As Many Roles As People Make It: An Interview With Ani DiFranco
She’s dealt with a lot of obstacles--dismissal of her music, sexist condescension, even attempts from Clear Channel to shut down her concerts. But over the past two decades, Ani DiFranco has remained thankfully relentless, and become a force to be reckoned with in the music world. Making it all the more impressive is that she’s done so almost entirely outside the circles of “the business,” maintaining her own independent label Righteous Babe Records while refusing to back down in her defense of feminism, anti-racism, and passionate anti-corporate politics.
Naturally, she’s seen her share of changes in music and the world at large. But then, she’s also seen all too many inequities stubbornly persist. It’s enough to make you glad she’s stuck around; even happier to know that there are countless radical artists of every stripe who have been influenced by her.
The title of DiFranco’s new album ¿Which Side Are You On? is, of course, a reference to one of the original American rebel songs. Calling it a “tribute” wouldn’t be quite sufficient, however. She spoke with Alexander Billet about the album, the evolution of her own work, and her belief in music as a force for social change.
Alexander Billet: I’m going to start with an obvious question. This new album and its title track are, of course, taken from one of the most famous labor songs of all time. It’s been covered a bunch of times already, but why did you want to do it now in this time and place?
Ani DiFranco: Well, my relationship with that song started two or three years ago at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration. I got invited to it, and everyone who played at it was tasked with playing one of the many songs that Pete had played and carried around the world over the years. So my assignment was to play “Which Side Are You On?” with Bruce Cockburn and “Hole In the Bucket” with Kris Kristofferson.
So, I set about learning that song for Pete’s party, and you know, I just immediately started tinkering with it. In one sense it’s a timeless song; the sentiment of the chorus is a very invigorating call to action. But the original verses are quite simple and a little antiquated. I started updating it, and I couldn’t stop. It just ended in a massive rewrite! And I’ve been playing it ever since that night in my live shows for a few years now and just decided somewhere along the way to include it in the record. And then the record, as it was beginning to take shape as a “big-P-political” record, it seemed like in the endgame the best title track.
AB: You mentioned the rewrites, and the lyrics you’ve put to the track go well beyond the original theme of worker’s rights. There are a lot of different things you pull on, but in particular there appears to be a connection between worker’s rights and feminism.
AD: It’s interesting you bring up that connection specifically because my feminism plays a central role on this new record in general. I guess I’ve been feeling lately more compelled than ever to speak to it. In this day and age with all these modern, 21st century political issues that we’re faced with--implosion of the environment, these ongoing escalating wars, an economic crisis--I keep coming back to what I believe to be the root cause of all our social problems, which is patriarchy.
And I really feel strongly that we need to evolve our understanding of feminism as not just about women’s rights anymore. You know, as I say in that last verse in “¿Which Side,” “Feminism ain’t for women / That’s not who it is for / It’s about shifting consciousness / It’ll bring an end to war.” I feel like we need to understand feminism more as a tool to mediate, counteract, to ultimately defeat patriarchy and restore balance to our government, our culture and our ways of thinking and structuring the world. I think we’ve had a very “masculine” sensibility for a long time, and I think we need to go back to the roots of social imbalance. I think we have to try to right that first, and from there and all these more pressing issues will follow.
AB: Much of your more recent work, in particular Red Letter Year, has had more of a contemplative, personal angle. You’ve always made it a point to bring together the personal and political, but ¿Which Side appears to be a bit more outward and have a lightness. Is there anything in the world at large that has influenced this?
AD: Well, I’m a happier person now than I was three years ago, and happier still than I was five or ten years ago. So you can probably hear that in the sounds that come out of me; I’ve had recent developments in my life that have brought me more peace than I’ve ever felt.
It sounds like you’re suggesting, though, that there were perhaps some political developments in that too. And maybe so! Certainly the election of Obama after eight years of George W was an incredibly uplifting event and a victory for many people. I was just over in England performing and talking to a lot of people about various things. One of the things that came up was the event of Hurricane Katrina, and I heard myself saying--and this was a big reminder--that Katrina was sort of turning point. If you remember back, there was so very precious little criticism in the media at all of the Bush administration. It was surreal; 9/11 happened and all of a sudden he was King Yahoo-Shit! Everyone was lining up to praise him and the network news was reading the White House press releases like drones. There was just this veil of silence falling over an incredibly destructive administration wasn’t even elected!
