Michael Franti was born in Oakland, California. His mother, Mary Lofy, had Irish, German, and Belgian ancestry, and his father, Thomas Hopkins, was of African-American and Native American descent. However, his mother put him up for adoption because she was afraid that her racist family would not accept him. He was adopted by Carole Wisti and Charles Franti, a Finnish American couple in Oakland, who at the time had three biological children and one adopted African American son. Charles Franti was a professor in the department of epidemiology and preventive medicine of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and died in 2003. Michael's four adoptive siblings are named Rebecca, Sara, Dan, and Matthew. Michael spent his grade 9 school year at Highland Junior High School in Edmonton, Alberta. He then attended Davis Senior High School and graduated from the University of San Francisco.
During his time at school there he met a priest who taught him how to tell a story on paper, and soon he was writing poetry. He purchased a bass at a pawn shop and started creating music inspired by hip hop, punk, and reggae that was being played on the campus radio station, KUSF. Franti also has four half siblings, Thea, Thomas, Charles and Arthur Hopkins.
Franti began his music career in 1986 as part of the industrial punk/spoken word band The Beatnigs. While attending the University of San Francisco and living above KUSF he developed a fascination with music and decided to start a band. The Beatnigs included dancer and percussionist Rono Tse; the band released a self-titled LP and an EP Television on Alternative Tentacles records. The records received some critical acclaim but little fame beyond the San Francisco Bay Area.
The 1988 LP release The Beatnigs was recorded at Dancin' Dog Studio in Emeryville and distributed by Alternative Tentacles. In addition to Michael Franti and Ron Tse, the band included Henry Flood on percussion, Andre Flores on keyboards, and Kevin Carnes on vocals. All of the band members made multiple instrumental contributions, including industrial percussion.
His next project, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, found Franti continuing his collaboration with Tse, and working with jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, and electronic musicians Mark Pistel (Consolidated) and Jack Dangers (Meat Beat Manifesto). The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy wrote politically charged lyrics that railed against the injustices of the world, set to a fusion of industrial music and hip hop. Their first album, Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury (on Island Records), won plaudits for its social commentary, and they were chosen by U2 to open for their Zoo TV Tour.
It is important to note that this album is one of Franti's remarkable works as an artist activist. The first song of the album Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury is Satanic Reverses, a song which criticizes the oil and fossil fuel industry and speaks directly to the company Exxon. Another notable work of rebel art in Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury is "Television The Drug of The Nation" which as the title implies, blame television for a political numbing of the people of the United States and this point becomes explicit in the lyrics: "T.V., it satellite links, our United States of unconsciousness, apathetic therapeutic and extremely addictive". This track consists of spoken word type lyrics backed up by heavy, bright and strong percussive timbres, which express the upfront exclamation that urges one to wake up from the trance set upon by T.V. The song had been previously recorded by Franti's former project, The Beatnigs and received wide airplay and alternative and college radio stations.
The distinctive work of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy has been analyzed in various academic papers. It has even been analyzed by author Leslie Haywood and editor Jeniffer Drake in the book "Third Wave Agenda, Being Feminist and Doing Feminism". The analysis involved the role of masculinity in the misogynist point of view which dominates popular music. The authors argue Franti's lyrics in treating women fairly in relationships is an exception.
Franti and the Disposable Heroes put together another record of music accompanying novelist William Burroughs' readings for an album entitled Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales. This album diverged greatly from the style of the band's previous work, as they were largely providing musical background and accompaniment to Burroughs' spoken readings from several of his books.
According to the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy is an innovative contemporary hip hop crew; a mixture of articulate manifesto rap which broke down beyond the black and white rhetoric, especially in the song 'Language of Violence', one of the first raps to speak about homophobia.
In 1994, Franti formed a new band called Spearhead with a few studio musicians, including mainstay Carl Young, and announced the dissolution of Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Their first release, Home, in September 1994, was a departure from the politically charged rap of the Disposable Heroes and drew more from funk and soul music. The album was produced by Franti and Joe Nicolo. The song "Positive", also from the album Home, appeared on the Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool compilation album by the Red Hot Organization. In 1998, Spearhead recorded "I Got Plenty 'o Nuthin" with Ernest Ranglin for the Red Hot Organization's compilation album Red Hot + Rhapsody.
