USF has seen many accomplished alums pass through its doors, from athletes to politicians to CEOs to talk show hosts. Rapper, activist, and musician Michael Franti is just one of many who have launched successful careers after their time at the Hilltop. Franti, with his band Michael Franti & Spearhead, released a studio album, “Work Hard & Be Nice,” earlier this year and is currently keeping his audience entertained through virtual concerts from his Yoga Retreat Hotel in Bali, Indonesia, which he created in 2011.
Franti and his wife, Sarah Agah Franti, who is also a passionate advocate and entrepreneur, will be speaking during USF’s Founder’s Week in a conversation hosted by English professor Dean Rader. You can register for the event, which will be held Oct. 16 from 12-1 p.m., here.
Franti was a Don in the mid-1980s, attending USF on a full athletic basketball scholarship. He arrived only a few years after the men’s basketball team was shut down by then-President John Lo Schiavo for numerous NCAA violations. Thus, he was nervous to tell people he was a basketball player. “But people would say, ‘We’re glad you’re here,’” he said in a 1985 New York Times article about the newly reformed team. Franti majored in communication arts, which is now communication studies.
During his time at USF, Franti learned how to tell stories on paper and picked up poetry and vocal music. At a local pawn shop, he purchased a bass guitar and began creating music inspired by what was playing on KUSF.
“My dorm room was right above the campus radio station. I think I ended up spending more time listening to the radio and going into the radio station than I did on the basketball court,” he said in a Grateful Web interview in 2014. “I just fell in love with music. Our school was about five blocks away from Haight-Ashbury — San Francisco. So, I’d go down to Haight-Ashbury district and I would hang out with punk rockers, hip-hop heads, and Deadheads.” In 1986, Franti kicked off his musical career by joining The Beatnigs, an industrial punk/spoken word band. Franti and a bandmate then created “The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy” in 1990. After releasing critically-acclaimed, yet non-commercially successful music with the band, in which he sang and made multiple instrumental contributions, Franti founded Michael Franti & Spearhead with studio musicians Carl Young, J Bowman, Mike Blankenship, and Manas Itiene. In a Rolling Stones interview in 1995, Franti explained, “The big problem with Disposable Heroes was that it was a record people listened to because it was good for them – kind of like broccoli. I want Spearhead to be more like sweet potatoes.”
Throughout the next decade, the band would release four studio albums that explored topics of social justice and world issues. By 2008, they released their most successful album, “All Rebel Rockers,” featuring the hit single, “Say Hey (I Love You).” This song is about life’s journey, and in a press release, Franti said, “No matter where it takes us, no matter how hard it may seem to understand at times, there is one thing we know for sure… we love the people who are closest to us.”
Michael Franti & Spearhead’s latest album, “Work Hard & Be Nice” follows the trend of his 2008 single, focusing on the brighter side of life and rejecting the negative. The band released the album amid the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, while Franti and his wife were stranded in Bali, Indonesia — the country had gone into lockdown and canceled all inbound and outbound flights.
Beyond music, Franti is an active advocate of social justice, bringing USF’s mission to life. His first documentary, “I Know I’m Not Alone,” which he produced and directed in 2005, showed footage of Iraq, Palestine, and Israel in order to bring light to and understand those that live in war-torn occupied countries. As a result of decades of war, including the U.S. invasion of Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many live in fear and anxiety every day.
“This film came out of my frustration with watching the nightly news and hearing generals, politicians, and pundits explaining the political and economic cost of the war in the Middle East, without ever mentioning the human cost,” Franti said in an interview with The National. “I wanted to hear about the war by the people affected by it most: doctors, nurses, poets, artists, soldiers, and my personal favorite, musicians.”
His second film, “Stay Human,” was created in 2019. In the film, Franti goes on a personal journey, meeting extraordinary people who encourage him to overcome cynicism. The film, which according to actor Woody Harrelson is a “film every human needs to watch right now,” premiered April 22 on YouTube. Franti said, “There is no better time for music that helps us laugh, cry, rage, soothe, dance and sing through the sea of emotions boiling inside each of us. How beautiful that we can come together today, of all days, on Earth Day. While we may be physically distancing, socially I love how we’re coming together.”
In 2001, Franti was also awarded the Domestic Human Rights Award by the organization Global Change for his anti-war advocacy. Beginning with one of his earliest songs, “Music and Politics,” Franti has made an effort to find ways to merge politics and music. Outside of musical statements, Franti works with numerous charities, including the Ubuntu Education Fund, which is “dedicated to providing vulnerable children and families in Port Elizabeth, South Africa with an empowering environment and access to services and opportunities.” He also advocates for vegan diets and going barefoot. Currently, Franti is using his social media platforms to encourage people to vote.