The Common Good
May-June 2002

Anything But the Grrrrrl

by Rocky Kidd | May-June 2002

An interview with musician Ani DiFranco—founder of Righteous Babe Records and folk-punk troubadour of the secular Left.

Ani DiFranco began her professional career when she was 9 years old, singing and playing Beatles songs to audiences in her hometown of Buffalo, New York. She wrote her first song at 14. Moved out on her own at 15. When she recorded her first album, at age 20, she had already composed more than 100 songs. DiFranco's blue-collar parents exposed to her to folk music. Their home was a haven for touring musicians.

By 1991 she started her own record label—Righteous Babe Records. In the past 10 years, DiFranco has been named one of VH1's "100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll," had four Grammy nominations, produced 13 albums, created an independent gold album, and just released her new double disc Reveling/Reckoning. This groundbreaking musician sat down in Chicago this winter with Mennonite pastor Rocky Kidd to discuss God, activism, and music. —The Editors

Rocky Kidd: You have been called one of the leading cultural voices for progressive politics in America today. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to help politically inform the young people who are really into your music or to help raise their social consciousness?

Ani DiFranco: Well, sure. But that's not a responsibility that I feel because I'm a performer or a songwriter or whatever it is that I am. I feel that responsibility as a human being. When I look at my job and the platforms that I stand on, and the microphone that I get to speak into, I don't see that as a responsibility so much as an opportunity to create change in an imperfect world. We all share that responsibility—I just have a good job for making some noise.

Kidd: What is your personal spirituality? Do you have any identification with an organized institutional-type church or faith?

DiFranco: No relationship with any organized religion in my life, not even growing up—except that in the summers I would spend a lot of time with all of my cousins, and my family was all around. We used to have our own sort of "church services" where a different member of the family every week would speak and talk about travels or sing songs. But that was about it. I think responsibility to God is a responsibility to each other and to every living thing on the planet. I guess my spirituality is very tactile.

Kidd: What type of issues and causes do you and the Righteous Babe Foundation support?

DiFranco: One of the major things that we're involved in is the fight against capital punishment. I believe that murder is murder, whether done by an individual or the state. We work with an organization down in Atlanta called the Southern Center for Human Rights. For the past three years, Righteous Babe has sponsored a lawyer down there.

We do benefit shows. In fact, in two days we're doing a show at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. And the college isn't paying me—the wealthy father of a female student at the college is. He's a big fan and hired me to play at the school. We said, "Okay, sir, but we also want $25,000 to go to the charity of our choice." So not only is he going to pay all of our day's salary, but $25,000 is going to go to the Southern Center for Human Rights. It's nice to be able to maneuver things like that.

Kidd: On one of your older albums, To the Teeth, you have some very interesting lyrics. "Open fire on Hollywood/open fire on MTV/open fire on NBC, CBS, and ABC/open fire on the NRA/and all the lies they told us along the way." Could you talk about what you're saying in the lyrics and about your commitment to nonviolence?

DiFranco: Of course the verse in that song is metaphoric. The "open fire" is verbal. I'm saying we need to stop demonizing the point man. Behind every gun-flailing rapper, behind every violent record, there is a huge corporate record company with a lot of nice, pleasant white guys in suits who live in suburbs and wouldn't dream of saying, "I'm going to pop my dad and dah-dah-dah." But they're the ones who are promoting, selling, and making countless amounts of dollars off of violent messages like that.

Kidd: Forbes, Financial News Network, The New York Times: all have heralded you as the "young entrepreneur" for your success in making money and higher profit margins. What are your feelings about that given your perspective on corporatism and commodification?

DiFranco: On one hand, I want to let it be known that you can be independent, that you can create a career in music without ever selling a song to an advertisement—ever. The irony is that my whole point for doing everything the way I've done it is that I'm not acting like a businessperson. My priorities are politics and art and people. That is why I've stayed away from the major record companies. So it wasn't some kind of brilliant 15-year business plan.

Kidd: You are very successful, though—four Grammy nominations; included in the top 100 women of rock. In light of all that, your commitment to Buffalo, New York, is to be commended. What motivates you to root Righteous Babe there?