Their follow up album Chocolate Supa Highway was released in March 1997, with several changes in band members between releases. This album featured a return to hip hop elements and a pronounced reggae influence and included guest appearances by notables like Stephen Marley and Joan Osborne.
After releasing the two albums, the band split with Capitol Records (reportedly prompted by the label's repeated urging to perform with other artists like Will Smith). The band instead decided to create its own record label, Boo Boo Wax. Since Capitol Records owned the rights to the name "Spearhead", subsequent albums were all released as "Michael Franti & Spearhead."
His song "Sometimes" was included on the soundtrack to the 1999 film, Mystery Men, as well as the soundtrack to the 2006 film, Last Holiday. Also, under the "Spearhead" name, their cover version of The Police's 1979 No. 32 hit, "Roxanne", was featured on the soundtrack to the 1997 film Good Burger, the full-length feature film starring Kenan Thompson & Kel Mitchell based on their characters from the popular 'Good Burger' sketch featured on the Nickelodeon series All That.
Michael Franti & Spearhead released Stay Human in 2000 under their own label Boo Boo Wax in alignment with indie music label Six Degrees Records. The album's central theme was the unjust nature of the death penalty and other major themes included mass media monopolization, the prison-industrial complex and corporate globalization.
In an interview, Franti talked about the message of Stay Human: "Half the record is songs about what's happening in the world right now, and the other half is about how we cope with it as people who are concerned about what's going on", he said. "This specter of war, intimidation, this nation vs. the rest of the world, it wears us out. Half the record is a healthy dose of venting anger about that, and the other half is about how do we hold on to our spirituality, our community and our connectedness to each other." In 2001 Franti was featured on Lamb's album What Sound, providing backing vocals on the track "I Cry". Also in 2001, Michael Franti & Spearhead released the song "Oh My God", argument-ally one of Michael Franti & Spearhead's most precise resistance songs. It was analyzed in Catherine Chaput's book Entertaining Fear: Rhetoric and the Political Economy of Social Control. Chaput uses the lyrics of "Oh My God" to show how it is counter-productive to understand politics as distinct from economics and culture. The lyrics make connections across science, popular culture and politics.
Everyone Deserves Music was released in 2003. Franti composed many of the songs from his guitar and, like fellow 21st century cultural globalists Manu Chao and Ozomatli, continues to synthesize his eclectic influences. In a departure from the industrial sounds of the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes, and the minimalism of early Spearhead, Franti's affirming lyrics are now set to swelling rock chords, while keeping a world-wise groove nodding towards reggae, dancehall, bossa nova, Afrobeat, and funk. Anthems like the title track "Everyone Deserves Music", "Yes I Will" and "Bomb The World" are constructed with a nod to the 1980s rock of The Clash and U2, as well as to classic soul from Stax and Motown. The song "We Don't Stop" (featuring Gift of Gab from Blackalicious and Spearhead's rapper/beatbox technician Radioactive) bridges the two sounds in a "Magnificent Seven" style mash-up. And on "Love Why Did You Go Away" and "What I Be", Franti reveals an alluring, sensual singing voice. "Pray For Grace" and "Bomb The World (Armageddon Version)" pair Franti with the reggae/funk giants Sly and Robbie (Grace Jones, Rolling Stones, Black Uhuru, No Doubt).
Also in 2003, Franti released a mostly acoustic album, Songs from the Front Porch containing rearranged versions of older songs from Chocolate Supa Highway, Stay Human and Everyone Deserves Music as well as a couple of new tracks.
On July 25, 2006, Michael Franti & Spearhead released Yell Fire!, inspired by Franti's trip to Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Iraq. In an effort to share his experiences from his trip and to explore the human cost of war, Franti produced a movie entitled I Know I'm Not Alone, using the songs from his album Yell Fire! as a soundtrack. "One Step Closer To You" from Yell Fire! features Pink on backing vocals. The whole album is available for listening in his website.
