By Mike Ragsdale
This article appears in 30A’s Beach Happy Magazine.
It’s already tomorrow in Bali.
“I can report back to you that the future is awesome,” said Michael Franti, some 14 hours ahead of our time zone. “We’ve already worked out the whole COVID thing for you. Cancer solved. World peace. It’s all done.”
Like his mood-lifting lyrics, Franti’s jesting words feel reassuring. And despite a globe of distance between us, his ZOOM-ed voice rings crystal clear, as if he was sitting here in the room with me.
“This pandemic has blessed me with the opportunity to get all the technical gear I need to be a digital nomad,” he explained.
Blessed? Even for a professional poet, it would be difficult to spin the word “pandemic” into a happy hook.
Quarantines. Plexiglass dividers. Masks. Shut-downs. Social isolation. Economic hardship. Illness. And worse. Yet, for every pessimist churned out by the seemingly ruthless 2020 machine, an optimist emerged with equally fervorous conviction.
“People say to me that this is a hard time. It’s a stressful time. It’s a challenging time. But I like to think of it as an important time,” said Franti. “The whole world has been asked to hit the pause button and look inside our hearts and say, how am I showing up for life right now? How am I showing up for my own personal health, the health of my family, the economic health of our communities, and the health of the entire planet? Are there things that I could be doing personally to make my own health and my family’s life better, and are there things that I could be doing to make the world better?”
Trying to make the world a better place is nothing new to Franti. In 2010, he and his wife co-founded Soulshine, a holistic retreat in Ubud, Bali, for yogis, and just about anyone else looking for a restful respite from the world’s woes. Franti spent almost all of 2020 locked-down with his wife, Sara, and their children, in a lush tropical paradise, playing basketball, practicing yoga, and tending to his crops.
“We grow organic rice, fruits, and vegetables,” he said. “We’re surrounded by farms in Bali, but very little of the farming is done organically and people here pay a price for it. There are a lot of people with tumors and various forms of cancer that have been living very natural lives, working in fields their whole life. So we dedicated our farm to growing organically, and it’s become a passion of mine to learn how to do that. I never thought I’d be a farmer at age 50.”
As a family man, musician, entrepreneur, yogi, political activist, documentarian, hotelier, and now farmer, Franti wears many hats, if no shoes. He permanently gave shoes the boot in 2000, now wearing flip-flops only, when absolutely forced to, such as on a plane. Throughout all those endeavors, music has been the common thread that’s woven throughout his multifaceted career.
A far cry from 2006’s revolution-inciting Yell Fire! album, Franti 2020’s release — Work Hard and Be Nice — is almost completely devoid of political angst or undercurrent. It’s a happy album. A very happy album.
“When I first started in music, I was always pointing a finger at what was happening in the world and expressing my anger about those problems,” said Franti. “But as I grew as a person, I started to realize there were areas I could have more effect on.”
For example, early on, Franti had written a number of songs about the injustices of our prison system. “I’d never personally spent time in prison, thankfully, but in the early 1990s, I was invited to play in a prison in New York. It was eye-opening for me.”
Franti performed in a section where the prisoners with AIDS were being held. “You had people who were handcuffed to their beds and dying,” said Franti. “It was a really sad and dire situation to see.”
So, Franti did his thing. Believing we should be investing more in education than incarceration, he began performing his original songs about injustice and the need for reform. “But then this guy (an inmate) said to me, ‘I really appreciate all these songs that you wrote, but I really miss my girlfriend. I wish you’d sing a song about how much I miss my girlfriend.’”
Franti later performed walking along the war-torn streets of Iraq, Israel and the Gaza Strip.
“I would sing my songs about the horrors of war and people would be like, ‘Hey man, we want to dance! We want to laugh! We want to sing!’”
Because of his life experiences, Franti found the need to rethink how his music serves others.
“Growing up, there were moments when I had suicidal thoughts or struggled with depression when my father was at the peak of his alcoholism,” he recalled. “I had some people in my life that were there to inspire me to find that optimism. I also had music in my life that helped me get there.
So whether it’s farming, running a hotel, or making music, my goal is the same: to inspire optimism in people. That’s really what my passion is.”
Despite today’s polarized political landscape, Franti believes there are common values that we all hold dear. He believes if we can unite on those common values, we can start to have important conversations about the environment, healthcare, immigration, and all the other awful things we witness on the nightly news. For Franti, two of those common values are working hard and being nice.
“I’m hard-pressed to find anybody who doesn’t think those two things are important,” he said. “To work hard at whatever it is that you’re trying to do, but to also be kind to other people.”
Franti said he now writes all of his songs about optimism and getting through life’s many challenges. But that doesn’t mean he side-steps important issues.
“I think, in order to write a great happy song, you have to talk about the hard stuff,” he said. “And then you see the transformation.”
“Life is really tough, but I can still find gratitude. I can still find joy in the difficult moments. And even though things aren’t perfect, we can try to get there.”
