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Talking the talk, walking the walk 

Michael Franti does more than just sing about social justice

"Those who start wars, they never fight them.

Those who fight wars, they never like them."

-- from the song "Time to Go Home"

As a singer, Michael Franti can say all he wants against the war, but real action comes from doing, not just singing. After all, people might ask, "You talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?" Franti has done both.

Two years ago, Franti grew tired of the television telling him how life was in Baghdad. He wanted to see it for himself. "I got sick of watching the news ... we're dropping these huge bombs and they can tell us how they can blow up five stories under the surface of the earth, but they tell us nothing is happening to people on the ground in Baghdad," he says by phone from a Miami airport. "I was talking with my friends about it over breakfast -- what an absurdity it is that we've spent billions of dollars and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, all in the name of 9/11. All of the changes that have happened around the world in the name of one atrocity, but we're still in a war and now we're ready to go to war with Iran. When is this all gonna end?"

The end result of his trip was a documentary, I Know I'm Not Alone, that has garnered plenty of praise. He said he was scared during both of his trips to the Middle East, but he hopes to go back again next year. "You think of war as an action movie where there's non-stop shooting and firing, but really there are just outbursts and long pauses," Franti says. "In those long pauses, people have to go about their lives. It was a really emotional experience of going there and being an eyewitness to it."

In order to take a break from the emotional side of the project, Franti wrote a children's book, What I Be. He hopes it will teach kids about having good self esteem and learn about their connection to the world, tolerance and the power of words.

Aside from the recent war-related efforts, Franti is best known as the front man for the band Michael Franti & Spearhead. While the band was originally known as Spearhead, a former record label now owns that name, thus the addition of Franti's name. His latest release, Yell Fire! Live, is a 10-track live album that hit shelves on Oct. 9. He knows live music has a different vibe than studio albums.

Franti sometimes tours on his own as a solo acoustic act, but says he tries to include some acoustic songs during his performances with the band, as well. "When you play acoustically, it's not so much about dance and rhythm, as it is the words -- you can hear the words more clearly in the songs. It's a different experience, for sure," he says. "I try to make it be about the music first and the lyrics, you know, carry the seeds that are planted for later."

Franti knows a live show is about the experience and fans don't want to "go hear somebody give a lecture." After years spent as a doorman for a club in San Francisco, Franti says he learned a live show is about having a good time first. "I think that's the reason why all of us go to shows in some way is that amount of elation when you just let go of everything that happened that day and you're just there in that moment."

Two of Franti's signatures are his lack of shoes and his asking, "How ya feeling?" during concerts. As for the shoes, Franti says he just prefers being barefoot, though he'll put flip-flops on for restaurants or on airplanes. He also notes the discrepancy of the people who make shoes not being able to afford them, though he says his barefoot style is not a form of protest.

As for "How ya feeling?" Franti says it's "just a way of interacting with the crowd." While the press at this year's Bonnaroo discussed staring a drinking game based on how many times the phrase was used, Franti notes it's just a way to get a response. "It's different than saying, 'Do you like the music?' 'Do you like dancing?' or 'What did you eat for lunch?'" he says with a laugh. "People won't really respond to that."

Michael Franti & Spearhead will perform at the Neighborhood Theatre on Oct. 17. Blue King Brown will open. Tickets are $22.

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