Michael Franti & Spearhead stage a benefit for MountainTrue and French Broad Riverkeeper

STAY HUMAN-SCALE: Musician, poet, rapper and activist Michael Franti has a reputation for successfully combining positive messages, activism and upbeat music. His latest and 10th album with his band Spearhead, 'Stay Human Vol. II,' reliably delivers those qualities. Photo by Anthony Thoen

Michael Franti is well-known for many talents: playing guitar, rapping, songwriting, and poetry. He’s also renowned for his commitment to social change, world peace and environmental issues; his activism and musical pursuits have long been intertwined. The artist combines music and activism yet again when he and his band, Spearhead, perform a Thursday, July 18, concert at Salvage Station to benefit Western North Carolina environmental and conservation nonprofit MountainTrue and the French Broad Riverkeeper.

MountainTrue is “the primary protector and defender of the French Broad River watershed,” according to its website. Franti says that Salvage Station is the ideal location for the benefit concert because it’s situated “right along a river that … has a history of not such great environmental practices” yet is vitally important to the community.

Franti is a frequent visitor to Asheville and a popular concert draw. “It’s a bastion of progressive politics and creative people,” he says, noting that he tries to visit one of the city’s hot yoga centers whenever he’s in town. “Asheville’s a place that is really inspiring to people all around the country.”

The concert is Franti’s second benefit for MountainTrue. He says that locally focused initiatives can have an advantage over national or global projects: “A lot of times when we look at the issue of human-caused climate change, we go on these big-picture things that are really hard to understand — billions of tons of carbon in the air and stuff like that. It’s hard to get your head around it.”

Franti believes that grassroots, ground-level issues can resonate more deeply with people. “When you see the river and there’s foam or tires or a shopping cart in it, that makes [the issue] so much more concrete,” he says. “So that’s why we love supporting local organizations who are doing great stuff.”

He admits that, sometimes, his fans look to him for cues regarding which causes to support. “But I prefer that, rather than me telling people who they should support, [they] take on the idea that it’s good to be on the side of the planet, on the side of teachers and educators,” he says.

“I want people to base their decisions on their heart and their connection to people and the planet more than I want to tell people who to vote for or what organizations to support,” he says.

Because there’s so much work to be done on issues of peace, justice and environmental causes, Franti recognizes that choosing activist organizations to support can be a challenge. “We get approached by tons of groups,” he says. The decision often comes down to a few factors. “Part of it is our bandwidth,” he says, “and part of it is how organized the group is in getting an event together that will have impact.”

Ultimately, Franti chooses to lend his name and support to efforts backed by passion: “At the end of the day, it’s just [about] finding people who are passionate about the same things that I am, and who are doing things that have local and immediate impact.”

He has definite ideas as to why music and musicians can be such a powerful force for good. “Music is the sound of feelings,” he says. “A politician can come onstage and read off statistics or whatever, but if [someone] tells you a story that makes you feel something about life that you connect with, they’re going to be more effective in what they do.”

Franti says that music really does resonate with people. “It does that literally, on a cellular level,” he says. “When we hear or feel a bass line, it’s passing through our body; it’s vibrating everything that’s around us. And if it makes you feel good, it’s changing you in that moment.” Paired with lyrics that deliver a message, the result can be life-altering.

He isn’t dissuaded by those who would suggest musicians should stay away from activism. “I grew up in a family where every single one of us five kids was taught to be civic-minded,” Franti says. “If there was something you saw that was wrong, you were supposed to speak up about it. And if there are things going right, the same thing: You should be singing those praises.”

While the health of the French Broad River watershed is his focus issue for this concert, Franti says that he wants to be on the right side of history, no matter what the cause. Mentioning current news reports about immigrant children being held in detention camps, he says, “When my grandkids ask me, ‘What were you doing?’ I want to be able to say, ‘This was something that I was against, and I was vocal about it.’”

WHO: Michael Franti & Spearhead
WHERE: Salvage Station, 466 Riverside Drive, salvagestation.com
WHEN: Thursday, July 18, at 7 p.m. $32

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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