Real Leaders

Michael Franti: Creating a Better World Through the Power of Words

Musician Michael Franti has a deep understanding of the hurtful and healing power of words.

Michael Franti didn’t want to tell his mother the bad name he’d been called at kindergarten that day. The last time he’d said a bad word in front of her, he had his mouth washed out with soap. “Was it the ‘S-word’?” his mother asked. “No,” replied a five-year-old Franti, shifting uncomfortably. “Was it the F-word?” she continued. “No,” replied an increasingly nervous Michael. “Was it the A-word?” “No, mom,” replied Franti, “Someone called me the N-word.” His shocked mother thought for a moment and then said, “Son, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.”

Today, the world-renowned musician, humanitarian, filmmaker, and activist tends to disagree. “I’ve come to realize that words can harm you. Words can become deeds,” he says. His guitar is always nearby and accompanies his  enthusiastic, uplifting lyrics that he uses to raise the social consciousness of fans around the world. With songs titled “Stay Human,” “I’m Alive,” “The Sound of Sunshine,” and his trademark catchphrase, “Work Hard & Be Nice,” Franti wants millions of swaying and clapping people to cast their sticks and stones aside and use words to heal the wounds of a divided society. Franti has also taken the phrase “being grounded” to new heights. In 2000, after seeing people who couldn’t afford  shoes on his global travels, he decided not to wear any shoes to see how it felt — initially for three days — but has chosen to go barefoot ever since.

Franti’s heritage is Irish, German, Belgian, African-American, and Native-American — from his biological parents. At birth, he was given up for adoption to a Finnish-American couple. You might say that Michael Franti is a true global citizen. His earliest memories are of being raised in a multi-ethnic family in a diverse neighborhood of Oakland, California, with a mother who was fierce about showing empathy for the neighborhood’s kids. “Every day, she stressed that I needed to be my own person, yet also be humble and kind to others,” he recalls.  

Today, sitting with his wife Sara Agah, of Iranian heritage, at their boutique resort called Soulshine Bali, they have a mantra by which they live: Be your best, serve the greater good, and rock out wherever you are. “We want to take the life lessons we’ve learned and do good with it,” says Franti. “And, of course, have fun along the way.”   

The musician’s first political recollection was Richard Nixon resigning in 1974 when Franti was eight-years-old. “He came on TV, waving his fingers around and saying, ‘I’m not a crook!’” recalls Franti with a laugh. From an early age, images of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement made Franti aware that broader social justice values can become a part of your family and personal values too.  

“My lyrics are about things that either break my heart or fill it with joy,” he explains. Franti built the resort from the ground up. His inspiration was to create a place where people from around the world could come together to connect, transform, play, and hit the reset button. “We reckoned that if my music ever dried up, we’d still have the hotel. But then the pandemic struck.”

Suddenly, concerts and tours evaporated, and tourists stopped beating a path to Soulshine Bali. “Sara and myself wondered how we would keep the lights on,” says Franti. “But then it struck me — it’s not only about how we keep the lightbulbs burning, but also how we keep a light burning in our hearts during a time of global crisis — knowing that we’ll get through this despite the uncertainty.” Franti stops for a moment to ponder his words, then grabs his guitar to illustrate the point:

I’m trying to keep the lights on

I’m trying to keep the lights on

The days get darker and the nights get long

I just keep waking up to the same old song

And that same old voice in my head is still running around

The clock tick-tocks, and the whole world stops

And the bills I got keep on piling up

Trying to keep up but, it’s starting to get me down

You see, I’m just one in seven billion

Just trying to keep the lights on

Inspiration can hit at any time for Franti. “Usually, I get an idea from something I’ve seen in the world; then I have a conversation with myself about it. The lyrics just flow from there. Music is the sound of feelings, and the melody I wrap around the words is just as important as the message.”

Franti believes that words matter. “Your choice of words in a relationship can exactly mirror what you mean, or can be wildly misconstrued,” he says. The same thing applies to a song or when a politician makes a speech. How words are used can affect how people feel — whether they feel loved or hated on. Social media’s tribalism has forced everyone into many different groups, but if they sat together, they’d discover how much they have in common. We’re far more alike than we are different.”

The premise of Franti’s 2019 documentary Stay Human is that there is no one you wouldn’t love if you knew their story. Agah’s parents were refugees from Iran, and she grew up first-generation Canadian but identified strongly with Franti’s values when they first met. “Both our families believed that serving the greater good and giving back to society is what brings purpose to life,” she says. “When we found each other, we realized that differences have value too. People should realize that you can use different words but be trying to say the same thing.”

A profound experience moved Franti a few years ago, making him realize that his music could change business strategies and save lives. He played with country singer Zac Brown on a cruise ship in front of a predominantly white, conservative audience when a woman approached him. She had seen a film where Franti had traveled to Iraq, playing to Iraqis during the day and American soldiers at night. “She knew how against the war I was,” recalls Franti. “But she also knew that I’d gone to Walter Reed hospital numerous times to play for wounded veterans.” The woman then explained that she worked for a company that manufactured missiles for combat helicopters. Moved by Franti’s actions, she had gone to her company’s leaders and said, “We’re making weapons that destroy people’s lives, yet we are doing nothing for even our people, the veterans.” The weapons company subsequently started a veteran’s program.

“We blame many social problems, such as climate change, on business and industry,” says Franti. “But who better to solve these problems than business itself? It’s already in their DNA to find opportunistic solutions that make money.”

According to Franti, a broad set of skills will be needed to help solve the enormous social and environmental issues we see around us in the world today. “We need the wisdom of indigenous people, cooperation between governments, the best that science has to offer, the creativity and adventurous spirit of entrepreneurs, the spending power of everyday people, and those dedicated to getting the word out,” he says. Words, of course, is where Franti comes in.

“Country music legend Kenny Chesney asked me to join him on tour in 2020, but then the pandemic hit, so we had to postpone it to 2021,” he says. “I hesitated at first, as it didn’t seem the right audience for me, but Sara said, ‘Yes, this is exactly where you need to be — in front of an audience that will experience something different from you, that can open hearts and minds.’”

As Franti prepares for the tour, he’s focusing on songs that will touch people’s hearts with values that we all share, rather than promoting a singular, partisan view of the world. When we see that image of Franti standing barefoot alongside Chesney in cowboy boots before a cheering crowd, we’ll know that he has worked his word magic once again.

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