On their new release All Rebel Rockers, Michael Franti and Spearhead have done their best to channel the insurgent spirit of that most insurgent style of music: reggae. To be sure, Franti has always let the inspiration of Marley, Brown and Toots shine through in his eclectic mix of influences. But this time around he lays it on thick: recording the album in
Franti pulls it off too. Maybe it’s the way he does it with a flair all his own, singeing the edges of each song with flavors of hip-hop, soul, or electro-funk. Maybe it’s that guests like Zap Mama and dancehall mainstay Cherine Anderson bring a spirit of fun and collaboration to the album. Or maybe it’s because the sound of proud rebellion in the face of Heavy Manners is exactly what we need right now.
In a recent interview, Franti laid out the intent behind All Rebel Rockers:"The war and the dangerous place our economy is in right now have been in the minds of everybody and sometimes we get frustrated with how things are going…
“This record is one that is just to help people stay inspired and not get down and not feel so discouraged about their lives or the world around them that they don’t want to participate anymore."
From the looks of it, a good amount of people are looking for just that kind of encouragement. All Rebel Rockers debuted in mid-September at number 39 on the Billboard charts, Franti and Spearhead’s best showing yet.
The defiant uplift of reggae—its bouncy, unbending confidence in the face of adversity and injustice—are front and center on All Rebel Rockers. “Rude Boys Back In Town” kicks it off in this vein with Franti launching not into a firebrand rant, but a story of stumbling into a house party. The Desmond Dekker influence is so palpable you can almost hear Franti drift into a patois here. “Rude Boys” is most definitely a textbook reggae joint, telling a simple story of unity and camaraderie replete with gritty street-wit.
With that, he sets the stage for “A Little Bit of Riddim,” a fast-paced, sweaty anthem of injustice and resistance. Cherine Anderson’s toasting brings a great deal of hip-swinging swagger and attitude to this track as Franti freely speaks his mind on… well, just about everything:
“Remember the time before
Every day wasn’t news of a holy war
When the people wasn’t ‘fraid to tell you what they want
Ev’rybody in the city always had a home
When a bomb wasn’t goin’ off ev’ryday
When the rain didn’t have to mean a hurricane
When the government wasn’t list’nin to ya calls
When a border didn’t have to mean a concrete wall”
Franti and Anderson’s frequent refrain of “I’m a human being y’all” simply caps off that head-held-high, fist-in-the-air spirit and makes this song a highlight of the album.
The same can be said punk inflected bounce of “Hey World (Remote Control Version),” where distorted guitars pump forward a steady riff while Franti urges the listener to “put up a fight.”
The album stumbles at times. Franti takes a break halfway through with three lover’s rock tracks that come up just a bit short in bringing anything original to the clichéd forum of love songs. This goes to show that Franti is at his best when he’s either tackling the world’s ills or reminding us what we’re fighting for. These tracks could have been an example of the latter, but the placement as three in a row means they serve more as a detour.
He gets right back on track, though. “Soundsystem” is thumping and bass-driven, with almost a hint of menace to it. The soft acoustics of “Nobody Right, Nobody Wrong,” and “Have a Little Faith,” are a nice close to an album whose theme seems to revolve around the things that make being human so worthwhile.
Ultimately, All Rebel Rockers delivers something that so few other recordings can right now. At a time when everything from bad debt to war to outright bigotry can make so many of us feel less than human, Franti has culled the depths of music that has always been unapologetic about its own humanity. Reggae doesn’t need Michael Franti to keep its soul alive, but there are probably a lot of souls in this country who do.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and socialist living in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to ZNet, Dissident Voice and SleptOn.com. His article on censorship in hip-hop is included in the anthology At Issue: Should Music Lyrics Be Censored For Violence and Exploitation? published by Greenhaven Press.