DiFranco: I was born in Buffalo. It's basically a way of realizing on a personal level that adage to "Think globally, act locally." From the moment we decided to set up Righteous Babe Records as an actual office with an actual phone and a coffee maker—not just as a name that I wrote on my first few tapes—we thought about Buffalo. I was living in New York City but we didn't think that New York needed another little business; but Buffalo did.

Buffalo is like a mini-Detroit. The whole urban core has been evacuated in white flight. All the money has fled to the suburbs and left the city to dilapidate and disintegrate. So we opened up an office downtown and started hiring people in Buffalo for not only decent jobs, but also maybe interesting jobs. Now people move to Buffalo to work at Righteous Babe Records. They were probably the only six people who have moved to Buffalo in the last 30 years! It's a good feeling to support local businesses and grow with small businesses, keep it in the community, and support the unions locally.

Kidd: What's your take on the current state of protest music in America? Do you see an emerging Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger for the 21st century?

DiFranco: So much of the supposed alternative music is so co-opted. Anything that's commercially generated through multinational corporations is suspect. But that being said, there is a continuing underground movement of folk music—politically progressive or oriented roots music. I don't know if there is a Pete Seeger or a Woody Guthrie burgeoning now, but if there is, it's up from that underground. It's not going to be on Sony Records.

The possibilities for counteracting the status quo are so much greater now than they were in the day of Woody Guthrie. When Woody had a day's work with Columbia Records and got his $25, that was a good day's work. It wasn't in the scope of the imagination at the time that a person could make her own record and control the means of production or labor. I want people writing "people's songs" to rise to that possibility.

Kidd: What needs to be done today to organize in response to globalization?

DiFranco: In the 21st century, what better angle is there to approach global unity than [to realize that] there is blue blood and there is red blood? And that people with red blood being spilled all over the world are one people. The struggle these days is between corporate monoliths and populations of workers. I think we've gotten so far away from the idea of democracy and so deep into the reality of capitalism that the lie of America just doesn't float any more.

It was much easier at the turn of the last century to point to the suspender-snapping, cigar-chomping Rockefeller and say, "It's us against him. And we are many and he is one." Now the network of corporate power is harder to point at. It's much more complex to dissect. It's a more daunting enemy, I think. But if we can bring a perspective of economic justice, then that will open the doors for all kinds of social justice to occur.

Kidd: Ms. magazine named you one of the 21 feminists for the 21st century. What does it mean to you to be a feminist?

DiFranco: What better example of the commodification of the feminist movement is there than this "spice-grrrl-power" watering down of the real politics of feminism? I would have hoped as a society that by the 21st century we would be at the point where both sexes embraced that word—where we all identify as feminists unless we're just blatant misogynists. There is an ingestion of corporate media propaganda that made "feminism" a dirty word, a taboo word. Young women have swallowed that and have refused to use the one word in the English language that represents the idea that women also have the right of self-determination. I've embraced that amongst my many "F" words—feminism, folk music, all that uncool stuff.

Language is the way that we know our world. To take a word as big as "feminism" out of our vocabulary, out of a generation of young women, let alone young people, is incredibly disempowering. If you can't say the word, you can't embrace the concept.

Kidd: Ani DiFranco, blue-collar kid from Buffalo who took the music industry by storm and left them in a whirlwind: How do you want to be remembered?

DiFranco: I ended an open letter that I sent to Ms. magazine with "promise me one thing; if I drop dead tomorrow, tell me my gravestone won't read: DiFranco: Ani D., CEO. Please let it read DiFranco: songwriter, musicmaker, storyteller, freak."

Ani DiFranco at a glance
Date of Birth: Sept. 23, 1970
Birth Place: Buffalo, New York
Education: art school, New School for Social Research
Favorite Poetry Teacher: Sekou Sundiata
Recent Releases:
Reveling/Reckoning (2001)
To The Teeth (1999)
Fellow Workers—with Utah Phillips (1999)
Sounds Like: "Ani" is pronounced Ahh-nee
Favorite Guitar Chord: F#m

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