Sunny Sunday smile

Pub date September 14, 2010

MUSIC Michael Franti has definite ideas on the best manner in which to enjoy his music. "I wanna see you jumping!" the dreadlocked star of conscious pop music repeats numerous times throughout last weekend’s Power to the Peaceful concert in Golden Gate Park. But the crowd of 80,000 doesn’t mind — in fact, judging from the beaming faces in Speedway Meadow, Franti’s fervent messaging, mixed with liberal doses of dub sounds, reggae, hip-hop, and sunshine positivity, is the reason they came to the event in the first place.

Good thing, because Franti’s touch is everywhere. He started Power to the Peaceful in 1998 in Dolores Park to promote advocacy for death row prisoner-activist Mumia Abu Jamal. The concert’s date, Sept. 11, was chosen to highlight the urgency of Abu Jamal’s release, though now the event also honors victims of the World Trade Center attacks. Franti’s earnest odes to social justice attracted a crowd of 3,500 that first year, and twice that the next. Now Power to the Peaceful is a three-day event (Sept. 10-12) that includes mass yoga sessions, social justice organizations, and a weekend of benefit concerts at the Fillmore.

The vibe is feel-good to the point of theatrics. Throughout Saturday’s program, there was much turning to one’s neighbor and embracing. That many people wishing the world peace in synchronicity is heady, no doubt — but at one point during the yoga (while we are helping our partners, who are lying on their bellies, to "fly") I catch four face-painted Juggalos sniggering at the sheer compassion of it all.

"In order to sustain your activism, you have to have something inside you." Mid-interview, the six-foot, six-inch Franti is sitting cross-legged at my knee in a tapestried tent behind Saturday’s main stage. "It’s easy to get frustrated — you have to have something in your life to give you that fire." He smiles with the same easy grace he bestows throughout the weekend on everyone from toddlers to police officers. He likens PTTP to the battery recharging stations found in airport terminals.

This kind of spiritual activism and change through the shaking of hips hasn’t always been Franti’s modus operandi. At the start of his career, as an adopted kid in the Bay Area sick of hearing the n-word thrown at him (Franti’s birth father is Native American-black; his birth mother white), he called his first group the Beatnigs. Their hip-hop industrial punk songs railed against Ronald Reagan and the CIA.

But over the years, the anger behind Franti’s voice segued into something else. Sample lyric: "Even our worst enemies/ They deserve music." That music he slaps his guitar to, prances across the stage with, and compels us to jump in last weekend’s September sun is less "them" and more "us."

Which isn’t to say he’s given up on making a difference. Before his 2006 album Yell Fire (Anti) Franti, a staunch opponent of U.S. wars in the Middle East, took his show on the road to Iraq, Palestine, and Israel. He played for anyone who’d listen, from war zone families to American troops.

He’s still talking about the issues, just changing the approach. His most recent offering is The Sound of Sunshine (Capitol), whose album cover’s sweet scrawl of a boombox smiling bears the Franti signature. Live performances are ecstatic, infectious recitations of all things beautiful: multiculturalism, celebration, and the line "How ya feeeelin!" — a trademark he booms 11 times on Saturday.

By the family matinee concert Sunday at the Fillmore (a benefit for Hunter’s Point Family, a support center in the neighborhood that Franti has called home for 14 years), it’s clear that his appeal goes beyond the straightforward lyrics and infectious glee of his hits, which make a perfect fit for the little ones hoisted on their parents’ shoulders. He knows — as we do — the world’s got problems. But we do ourselves no favors if we don’t meet them with a smile.