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Recording artist Michael Franti at his home in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009. Franti will be performing at the inauguration of President Obama. (John Green/Staff)

Michael Franti has been fighting the power so long, he may not know what to do now that the power is more to his liking.

That doesn't mean he won't try.

"A huge cloud has been lifted," says the activist and frontman for Bay-Area-based hip-hop/reggae band Michael Franti & Spearhead, which is playing two inaugural events in Washington D.C. this week. "Now we have an opportunity for change and we have an opportunity to not only hold (Barack Obama) accountable to his promises, but help him achieve them."

Oakland-born Franti, 41, has been one of music's most vocal opponents of the Bush administration. But his history of activism goes back much further, to his days as an upstart hip-hop artist in the Beatnigs, then with the socially conscious band Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy before forming Spearhead 15 years ago.

"I've seen him perform in a prison and people get so wrapped up," says Weyland Southon, a longtime friend of Franti's and the executive producer and host of Hard Knock Radio, on Berkeley liberal radio station KPFA-FM 94.1. "People shed tears, even the guards. That's powerful medicine.

"He's got such a huge heart. He cares not only about his art, but the impact of his art."

Franti was so intent on understanding what he railed against in his lyrics, in 2004 he took his guitar and traveled to Iraq, Israel and Gaza. He returned with material for his next album and a different perspective — one more geared toward unifying and understanding.


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"I played music in the street, and people invited me into their homes and their mosques," he says. "In Baghdad I played a song about peace called 'Bomb the World,' which says 'You can bomb the world into pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace.' But they didn't want to hear songs about war — they lived with war. They wanted to dance and sing about peace."

He also walked into a bar full of American soldiers and began playing. "Here I am, this guy with a wooden guitar, walking into a bar to sing about peace and bombing the world," he says, laughing.

Franti illustrates his frustration with the outgoing president by relaying a conversation with a soldier who joined the military the day after the Sept. 11 attacks and came to Iraq willingly, believing Iraq was involved in the attacks and had weapons of mass destruction. "This guy was like 'What the (expletive) am I doing here?'"‰"

Franti then traveled to Israel and Gaza. "I tried talking to people on both sides, people who have lost children, and I met so many people who want peace. I felt hopeful."

Franti, who now lives in San Francisco and has two sons, ages 21 and 7, had a unique childhood, which he says has a huge influence on his adult perspective. He was adopted and raised in Davis by white parents. His birth parents were a mix of African-American, Native American, and European.

"My parents had a big influence on me," he says. "They always told me to think independently and to always have compassion." And despite voting for Obama (he wrote a song about him, and received a photo of Obama holding the record, though they haven't met), he says, "I never have endorsed a candidate. I endorse ideas."

Franti went to the University of San Francisco, where he played basketball. He lived above the campus radio station, which played everything from hip-hop to punk. "I'd hear the thumping bass lines, so I got a bass and started playing along."

He dove further into music, developing his social awareness along the way. Two decades later, Spearhead's latest record, "All Rebel Rockers" — made in Jamaica and produced by legendary duo Sly & Robbie — debuted in the Billboard Top 40. It also hit No. 4 on the independent album chart. The record is a mix of styles, but leans heavy on upbeat reggae.

"A lot of our music is about connecting with people," he says. "I go around the world and see people living in poverty and they're making the most beautiful music. It's mind-blowing."

Franti has been involved with many liberal causes, including the environment (Spearhead is playing Al Gore's "Green Ball" this week) and police brutality. He also founded the annual Power to the Peaceful music festival in 1998, which has grown to attract 50,000 people to Golden Gate Park.

"He's there at all the planning meetings, organizing the theme and who's speaking," says Southon, the usual emcee. "Then you see him afterward, picking up garbage. I've never seen an artist do that."

The United States will see something Tuesday it has never seen. Franti, whose first political memory was Richard Nixon resigning, didn't think he would.

"The night before the election I was reading with my son a children's biography about Obama," he says. "I told my son, 'When I was young, we never imagined we'd have not only an African-American president, but one with real ideas.' I sat there and cried with him. Now my son will grow up thinking that, to be president, you have to be as cool as Barack Obama."

Reach Tony Hicks at thicks@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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BIOGRAPHY
  • WHO: Michael Franti
  • AGE: 41
  • Residence: San Francisco; Oakland native
  • OCCUPATION: Frontman of Michael Franti & Spearhead, political activist
  • INAUGURAL APPEARANCES: Franti performs at the "Green Ball" today and the "Peace Ball" on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
  • CLAIM TO FAME: Founded the "Power to Peaceful" concert in Golden Gate Park, which draws more than 50,000 people each year.
  • QUOTE: "I never have endorsed a candidate. I endorse ideas."