In creating their ninth studio album SOULROCKER, Michael Franti & Spearhead introduced a new sensibility to their potent hybrid of hip-hop, rock, folk, and reggae: a gracefully arranged take on electronic music that more than fulfills the band’s mission of making impassioned music you can dance to. Along with harnessing the Bay Area-based band’s dynamic energy for a more powerful impact than ever before, SOULROCKER again shows Franti’s singular ability to channel frustration into music that’s both thought-provoking and triumphantly hopeful.
“Right now is a very challenging time for people, for our nation and the planet,” says Franti, a longtime activist and past recipient of Global Exchange’s Domestic Human Rights Award. “But I really believe that music can help fight war and violence and hatred. The world needs that more than ever now, so my intention with this album was to make music that could bring people together.”
While each selection on SOULROCKER began with Franti working out melodies on his acoustic guitar, many of the album’s songs ultimately evolved into beat-powered tracks that reveal a close and nuanced understanding of the electronic genre. “One of the first records I had as a kid was a Kraftwerk seven-inch that I got from the giveaway bin at the UC Davis radio station KDVS,” recalls Franti, who grew up in Davis. “We always do a DJ set at the end of our shows, and I wanted to try bringing in those dance and electronic elements but still keep the organic instrumentation that I’ve always loved.”
In a departure from the largely self-produced albums that comprise the rest of the Spearhead catalog, the band made SOULROCKER in collaboration with Jamaican producers Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor (son of reggae luminary Freddie McGregor) and Dwayne “Supa Dups” Chin Quee (known for his work with artists like Bruno Mars and John Legend). Though much of the album came to life on the road and in Franti’s home, the band also recorded in Miami’s Circle House Studios, a facility owned by the legendary reggae band Inner Circle. “It was a really vibrant place to be,” says Franti. “Talking with the Inner Circle guys about old recordings and when they played with people like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. We felt like we were taking in generations of musical wisdom.”
True to the life-affirming spirit of reggae—and to Spearhead’s longtime commitment to using music as an agent of positive change—SOULROCKER builds off its groove-heavy sound with lyrics that boost consciousness. “The main theme on the album is this idea that we all go through life wanting to be prosperous and do what we love, but where we really find purpose is in serving the greater good and giving something back,” says Franti. “The record’s all about encouraging people to stay on that path, which is where the title comes from—a Soulrocker is someone who lives from the heart with compassion for all, and who’s got tenacious enthusiasm for music, life and the planet.” That message has already been fiercely embraced by fans, as Franti points out. “Before we even finished the album we started playing a lot of these songs live,” he notes. “After a while people started turning up at shows with T-shirts that had lyrics to songs we hadn’t even released yet, which was amazing to see.”
Thanks to the gutsy mix of sensitivity and candor in Franti’s lyrics, as well as his warm yet commanding vocal presence, SOULROCKER takes on the weightiest of issues but still infuses each song with a profound sense of hope. With its bright synth and intense beat, “Looking for a Way to Saturday” beautifully embodies SOULROCKER’’s mood of mindful determination (“There is a part of me that can’t go on today/and there is a part of me that always finds a way”). From there, SOULROCKER slides into “Good to Be Alive Today,” an acoustic-guitar driven track that backs its breezy groove with piercing lyrics that touch on everything from climate change, ISIS, and drone strikes to gun violence, joblessness, and political corruption. “When I read the news every morning, it feels like the whole world’s gone completely crazy,” says Franti. “‘Good to Be Alive Today’ is about recognizing that even though things are tough, there are still moments of victory, which usually come from doing something that makes other people feel good.”
Also proving Franti’s ingenuity in crafting lyrics that heighten awareness without ever slipping into heavy-handedness, “We Are Earthlings” brilliantly fuses dance beats and gospel harmonies in its soulful serenade to the planet, while “My Lord” sets its takedown of spiritual intolerance to a heady blend of warped synth and cascading guitar lines. Elsewhere on SOULROCKER, Spearhead turns personal with songs like “Crazy for You” (a joyful, horn-backed ode to Franti’s wife) and “Once a Day” (an infectiously celebratory reggae jam inspired by Franti’s family drawing closer together in dealing with his son Adé’s struggle with a rare chronic kidney disease). “Love Will Find a Way,” is a gorgeously sprawling anthem that Franti penned in the aftermath of the November 2015 Paris attacks. “I've always advocated for peace in my music, because I do believe it’s possible to reduce the violence, one moment at a time,” says Franti. “We’ll probably never fix all of these problems, but the fact that we’re able to walk down the street on any given day is a testament to the millions of people before us who tried their best to create peace. I put that song on this album as a reminder of that.”
Formed in 1994, Spearhead was born as the latest in a series of musical projects that also included Franti’s industrial/hardcore act the Beatnigs and his groundbreaking hip-hop duo Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The band released their debut album in September 1994, and over the next two decades gained a massive following across the globe, bolstered by the smash success of “Say Hey (I Love You”) (a 2009 single that hit #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and appeared on Spearhead’s sixth studio album All Rebel Rockers). Through the years, Franti has also dedicated himself to activism and filmmaking, with his 2005 documentary I Know I’m Not Alone chronicling his journey to Iraq, Palestine, and Israel and offering a seldom-seen look at war’s toll on everyday people.
Once an outlier in his message of positivity-minded political consciousness, Franti has found that message gaining momentum in the mainstream in recent years - a phenomenon that compelled him to push his artistry even further on SOULROCKER. “I feel a deeper sense of purpose in music today than I ever have in my career,” he says. “The album’s really about me challenging myself and growing, and just trying to make the most inspiring music I possibly can for this intense, crazy and wonderful time we’re all living in.”