Years ago, when Michael Franti started his career in the Beatnigs and, later, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, he probably had no idea that he would get to a point in life when he was doing yoga and singing dance tunes. Sure, that yoga serves as a form of activism and the dance tunes very often carry an important message, but still… he’s come a long way, baby. And it’s a journey that he is very happy to take.
There’s a Howard Thurman quote that I love: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Those words remind me of you and your work. Would you concur?
Thank you! I love that quote. And I completely agree. I feel like the world needs passionate people who are inspired every day to make a difference in their corner of the world and improve the quality of life for people around them. And the best way to do it is something that you truly believe in. Sometimes we get trapped into thinking the only way we can make a difference is through electing a politician or pushing through some new law in Congress. But it’s really people finding ways.
Right now, I’m making a film called 11:59 that’s about three people who inspired me. One is a midwife in the Philippines, one is a man in Atlanta who is dying of ALS, and the other is a guy who reforests places that have been clearcut in Indonesia using bamboo. They are three people who, just through their passion and commitment, have really inspired my life.
It doesn’t have to be a monumental thing that you undertake. You can do something very small in your own community and have it make a huge difference.
Absolutely! I like where you’re going with all this, Kelly. It’s totally my philosophy which is why I’ve been making a film about this stuff for the last six months.
I know from my own activism, that it’s hard to carry the weight of the world, even when you’re 6-foot-6. Obviously, you still write about and work on important issues, but did you feel like the world just needed you to use a lighter touch in recent years? Was there one thing — or things — that sparked your shift away from your more assertive approach to focusing on the positive?
Well, you know, I vacillate. Sometimes I feel really just frustrated and pissed off at what I see in the world. And there are times that I feel like I want to be the antidote to that. I feel, lately, more in my life, as I’ve grown, that it’s more important to reach people with a message of compassion and connection to others than it is to make music where I put out ideas that potentially divide people… even if you’re telling exactly what it is you feel in your heart at that moment. I try to find a way that I can bring people in. The more subtle the work, the more powerful and long-term it can be.
Finding the common ground and using that as the starting point, rather than pointing out all the differences.
What do you think it is about the power of music that brings people together, builds bridges, and heals hearts?
I’m really fascinated by this idea of one mind. There are very few places I can think of in the world where thousands of people go to and all put their hands in the air simultaneously, all sing along to songs that have ideals in them that they believe in, and all jump up and down together, sweat together, dance, laugh, cry. The only thing I can sort of compare it to is a sporting event when people all cheer together for one team. The only difference is that, then, half the people in the audience go home feeling sad because their team lost. There are very few places where you have this idea of one mind with people all going together. And I think it’s a great experience. You know, I see people coming to shows carrying the stress of the world on their shoulders and they dance and sing and laugh and cry. Then they walk out a little bit taller, a little bit more able to face whatever it is that’s coming next for them in their day.
That’s the tadasana, though, that makes them taller, right?

A friend and I were talking recently about how it seems that all this crazy darkness is coming out in the world as a equal and opposite reaction to all the light and love that so many others are embracing and expressing. Has that been your experience, as well?
Sometimes I feel like it’s really balanced. I think all of us have both sides in us. All of us go through periods in our lives when we’re expressing one or the other. But I think it is the great battle that we always see taking place in the world. It’s the same battle that’s in all of our hearts. It’s the battle between ignorance and enlightenment. Sometimes I hear these really ignorant statements, you see people doing really ignorant things that are based in hatred and fear, and then we see really amazing things happen. We see people who, in times of greatest need — like natural disasters — you see people just really extending their hearts and reaching out to total strangers in ways they normally wouldn’t in everyday life. I think it’s something that is within each of us and it’s great to be reminded of the really positive examples. I mean, it seems like everyday, just reading the news, we get reminded of the negative ones more than the good ones.
Of all your travels and doings, what’s the one thing that stands out the most or is it impossible to narrow it down?
It’s pretty hard to single out one thing. But, my son is 15 years old. I have two sons, and the younger one is 15. He was recently diagnosed with an incurable kidney disease and he’s lost 50 percent of the function in his kidney. And it’s really been challenging for our family. It’s really brought our family together in ways that we never would have imagined, being with my son who is 15 and he’s waking up in the middle of the night because he’s thinking about dying. I remember when I was 15 years old, I thought I would never die. I think that sense of imminence, that sense of living life each day like it’s our last moment that we have, is something that keeps life fresh. It keeps it exciting. It keeps us in a loving place. It keeps my family together. But that’s more of a feeling than it is any one experience.
If you could, what wisdom would you pass back to Michael Franti circa 1990 or 1994?
Hmmmm… I think the main thing is, “Don’t worry as much.” There are so many things in life that I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about, then you wake up the next day and you realize that the reality is so much different than the expectation. So that’s it. That being said, I still need to tell that to the me that’s here right now.
And if that younger Michael could see you now, what would he think or say?
Well, he’d probably say, “You’ve made your fair share of mistakes, but overall you’ve done pretty good.”
A nice, “Atta boy!”
Yeah. Exactly.
This article originally appeared on No Depression.