Singer and activist Michael Franti brings love to the cause

Although he says his approach has mellowed, the American musician emphasises that his social commitment is as firm as ever.

Michael Franti says Spearhead concerts have started to attract ‘everyone from six to 60’.
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Michael Franti's dreadlocks hang way past his waist. He does not wear shoes. The American singer and activist has been mixing music and politics since the 1980s, slowly building a loyal international following as he challenged US government policies while promoting vegan diets and yoga. While some might dismiss Franti as a "hippy", his smooth features and mellow persona suggest a man content with both life and music.

And his music - from initial noisy forays with San Francisco's Bay Area punk Beatnigs group through the polemical rap duo Disposable Heroes of Hiphopricy to his reggae-pop ensemble Spearhead - has slowly made its way from the campus circuit to the mainstream. Today, Franti finds himself capable of packing several-thousand-seat venues across North America and Europe - all without having had to compromise his activist stance.

"Life is good," says Franti, "and right now it appears that people everywhere want to come together to sing and work towards changing things."

The mixed-race singer was born in San Francisco and adopted as a child. Refusing to be categorised as black or white, Franti set about using music as a way of establishing his identity and bringing all kinds of people together. Like his hero, Bob Marley, Franti sings of one love and fighting for your rights. Leading the band Spearhead, he has, like Marley, managed that rare feat of making political songs sexy. And with his 2010 album, The Sound Of Sunshine, finally winning him a vast audience, he appears to be in tune with the mood of the general public. When I catch up with Franti he is in New York - but not to see the sights or hang out in the city's clubs.

"When we were touring in the US we were following the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations," says the softly spoken Franti, "and as soon as we got time off we headed to New York to join the demonstrators. Last night I played a couple of songs and talked to the people demonstrating and it was very inspiring."

Raising his voice is something the 45-year-old musician has been doing ever since he first took to a stage in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. Having initially sung in punk and rap bands, he really made his mark with the founding of Spearhead in 1994, with a reggae flavour and commitment to human rights and social justice.

The Sound of Sunshine has proved Franti's most successful album yet, bringing an artist 25 years into his career a mainstream audience.

"For a long time people would say to me, 'You're just preaching to the converted.' More recently, we've been playing for families. Honestly, we now get everyone from six to 60 coming to our gigs."

On The Sound of Sunshine, Franti drops the activist mantle he has worn for most of his career and sings tender, Caribbean-flavoured love songs. The change was prompted by a near-death experience following a burst appendix.

"Surviving that was a transformative moment and I felt very grateful to be alive. And I wanted to put that in my songs. These songs are just expressions of how good it feels to be alive and be capable of love and I hope these songs can help people through life in a way that, when I was younger, certain songs helped me through dark times."

Franti emphasises that his new-found ability to write love songs has not detracted from his commitment to social justice.

"When I'm visiting places like Haiti and Iraq and singing to the local people, I find that the people want to hear joyful songs. They have enough despair in their lives without people like me singing about it. And this album reflects how I've learnt that lesson."

Franti's activism has taken him to many places. In 2004 he toted an acoustic guitar as he travelled barefoot through Iraq, the West Bank and Gaza, documenting the trip on the DVD I Know I'm Not Alone.

Going into Baghdad was one of the most frightening experiences of his life, says Franti. "But once I got on the street and started to sing, the Iraqis were like everyone else - people who love to be transformed by the power of music."

And what did those people make of Franti?

"Oh," he says with a chuckle, "they thought I was from Africa. They couldn't believe I was American and not a mercenary or contractor."

Even more frightening than Baghdad was Gaza. "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."

The European tour by Michael Franti and Spearhead kicked off in Madrid on Thursday, with dates until October 25.