Franti and Spearhead have gained a worldwide audience through touring and appearances in alternative media like Mother Jones magazine and Democracy Now!. Franti continues to tour in addition to producing the annual Power to the Peaceful festival each year since 1998. The festival originated as a way of supporting Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been convicted of murdering a policeman but is considered by some on the Left to be a political prisoner. Michael Franti continues to gain influence in both popular music and social movements largely through extensive touring and word of mouth fan support. Lyrics from his song "Bomb The World", written in the dark aftermath of September 11 such as "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace" have found their way onto protest signs and t-shirts all over the world from Los Angeles to Berlin, San Francisco to CNN, at demonstrations for peace large and small.
The song "Light Up Ya Lighter" by Michael Franti & Spearhead was included on the soundtrack to Body of War, an award-winning documentary about Tomas Young, a paralyzed Iraq War veteran.
Songs from Yell Fire and All Rebel Rockers are on the soundtrack to The Edge of Never, a documentary about extreme skiers mentoring 15-year-old Kye Peterson in his quest to ski the route in Chamonix, France that killed his father, Trevor Peterson, nine years earlier.
The album All Rebel Rockers was released on September 9, 2008 and was largely recorded in Jamaica at the Anchor studio in St Andrew. The band worked with ubiquitous rhythm team Sly and Robbie and featured multi-talented vocalist Cherine Anderson on the set which entered the Billboard 200 pop chart in September at number 38. The single 'Say Hey (I Love You)' also reached Number 18 on the US Hot 100, providing Franti with his first US Top 20 single. Michael Franti was featured on Aux.tv's show Volume where he spoke about U.S. politics and his efforts to make the world a better place.
Franti played three different events to commemorate President Barack Obama's inauguration: The Green Ball, The Peace Ball and the Rock the Vote Party.
Franti announced in November 2009 that he would be joining musician John Mayer on the Battle Studies Tour in spring 2010.
As part of the band's commitment to environmentalism, Michael Franti and Spearhead avoid the use of water bottles on national tours and run their tour bus on biodiesel.
Franti announced the release of The Sound of Sunshine on his official website in July 2010. It features 12 tracks including two versions of the title track, the new hit single, "Shake It", and staples of his recent live performances including "Hey Hey Hey", "Anytime You Need Me", "The Thing That Helps Me Get Through", and the anthemic arena-rock ballad "I'll Be Waiting". The album was originally set to be released on August 24, but was pushed back to September 21 to give the album "more runway."
Michael Franti started the recording process for The Sound of Sunshine in Jamaica but then continued to mix tracks and record in Bali before choosing to bring a portable studio on the road. He continued to record on the road and then test his ideas in front of live audiences to see if they liked it before going back and revamping it the next day. He has since been quoted as saying 90% of the album ended up being recorded on his laptop.
In 2012, he joined the 11th annual Independent Music Awards judging panel to assist independent musicians' careers.
In 2013, Michael Franti released his album titled as All People, which features his latest single "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)". It was released July 30, 2013.
His new single "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)" was featured on The Sims 4 and Rayman Legends game trailers.
Franti is also an advocate for peace in the Middle East. His film I Know I'm Not Alone features footage of Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and Israel. Franti decided to embark on this three week journey with friends to view the cost of war in the Middle East first-hand. Franti states, "This film came out of my frustration with watching the nightly news and hearing generals, politicians, and pundits explaining the political and economic cost of the war in the Middle East, without ever mentioning the human cost. I wanted to hear about the war by the people affected by it most: doctors, nurses, poets, artists, soldiers, and my personal favorite, musicians."
