Do I admire Michael Franti? You bet your ass I do. In the scary days after 9/11 he had the balls to stand up to a fascist tide led by flag-waving goon squads and cheered on by most of America. Franti and a handful of Bay Area artists, including Paris and the Coup's Boots Riley, took a stand when it mattered, when free speech wasn't free anymore.
Making albums is one thing making history is another. In the case of Franti and artists like him those who are loosely described as "political" there's a connection between one activity and the other. So which yardstick do you use when sizing up a career? Franti's major label releases with Spearhead didn't sell much, the Coup's Kill My Landlord (Wild Pitch, 1993) went out of print, and Tommy Boy dropped Paris because of his politics.
But from today's vantage point with hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq and the Bill of Rights sacrificed in the process how do you factor in the foresight and courage these artists displayed in battles that involved all of us, even if we tried to hide out on the sidelines?
In Franti's case, his social and political vision has been consistent, voiced over constantly evolving sounds and styles. He emerged in the mid-1980s with the Beatnigs, a fabulous, noisy, funky, radical mess of a band built around his seething manifestos and Rono Tse's ear-splitting percussive experiments. When the sometimes-exhilarating Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy were born from the Beatnigs in 1990, Franti softened the noise, sharpened his voice, and gained musical elevation courtesy of avant-jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter.
Spearhead and the hip-hop mainstream came next, and two albums later, when he parted ways with Capitol, Franti was free to explore like it or not. Without a hip-hop straightjacket, his more recent work has been as interesting as any since the days of Disposable Heroes.
Franti's latest album, All Rebel Rockers (Anti), drops Sept. 9, a few days after his now-annual "Power to the Peaceful" festival will likely draw some 50,000 people to Golden Gate Park. That said, All Rebel Rockers interests me like yoga and veganism, which isn't much. Franti recorded the full-length in Jamaica with durable rhythm section Sly (Dunbar) and Robbie (Shakespeare) co-producing. There was a time when reggae was lifted by menace and invention a dissonance that's been lost along with the anticolonial hope that inspired musicians like the Wailers to take a stand in the first place. While it's no surprise that Franti turned to Jamaica for an album, he seems to be chasing a kind of holistic harmony that's long on shelter but short on threat. That's fine unless like me you need an outlet for outrage.
The post-corporate music world is a vast, constantly shifting collage of musical and social niches in which Franti has created a big, warm home for himself. On Rockers his words are more clever than they are challenging, and the rhymes are tight and infectious in a way that serves the dance floor, but they go down like fast food. Franti's got hardcore fans, which arguably makes him famous enough to be glibly autobiographical, even when he sounds like a '70s singer-songwriter. The chorus of the opening cut, "Rude Boys Back in Town," is a call-and-response between Franti and fans: "Michael, Michael, where you been ..." But in the past, when critics have asked that he mix the personal with the political, I don't think this is what they had in mind.
I still consider Franti one of the Bay Area's genuinely important artists. Without his work, as well as that of the Coup and Paris whose latest album, Acid Reflex (Guerrilla Funk) also comes out in September the world would be the worse for it. And not just on Saturday night.