Righteous Babe | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Righteous Babe

Ani DiFranco on Art, Activism and Life Beyond the Election

Ani DiFranco is a prolific singer, songwriter and guitarist who has produced 20 of her own albums in the past 15 years. She is known for her gripping lyrics, percussive guitar style and highly energized live shows. Spanning many musical genres, from folk-punk to jazz-funk, her very personal music has garnered her a deeply loyal fan base. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1970, she started performing in local bars at the age of 9. Despite offers from major and independent record labels to produce and distribute her music, she formed her own record company, Righteous Babe Records, when she was 19. She has long been committed to making music with integrity and honesty and an openness to move beyond stereotypes and challenge the status quo.

Ani DiFranco tours worldwide much of the year and spent recent months performing in swing states of the U.S. on her Vote Dammit! Tour, where she led the move by musicians to encourage their fans to participate in the political process. Now as the election ends and fans who want know "what is next?" can read at righteousbabe.com about peace and justice organizations to become involved with, as well as independent media sources to pay attention to. Her latest album, "Educated Guess," is a return to her earlier solo sound of guitar and vocals without a band and was recorded on a simple 16-track recorder in her home. In the liner notes, Ani writes, "How can one talk on the role of politics in art when art is activism and anyway both are just a lifelong light shining through a swinging prism?" Ani will be releasing a new album called "Knuckledown" on Jan. 25, 2005. The CD features a full band on most tracks and was co-produced by Joe Henry. Also scheduled for release on Nov. 9 is "Trust," a DVD of Ani's recent live performance in Washington D.C., which includes an appearance by Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich. The following interview was recorded on Oct. 1, 2004, for Free Radio Santa Cruz, a commercial-free, collectively run radio station that operated for almost 10 years without a license until Sept. 29, 2004, when it was raided by FCC agents and 16 armed federal marshals. FRSC can now be heard on the Internet at http://www.freakradio.org

What is it about the current state of the world and this particular election that makes you feel so strongly about encouraging your fans to be politically active and vote? What is at stake?

(Laughter) What is it about the current state of the world? Well, I think that first and foremost it is the government of the United States! (Laughter) … I think that in every desperate situation, such as the political circumstance we find ourselves in these days, with this administration, there are great opportunities for change. Opportunities for dialogue. I guess it is about trying to be smart and strategic and capitalize on that opportunity.

There are just a whole lot of people out there right now becoming aware of the fact that we haven't been participating as citizens of this country. Statistically, the voting participation (has been) so low, especially among young people. To use this crisis as an opportunity to get inspired, to participate once again. To get registered and not just vote this November, but in every election from now on. Sort of a life-style shift in this country, from consumers back to citizens.

There is one popular view of rock and roll—particularly punk rock—that it lives outside of politics and even that there is an apathy among fans about the possibilities of social change. Do you think that holds true anymore, if it ever did?

Oh, geez, I don't know. Talking about apathy or engagement in rock 'n' roll is like talking about "what women want!" I think for every little cultural scene that springs up here and there, with each direction in rock or pop music, there is a different degree of engagement or apathy. I suppose that there are maybe waves of popularity for political sentiment, that type of thing, which I think have less to do with art then with media-dominated popular culture. And it feels to me—and I am a hopeful creature—it feels to me like young people are coming out from under the sort of corporate-consumerist mind control of the mass media and beginning to support and design political art and build a resistance culturally, as well as politically. It seems to me that people are making more room for political music these days. I think that it is probably a cyclical thing, like everything.

You mention that you are feeling hopeful. That you are a hopeful person. How do you keep grounded these days amidst the war and deception? How do you cultivate hope in yourself?

At the same time that all of those horrible, destructive things are happening, there's also amazing things happening. Whether activism or politically engaged art, or just radical art, is popular or supported or affirmed in the major culture or not, it is out there! More and more I try to focus my energies and attention on the people who are doing the good work, who are out there being active and creative and designing alternatives.

Sometimes I show up to venues in cities and people shout out things like, "Talk about George Bush, Ani!" I say, "No! What, are you kidding me? You can turn on any TV station and hear all about him!" What I want to talk about are the other people! The people that the major media is ignoring. Our heroes. The people who are out there to inspire and empower. I think that dedicating my own energy to what I see as constructive and helping people out who are doing great things, that is what keeps me hopeful.

This brings to mind "Grand Canyon," a song on your most recent album, "Educated Guess." You sing on it, "I love my country, by which I mean I am indebted joyfully to all of the people through out its history who have fought the government to make right." Tell me more about that. And, are there particular people that you hold especially inspiring to you?

There are so many! There are so many. We have such a long and glorious activist history, which "Grand Canyon" speaks to. Basically it's a patriotic poem. Again, as you were saying, in this atmosphere of shame and helplessness and anger and complete disillusionment with the political apparatus, I wanted a tool to build hope from the stage. So, I wrote that poem as sort of a patriotic statement. My patriotism being of a democratic variety, as opposed to the fascist version of patriot, which is being put forth by the media and the administration. You know, that a patriot is a blindly accepting non-questioning drone. But, I have a more democratic idea. Patriotism was stated really well [by] Mark Twain: "Loyalty to the country always, loyalty to the government when it deserves it." My patriotism is born of the cultural and activist history of my country. The land, the beautiful land that we inhabit, everything that we hold high about this country, all of the rights and freedoms that we brag about around the world, were fought for by activists. None of them were granted benevolently by power. From the original revolutionaries who overthrew the king up to today and all of the political struggles that citizens are undergoing for justice and for freedom and peace. That is what that poem is about.

