song, "Television, the Drug of a Nation," searching desperately for the mental origins of freshly-coined Franti catchphrases such as "cathode ray nipple" and "methodone metronome." The interview tape has since gone missing, but I'll never forget the sound of his voice as we talked and walked: this man was on a mission to change the world, and he wanted you to know it.

Thanks to Franti's habit -- or talent -- for looking you directly in the eye when he talks, I'd scribbled "INTENSE/COOL" on my notebook back on that day in 1992; I knew this dude full of juxtapositions had to be soft-centered -- and I was right. Based on my conversations with Michael over the past few years in our meetings as advocates for the poverty-fighting organization, CARE, and in our interview a few weeks ago (full transcript here), my "intense/cool" observation still applies today, although the intensity has since morphed into an infectious passion for life.

So, just how did Franti go from angry young man to lovable peacenik? For the sake of word count, I'll have to make it brief. Franti says visiting and performing in prisons, going to Iraq, and practicing yoga are the three things that transformed him most (more on that here). Getting from 1992 to 2010 is quite a jump -- and the meat of Franti's career consists of stuff you should already know or should check out, including Spearhead's whole catalog, which runs the gamut from intelligent hip-hop to spiraling, melodic rock, reggae and beyond; the acclaimed 2004 anti-war documentary I Know I'm Not Alone (shot in Iraq, Israel and Palestine); 2008's "Obama Song;" Franti's extensive work as an activist for environmental and social justice issues; and, of course, the annual bay-area music and lifestyle festival, Power to the Peaceful.

Bu let's face it, most folks know Franti these days for his 2008 runaway hit (and first Billboard Top 20 appearance ever), "Say Hey," produced by Sly & Robbie, or for his recent crowd-pleasing run as an opener for John Mayer's spring 2010 arena tour, where he previewed current hits "Shake It" and "Sound of Sunshine."

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Michael Franti sings with children in East Timor
Photo Courtesy of CARE. © Josh Estey/CARE

If there's one artist whose music closely matches his personality, it's Franti: with each major-key shuffle and slow-slurring island vibe, he gets a step closer to cementing himself as the goodwill ambassador for "no worries" globalism. Michael Franti and Spearhead's newest album, released on September 21 and called The Sound of Sunshine, has no sense of time and place -- it would sound at home blaring through the speakers in a (free-trade) coffee stand on just about any continent. "I'll Be Waiting" has an anthemic build; "Love Don't Wait" is a hip-shaker; and "Anytime You Need Me" recalls the relentless positive energy of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

In as many ways as The Sound of Sunshine comes off as more of the same feel-good fusion the band's been serving up since the '90s, who are we to argue with its affability and undeniable rays of optimism? Plus, this latest record is informed by a number of experiences (including Franti's 2009 brush with death) that make it far more metaphysically ripe than our favorite barefooted vegan would admit.

Of course, I'm biased about the good juju this new album seems to have; in a weird connection that Franti and I share, the ruptured appendix which nearly killed him in the summer of '09 put him in the hospital exactly 40 years to the day after my father suffered the same malady. Both their stories of recovery involve the moon and angels and all those unexplainable things that only music can make sense of. So, when Franti sings about the sound of sunshine, he really means it ... and we feel its warmth.

Click here to read my interview with Michael Franti, angels and all.