Even a song as irresistibly cheerful as his 2010 hit The Sound of Sunshine comes from a place of personal struggle:
I wake up in the morning at six o’clock.
They say there may be rain, but the sun is hot.
I wish I had some time just to kill today.
I wish I had a dime for every bill I got to pay.
“That song has been in commercials for resorts and all kinds of stuff, but it came from a time when I was really struggling both financially and musically,” he said, recalling when his appendix ruptured on tour, throwing him into personal and professional depression.
Barring malfunctioning organs and global pandemics, Franti and his merry band are typically on the road six to seven months out of the year, with a goal of leaving behind just as many smiles as they do miles.
“I really believe that part of your success as a musician is not only the sound you leave behind but the feeling you leave behind,” he said. “We show up with all our gear and we meet this local crew that we don’t know, and we’ve all got to get along really quick, and we’ve got to put on a great show, and then we’ve got to pack up and leave everybody feeling great — not just in the audience, but behind the stage.”
To help foster a strong work ethic and warm demeanor within his crew, Franti came up with a motto for their last pre-COVID tour: “Work hard and be nice.” He made t-shirts for his band and crew with that emblazoned slogan in bold type.
“As soon as the guys in the band and crew were wearing them, fans started asking for them too,” he said. “So we put the shirts out on our merch table, and even though it wasn’t the name of the tour or the album, it became our top-selling shirt by far. So, I thought, I should write a song and make our next tour about this.”
Franti said another lightbulb moment in his career was when he realized the best thing you can do to create energy in the hearts of other people is to be authentic yourself.
“People can see a mile away when you’re not showing up as you,” he said. “It’s not only challenging for you to get your message across, but it’s challenging for you as an individual because you’re constantly comparing yourself to other people and thinking, man, I wish my music sounded like this other person’s music, or I should wear this person’s kind of clothes, or I have to show up in some way different than the way I am.”
Instead, Franti believes you should focus on being your best and most authentic self. He once asked his friend Sammy Hagar how he achieved so much success with his Cabo Wabo-brand bars and tequila.
Sammy told him, “You know, Mike, I just built a bar that I wanted to hang out at. That was it. That’s all I do. I don’t think about what other people’s expectations are. I figure there will be enough people in the world who like what I do.”
Be yourself. Keep putting yourself into whatever it is that you do. Make it enjoyable for you, and there will be other people who also find joy in it. For Franti, these aren’t just memes or lyrics or t-shirt slogans.
“My wife and I have a family motto inscribed inside our wedding rings: ‘Be your best, serve the greater good and rock out wherever you are.’ That doesn’t mean be the best. It means be your best. What can you learn today that you didn’t know yesterday? How can I be 1% better than I was yesterday?”
2020 is now yesterday, making way for a new year and new opportunities. But life will inevitably continue to present us with unique and unforeseen challenges.
“We held a cremation ceremony for 2020 at our hotel. We built a giant 2020 out of wood and set it on fire.”
“It was just a funny way of saying 2020 was a rough year and we want to move on, but of course, there’s no guarantee that the days ahead will be any better,” said Franti.
After all, a pandemic is a biological concern, one that doesn’t simply “go away” just because we turn a page on human construct calendars. Even if COVID-19 does fade into the pages of unfortunate history, all our otherworldly woes are still there: climate change, racial tensions, economic hardships.
“These things aren’t going to go away immediately, so the answer to me is that we have to change our perspective on the way we see things,” said Franti. “You can either wake up with the attitude of, ‘Oh man, I have to get up today and go to work.’ Or, you can wake up and be grateful that you’re able to get up – that you get another day in life. My advice is to switch that wording around. Change your attitude from ‘I have to do things’ to ‘I get to do things’ and see how it changes your life.”
Like most of us, happiness doesn’t always come naturally to Franti. He believes we all have to work at it.
“There isn’t a day that I wake up when I don’t feel like there’s an angel and the devil on different shoulders,” he said. “One side is the cynicism that’s like, man, this world is so messed up. And then there’s the other side: I’m never going to give up on it. I’m going to keep trying to do my part to make it better. Steph Curry doesn’t just show up at the basketball game to make that critical last-second free throw,” said Franti. “He goes up there knowing that he practiced every day to prepare himself for those moments. That’s how we have to be with our happiness and our optimism. We have to practice flipping that switch of our attitudes so when we do get in those moments that are challenging for us, we can take a deep breath and approach this with mindfulness and happiness and joy in our heart.”
It’s hard work to be happy. But it’s also rewarding work.
“I don’t think that being a beach happy person and being a conscious person are incongruous,” said Franti. “In fact, I think the more conscious we are, the happier we can be.”
This article appears in 30A’s Beach Happy Magazine, available at Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Publix, Kroger, and other major outlets nationwide, as well as in high-traffic locations along the Gulf Coast. Subscribe now to have print issues delivered to your home or enjoy the free digital edition.