My sense is that many of the greatest social movements of the world have had some foundation in spirituality or spiritual growth. I think of the Satygraha movement in India led by Mohandas Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, and Malcolm X. It seems that people often feel that they need to choose between social change or spiritual growth. To choose between addressing their own suffering or addressing the suffering of others. I wonder what your view and experience is with the possibility of integrating the personal and the political, social change and spiritual growth?

Man, I think that is a very deep question. An important one in this 21st century. I would agree with you. The political movements that I know, the Left of my time and place, yes, seems to be one that is in contradiction, or in opposition to, spiritual modalities. You know, "God is the opiate of the masses." With leftists, there is some sort of a division there in our modern times, anyway. To attempt a perspective on it, from my position, it makes sense to me in that most of our religious systems are extremely patriarchal and I know for myself, quickly lose appeal for that very reason! Not only in the stories that they tell. Certainly women can and have and will continue to do a lot of translation in order to transcend through these various religions. But, I think that it is time to really address patriarchy. In our political systems as well as our spiritual ones. We can find a modern coming together of these.

I would agree with you—or what I think that you feel—that you need to have both. It cannot be a choice for people. Their struggle for society, for community, for all of mankind, must be at one with their struggle to become themselves. I think that a really powerful political movement does have a spiritual center to it. But I think we need a new spirituality that is as evolved as the new vision of the world that we're having to create in these days of global corporate control and global war mongering. We need to have a global resistance. If you look around the world, what I see, being a chick myself, is that all stories, as they go from bad to worse, have one common denominator—patriarchy. Like yourself, I long for a spiritual core to a progressive movement that is uplifting for all.

Can you talk a little bit on how you feel about nonviolence?

Well, for me, as an animal, I acknowledge the existence of violence. That sounds a little goofy, doesn't it? I eat meat, for instance. But I do so in moderation because I don't feel that it is shameful to be part carnivore, but I do feel that the meat industry is shameful. The abuse of animals. So, while not wanting to promote or support that whole system of animal cruelty, it is not black and white for me. It is the same thing with violence. That is also part of our nature. It is a part of nature. But, again, balance. We can handle a certain amount of violence. We can handle a certain amount of pollution in our bodies. We can have a drink now and then. But, too much, and we are out of balance, and we are sick and we are gone. I think that we have a culture that is very sick. You know? There is sort of a cultural sickness, and it is not exclusive to us. I think we need to, rather then strive for perfection or absolute passivity, or absolute ... I think we need to strive for balance.

In the piece entitled "Literal," you point to Jesus and Christianity—particularly the danger that comes from attachment to ideas. I hear you pointing out that truth and poetry can sometimes be squeezed out of messages of original compassion and justice. And that it leaves behind sort of a fundamentalist dogma. Tell me more about that.

Yeah. Literal thinking. Just as a writer, myself, I tend to think non-literally and more metaphorically. Again, a sort of a lesson from nature that I learn from being awake within it. That everything that you look at – you look at cotton plants and there's clouds there, or you look at cracks in mud and there's the skin of your hand. Everything is analogous to everything else. Everything is connected to everything else.

I think that the interpretations, the way that we interpret nature and our world, is essential. These stories that we have told along the way, these spiritual doctrines such as the Bible, I think a poetic interpretation is always more real then a literal. And to look at words on a paper and try and interpret them as literally as possible, ignoring the fact that they were written there by somebody, that it is already an interpretation of an event, of a truth, can be very destructive. Then you have dogma, and then you have really the absence of a spirituality. Really you have ... well, what do you have then? A mess! (laughter) …

[L]ess and less am I wedded to absolutes at all. I think that truth is very contextual. To understand the specificity of your own life is so important. My believing in the freedom of choice for women to determine the fate of their own bodies, and control their own reproductive systems, is part of this feeling. That what is right for me is not necessarily right for you. Because we have completely different lives maybe. We are born of very different circumstances, so different truths apply. You know? One thing that absolute, black and white, good and evil, literal thinking is sort of contradictory to that fluidity or organic-ness of truth and stories and interpretation thereof.

Do you think that openness to interpretation, that leaving behind absolutism, brings freedom?

Just a healthier complexity. Again, I don't think that we should have a matriarchy, either. I think that there needs to be balance. Thinking in terms of absolutes is important. We need certain laws that apply to all of us. Like, "Thou shalt not kill!" Really try to kind of hang on to things like that, which is a certain sort of an absolute. But then, we need to bring in the contextual exceptions. The contextual enhancement of every truth and every law and every fact. There is a really highly evolved masculine pursuit of trying to make the collective insure the rights of the individual. I think that is a glorious concept. But I think that it is not a whole concept because next to that is a somewhat more feminine pursuit, which is primarily to insure that each individual promotes the rights of the collective. It is the mirror. And both are necessary. Both are important pursuits. I think that between them resonates a balance and an energy that will bring peace.

John Malkin is a musician and journalist who hosts a weekly radio program focusing on social change and spiritual growth. A book of his interviews with musicians, including Ani DiFranco, will be published by Parallax Press in Spring 2005 titled "Sounds of Freedom."

Previous Comments


I saw Ani in Birmingham, AL last year. I was fonrtunate enough to cover the show for a magazine out of Memphis. Not only was she a genuine person, but her staff - from initial phone call for press pass/tix and details for the interview to saying goodbye - were great people to work with as well. Ordinarily, I never get into political issues with musicians when I interview them because, well, I'm there interviewing and covering their show for that reason: them as a musician and their music. On this occasion, Ani opened the political issues door for me. I thought it was nice that a musician not only didn't talk much about her music, but made sure it wasn't the main course. I asked her about this and she said, "You're covering the show too so let that speak for the music. Let me speak for the politics." I thought that was just honorable and pretty much cool of Ani. :)


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