Art Is Activism
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 nine. 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 has led the move by musicians to encourage their fans to participate in the political process. Likewise, at righteousbabe.com, fans can read 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 sixteen armed federal marshals. FRSC can now be heard on the internet at www.freakradio.org. On Oct. 24, an autonomous group calling itself Santa Cruz Radio Access Movement, or SCRAM, began broadcasting the web-stream locally at the station's old address on the radio dial, 101.1 FM.
Ani, I am grateful to be able to speak with you today.
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) That is a pretty big problem in the world. I seems like a real good time to talk about voting, about getting registered and getting activated. I am pretty thrilled to be one of many tours out there right now, addressing the exact same issue. 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 is so low, especially among young people. To use this crisis as an opportunity to get inspired, to participate once again. 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. It is kind of what I am feeling around me right now and I am trying to donate my energies to.
What kind of response are you getting from audiences?
Oh, really strong! It is quite thrilling. Tons of people are getting registered to vote at these shows that are in the swing states. I am sharing the stage with other political artists like Dan Bern, Margaret Cho, The Indigo Girls and Suzanne Westenhoefer. And then in between the artists is a slide show that we show along with music that is about the history of voting in this country. How hard activists – people, citizens – fought for the right to vote, which is very inspiring to me, anyway, to watch. To watch this slideshow and feel inspired to exercise that right. It feels like the atmosphere of inspiration is pretty high everywhere we go and the possibility for change therefore is too.
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 and 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, or for every artist within that, 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 your self?
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. That is incredibly life affirming, inspiring and hopeful.
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? (laughter) 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 help 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 in the words of 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 right 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 (laughter) for that very reason! Not only in the stories that they tell. Certainly women can and have and will continue to do an awful 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. Then, I think, 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, (laughter) being a chick myself, is that all stories, as they go from bad to worse, have one common denominator, and that is 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? How important is that to you in creating social change?
Well, you know, 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. (laughter) 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 interpetation 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, as you say, 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)
This is also part of my ... I am beginning to get into sort of a quagmire of thinkings in myself. Because less 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.
I know that you have to go off and do a sound check for your show. You are in Ohio?
I am in Ohio! One of the swingingest swing states going!
Do you have time for one more question?
I mentioned to you that two days ago, on Sept. 29, the radio station where I have hosted a program for seven years, Free Radio Santa Cruz, was raided and shutdown by the FCC and federal marshals. All of our equipment was taken because we'd been broadcasting for almost ten years without a license from the U.S. government. Presently, the United States is warring with Iraq and elsewhere around the world, they have created the Department of Homeland Security, they are discussing restructuring intelligence organizations, the Patriot Act was passed. What do you think is the importance now of independent media?
Oh, well. Greater then ever! (laughter) That's part of the fun of this little "Vote Dammit! Tour." Like yourselves, to put into action the Abbie Hoffman suggestion, "Don't hate the media, become the media!" Out here, this slide show that we've put together has been picked up by another vote for change tour. They have done their own version. Some teachers have used it in their classrooms lately. We've heard about this because we have it on our Web site. Spreading people's history, becoming our own media.
These days when we talk about presidential races or big "P" politics, we tend to get sucked into this cult of personality, celebrity thinking that is all around us. And we sort of think of it as – or we're taught to think of it anyway – as a contest between these two dudes. "Which one looks cuter in a flight suit? Which one has a better smile? We'll vote for him!" The truth of course is that these are not, or should not – we should insure that these are not kings. These are heads of political parties that are huge. A changing of the guard, while I don't think that Kerry is necessarily the savior of our people, I think that the election of Kerry means a whole new administration of people, thousands of judicial appointments that become more humanist, more progressive thinking people. The ripple effect is huge. For instance, the independent renegade radio stations being able to broadcast their art and their ideas without having FCC come and rip down their antenna. This is the kind of change in atmosphere that we can achieve through voting! Through just getting out one hour in November and casting a ballot and then we have a whole country full of good human beings who are somewhat out of crisis mode and can begin to increase the momentum of their good work. Whether or not the guy on top has the vision that we would want him to have, we do! And if we are allowed to do our work under a somewhat kinder and gentler administration, then I think the potential there is huge.
I am so pleased to speak with you today. I have really enjoyed hearing what you've had to say. It has felt very rich and deep and I appreciate that a lot.
Thanks for the conversation as well. I learn so much from talking to other people with ideas and being awake together. So, thank you for your time.