From Nina Simone to Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone to Bob Marley, soul music has a healthy history of subversiveness and social protest. In this grand tradition of soul rebels comes Michael Franti, whose third album with his band Spearhead, Stay Human, is an uplifting missive to the masses, a call for freedom, justice and equality lovingly delivered through a lengthy soul, funk and hip-hop celebration.
Franti combined pointed social criticism and music in his two previous groups — the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. While both used industrial rhythms and poetry, the latter made a bigger impact by incorporating hip-hop into the mix, a fact that got their videos a decent amount of airplay on both MTV and BET. Over their first two albums Home and Chocolate Supa Highway, remarkable both for Franti’s articulate, right-on-target social observations and for a wealth of upbeat, funk-based jams, Spearhead shifted the musical emphasis away from just hip-hop, toward a mix of R&B, funk and reggae, while moving the lyrical focus towards the positive, putting calls for unity, peace and community action in place of the Disposable Heroes’ statistic-based litanies.
On Stay Human, Franti ups the political message and the positive message, by both calling out what’s wrong with our society and calling for an alternate course based on love and understanding. Throughout the album, he disavows cynicism or hatred and advances social action based in the idea that every human being is important and should be treated with respect. “Every single soul is a poem / Written on the back of God’s hand,” he sings on one track.
Franti’s message is both uplifting and rooted in an awareness of the grimmest facts about society today, which makes Stay Human feel even more relevant. While his lyrics are both timely and powerful, the album’s power lies as much in the superbly crafted grooves and songs, which are the best Franti has delivered yet. Stay Human never falls back on generic sounds or puts the music behind the lyrics in terms of importance. The music throughout is funky and sublime; it taps into the best moments of American soul music’s history, including P-Funk (on the title track), Motown (“Sometimes”), electro-funk (“Rock the Nation”), Latin soul (“Soulshine”), Curtis Mayfield-style protest ballads (“We Don’t Mind”) and the uplifting community sound of Sly & and the Family Stone (throughout).
Franti’s key issues remain economic disparities, the media and the criminal justice system — this album has a particular emphasis on the latter two, with a series of faux radio-broadcasts about a fictional death penalty case used as segues. Instead of being filler or annoyances (as most “skits” on albums are), these segments provide yet another real-life context for Franti’s messages by framing them within a story that is not that far removed from cases of today. The storyline also complements the mood of the album; as Sister Fatima’s case takes a downturn, the songs get more serious in tone, dealing with important questions about trying to live in accordance with one’s beliefs, and about how to deal with the coldest, hardest facts of life.
On Stay Human, Michael Franti and Spearhead motivate both feet and minds. They attain one of the most energetic, rapturous soul party sounds you’ve heard while delivering tough social critiques that eschew both an “us versus them” mentality and a doom-and-gloom attitude in favor of universal love and goodwill towards all. All of Franti’s bands inevitably and unfortunately get tagged as “alternative”, since he doesnt fit snugly within the mainstream hip-hop or R&B worlds of today. But while the “alternative” tag is useless to describe his genre-melding brand of soul music, it does fit Franti in terms of perspective. Unfortunately, Franti’s beliefs and ideas are of the type that always get left out of the discussion by today’s homogenous, corporate-controlled media. Stay Human presents a truly significant alternative perspective on the world, while tearing the roof off with funk grooves and soothing your being with the sounds of sweet soul.