Suddenly, Michael Franti is no longer a fringe artist -- not that he's compromised his ideals. With album sales receding like an ebbing tide, musicians further down the so-called "Long Tail" are being revealed to the mainstream, including Franti and his band Spearhead. Buoyed by a strong grassroots following, Franti's "revolutionary dance album," All Rebel Rockers, sold 12,000 copies its opening week in September, breaking into the Top 40 for the first time in his 22-year career.
While consistent with the reggae-dub approach that informs Spearhead's prior album, the politically charged Yell Fire!, his latest was produced by Jamaica's legendary Sly and Robbie. The talented pair, who guest on four tracks, bring an irresistible energy to the album, and even convince Franti to backseat the politics a bit. Instead, Franti channels loverman soul on tracks such as the dancehall "Say Hey (I Love You)," featuring Jamaican vocalist Cherine Anderson, and the slinky, dub-driven "All I Want Is You," where Franti sings, "Wise men count the blessings / Fools count their problems / But you're both of them to me."
"When I started writing words for ['All I Want Is You'], it was political," Franti told Billboard this summer. "Robbie turns to me and says, 'Nah, mon, that rhythm is too sexy; you need a love song for that one. You got a love song.' I ended up moving the key and then dropping lyrics on top of it."
Franti's musical history goes back to the late '80s, when he started The Beatnigs while attending the University of San Francisco. They released their debut on Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label, but soon broke up. Franti's subsequent act, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, scored one of the biggest underground hits of the '90s, "Television, the Drug of a Nation." Since 1994, Spearhead has been Franti's main musical pursuit.
Franti's activities extend beyond music. In 2004, he visited Iraq, Israel and Palestine and talked to ordinary people, resulting in the DVD documentary, I Know I'm Not Alone, a sort of companion piece to the Bush-bashing outrage of Yell Fire! However, Franti knows it's really about the kids, and adapted his 2003 jazz-funk self-awareness jam, "What I Be," into a children's book.
And with All Rebel Rockers, Franti realizes the power of movement outdistances that of words, allowing the insistent, head-nodding grooves to serve as the primary vehicle for bringing people around to his way of thinking.
Michael Franti & Spearhead, with Solillaquists of Sound. 8 p.m. Thu., Nov. 13. Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead, 510 E. 10th Ave., Munhall. $29 ($32 at the door). 412-462-3444 or www.homesteadlibrary.org
- "What I Be": Michael Franti & Spearhead