Staying human with Michael Franti

The musician and human rights activist’s new documentary, ‘Stay Human,’ avoids partisan politics to be the call to action this world needs now

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Michael Franti
Anthony Theon

It’s Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018, and it feels serendipitous to get the chance to talk with Michael Franti about his new documentary, Stay Human. Here we are on what feels like a day of reckoning in America after two years (three? 242?) of soul-crushing division, violence, conspiracy theories and identity politics, talking about a film that directly addresses our collective pain without directly addressing the politics that seem to cause it.   

Stay Human introduces you to some of the people Franti has met on his journey as a musician and human rights activist, from Atlanta to the Philippines to South Africa to Bali. These are people who have inspired Franti, shown him what courage looks like in the face of real adversity, how love outshines the darkness of terminal illness, how individual ingenuity can outsmart corporate greed. These are people who have shown Franti what it means to stay human when everything that makes you feel human has been taken away: your home, your health, your livelihood.

And while humanity deals with these injustices via the maddeningly imperfect mechanisms of civilian government, Franti wanted to avoid the “trap of political tribalism” in his film.

“What I want is for people to feel what is happening out there, to feel what it’s like to be someone who’s been affected by a hurricane and is ready to have a baby and your home has been demolished,” Franti says.

“I don’t know if it’s because of the anonymity of the internet and people feel like they can do whatever they want from behind their keyboard, or if it’s because we have a president that’s doing that kind of bullying from the head office down, or if it’s because we have a climate in our country where that kind of politicking is OK and we can elect a president like that — I don’t know what came first,” he says, “but we are living in a time when there is so much meanness, hatred, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, there’s so much put out everyday. How do we combat that with being able to connect with each other as human beings and being able to see each other as the imperfect people that we are? We can embrace that, we can have these conversations without attacking each other. That’s what I wanted. The movie is inspired by these times we’re living in, but I felt like there were so many films out there that are just hit pieces against one political perspective or another and that’s not what I wanted.”

Stay Human addresses the exact topics that sent many of us to the polls this year — environmental justice and sustainability, access to healthcare, mental healthcare and education — but it places the focus directly on the human experience. That’s kind of Franti’s modus operandi; he’s been exploring the concept of what it means to be human his whole life, starting as an emotional multi-racial kid raised in a mixed adopted family who bottled up their emotions.

“I think my greatest struggle [in life] has been to be my authentic self,” Franti says. “I never really felt like I fit in the neighborhood or the family or at school, sort of trying on all these different hats like, ‘Oh, this is going to make me feel normal, feel accepted,’ and none of it did. My journey through music has been to make music that feels and sounds like me. The hardest thing is really just to be able to peel back layers of what is my authentic self. I’m 52 years old and I still feel like a teenager in that regard.”

Franti learned to write poetry in college and soon found himself taking the darker aspects of society to task in a politically charged band called The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. From the start, Franti’s music blended global sounds, presenting a form of conscious hip-hop that eschewed the typically violent, misogynistic and homophobic messages of the genre. Moving into the mid-90s, Franti continued to deliver positive messages with his band Spearhead, but the music bent more toward funk and reggae.

In 2000, Michael Franti & Spearhead released their third album, also called Stay Human, a conceptual anthology that explored mass media monopolization, the prison-industrial complex and corporate globalization through the story of a fictional activist named Sister Fatima. It was a meditation on holding on to spirituality and interconnectedness in spite of injustice.

In 2004, frustrated by politicians and the media measuring the affects of war in dollars and cents, Franti traveled to war zones in Iraq, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories to uncover the human costs of war. The result was an intimate documentary — I Know I’m Not Alone — driven by the voices of real people living, surviving and even creating in the hostile conditions of war.

“People I consider my heroes who are known to be political fighters for social justice — Bob Marley, John Lennon, Johnny Cash — they probably wrote more love songs in their careers than they did songs about the political struggle,” Franti says. “It doesn’t mean they were any less passionate. In my perspective, they wanted to express the full spectrum of being a human being: falling in love, partying on Saturday night, questioning whether there was spirit in the world and the way the world was run and who’s running it. I think those are important things to include in your music, especially if you want to reach people who don’t agree with you from the start.”

Franti’s courage, wit and compassion are undeniably part of what makes him such an endearing character, but it’s his willingness to be vulnerable and introspective that makes him a great storyteller. The documentary Stay Human weaves in Franti’s personal story, exposing his own struggle with depression and other things outside of his control, like the health of his oldest son and his mother. It’s a reminder that this jubilant human, who draws people in like moths to a flame, has his own demons to fight. It’s a reminder that no human’s story is without sadness, and as long as we are still breathing, there’s a reason to push through the sadness.

With the new documentary, Franti decided to ignore the temptation of the straight-to-streaming option in favor of, well, the straight-to-other-humans option.

“My favorite part of a movie is popping the popcorn, but the other thing I love is being with somebody I care about and talking about the film afterward,” he says. “Did we dig it or not dig it? That’s the fun and joy of a movie for me. If we can do that in big settings, people coming together rather than sitting in front of their screens, I think we achieved something.”

What Franti offers with Stay Human is much more than a feel good film — it’s a call to action. It reminds us that when we put people first, we all succeed.

On the Bill: Michael Franti Stay Human Film Tour. 1 and 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder. Tickets are $25-$45.

The 8 p.m. show is sold out, but Lyte.com offers an option for ticket holders to connect with those who are looking for tickets: lyte.com/bouldertheater/MICHAEL-FRANTI-STAY-HUMAN-FILM-TOUR-69602/