The film aims to speak multiple generations and to give people a better understanding of the people who still live in war-torn countries. He did not embark on the trip for the film with any special government groups or organizations, but instead bought plane tickets and headed off to Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and Israel armed with nothing more than his guitar and an extreme passion for music and a love of people. He says, "When I first had the idea for this journey, I had no idea how to get to Iraq and almost no idea how to make a film. After discovering that all you need to get into Iraq is a plane ticket, I prayed that movie making would be that simple..." From his trip to the Middle East, Franti argued that it was poverty more than religion that created tensions in the Gaza region. "The poverty was so severe," says Franti. "This really helped me to understand the frustration the Palestinian youth have. Ultimately, my belief is that it is poverty more than religion that creates tensions and frustrations. If you are struggling to feed your family, living on less than US$2 (Dh7.34) a day, as most Gaza residents are, and can see that past the checkpoint in Israel people live like in Los Angeles, then that really is going to cause mounting tensions."
In 2001 Franti was awarded the Domestic Human Rights Award by Global Exchange, an international NGO based in San Francisco, for his work to end war.
In 2006, he was invited by Australian Labour MP Jenny Macklin to show the film at Australia's Parliament House, Canberra.
Although the album "Yell Fire" and the documentary "I Know I'm Not Alone" may be the most known activist works of Michael Franti, Franti's career as a rebel musician and activist does not end there. Music and politics have always been a part of Franti's art and that can be seen in Franti's early career in the song of the "Music and Politics" released during the "Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy" phase. The song consists of Franti reciting in Spoken Word style with a soft electric guitar riffing in the background.
Although Franti's points of views about the role of music in politics has changed as well as the style of music he uses to express himself, Franti still writes about small letter 'p' politics and continues to work as an activist towards social change. The album 'All Rebel Rockers' from 2008 (US #39) already with Spearhead was also a vehicle to express Franti's political views through music. According to Franti, the album is inspired by contemporary issues which the world is facing, such as climate change, the price of gas going up and down, the stock market and the auto industry, and the presidency of Obama.
Franti is not an activist only through music. Other than his trip to the Middle East and his many other travels through the world which have helped shape his global political perspective, Franti works with the charitable cause Ubuntu Education Fund, has promoted Vegan diets, has promoted being barefoot, and followed the Occupy Wall Street movement during one of Michael Franti and Spearhead's tours.
Franti has two sons: Ade and Cappy. He is married to emergency room nurse and jewelry designer Sara Agah. He was previously married to Tara Franti-Rye from 1998 until 2004, she is the mother of Ade.
Inspired by his son, Franti became a vegan.
In 2000, Franti decided not to wear any shoes, initially for three days. Since then, he has chosen to go barefoot except for occasionally wearing flip-flops as required to board an airplane or to be served in a restaurant. Franti prefers bare feet.
Franti's music was featured twice on HBO's urban drama The Wire. "Oh My God" and "Rock The Nation", both from the album Stay Human, were used in two different episodes during the series' first season. Franti's song "Everybody Ona Move" was featured in the pilot episode of Privileged on the CW in 2008 and also in a 2009 PlayStation 3 commercial. "Yell Fire" was used to promote the FX channel series Rescue Me and was also used in the closing credits of the pilot episode of Virtuality on Fox. Showtime's Weeds featured Franti's song "Ganja Babe" in its first season, his interpretation of the Weeds theme song "Little Boxes" in Season 3, and "Say Hey" during a flash mob scene in the premiere episode of Season 5. Boston Red Sox centerfielder Shane Victorino uses the song "Light up Ya Lighter" as his batter walk-up music. "Say Hey (I Love You)" was used on the third episode of NBC's series Mercy, as well as in the opening scene of the 2010 film Valentine's Day. The same song was also used in 2010 in a commercial for Corona Light beer. The song is also featured on the soundtrack of EA Sports game, 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.
He appeared as himself in the 2010 music documentary Sounds Like A Revolution.
"I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)" was featured on the "Arrival" official trailer for The Sims 4 during Gamescom 2013 at the Cologne Trade Fair in Cologne, Germany on August 20, 2013. It was also featured in the launch trailer for Rayman Legends.
Franti collaborated with Slacker Radio, picking the tunes and providing commentaries, to create a radio station playing his favorite artists.