It wasn’t until after Katrina that you really started to see legitimate criticism in the media. I think that’s when the social tide turned in a certain sense. It’s what got people’s eyes opened and got people motivated in a new way. The election of Obama was one of the results of that shift. But of course, like a lot of people, I had this naive hope that Obama would fix everything quickly. You know, the culture of celebrity in this country leads us away from democratic ways of thinking and into this hero worship. And so of course, one man cannot swoop in and fix everything on his own. It’s much more complicated and difficult than that, and progressives in this country since then have had to come to terms with the fact that we need to do more than actually get out of our house and vote. It’s an ongoing process to turn the tide.
I think that’s what we’re seeing now, and thank goodness! People are really starting to rise to that occasion.
AB: It’s incredible to think how much has changed even in the past year too, from the Arab uprisings to Occupy, on and on.
AD: Yeah, when I was in England I visited Occupy London and I was talking to people there. Like you say, it’s happening in the Middle East, there’s a people’s uprising in Nigeria. And all over Europe there are mirroring encampments and activists building energy and education and organizing along with every city in the United States. It’s an incredibly hopeful atmosphere; one that we haven’t seen in a very long time. I think that, as I was making this album over the past few years, that spirit of hope was not yet in the air, but I think it was brewing in the same way it was brewing in the rest of the ninety-nine monkeys!
AB: Well said! [Laughs] I want to get back to Katrina and New Orleans in a bit, but I also have a follow-up question. There’s this running theme on ¿Which Side about growing older and evolving as a human being and artist. You’ve been making music for somewhere around twenty years, and throughout you’ve remained completely independent. Is there a lot you’ve seen change in those twenty years?
AD: Oh big changes! Big, big changes! You know when I was a teenager in the ‘80s, I was the only girl in the guitar shop. Now if you walk into a music store, it’s mostly teenage girls. It’s great! It’s an expansion of possibilities for young women, finding a way to tools even if they aren’t directly handed those tools by adults.
Of course, when I was eighteen I decided I was going to have my own label; I wasn’t going to be a whore for a big corporation. There wasn’t a lot of precedence for it and there wasn’t a lot of respect for it! One of the huge things I experienced in the early years wasn’t just exclusion but condescension. Now, it seems that to be independent of a major label and just plug away on your own--there’s more of a respect for it. In fact, there is more of a necessity for it as the major record industry implodes. So certainly lots has changed since I started doing this.
AB: At the same time, though, there’s a lot that still has to change. The song that comes to mind off of ¿Which Side is “Amendment.” Could you tell me about that?
AD: Well, that song in particular addresses the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. You know, I was talking to a young fellow in a recent interview and he was like “oh, wait! That didn’t pass?” Folks sort of assume it’s law, but it hasn’t even passed! It really indicates this sweeping under the rug of not just women’s issues but the work of feminism. A lot of people just think it’s old news. Like I say in the song: “Chicks got it good now / They can almost be president!” We’re all emancipated in this system right? But of course, globally, women are still the underclass, and even in this society there are very poignant disparities that still exist.
For instance: abortion. This still isn’t considered a civil right in the modern world for women to be totally free. It’s still daily contested and fought, and it’s still a state-by-state, moment-by-moment right that could be taken away any minute. It’s also, as the song puts forward, a very powerful device that the conservative right uses to divide people. They have encouraged us over the years to hate each other over differences of opinion about abortion. And therefore, they divide workers and get them to fight each other and vote against their own interests.
So this was a song that I labored over a lot! It was an arduous song for me to write, it’s an arduous song to play; it’s long, it’s got so many words and concepts in it. And I have to stand so firmly in my boots to try and deliver it to people successfully and in the right spirit. But I thought if I don’t write this song, who’s going to? [Laughs] This is apparently my job in life and so I’ve got to rise to it!
I think I’ve always been the kind of person to push the envelope in music, politics, art. So I challenged myself to push it even more, like “how about the world ‘abortion?’ Do I even sing the word ‘abortion’?” When I first wrote that song I was really scared to play it onstage. Even though you might think everyone who shows up at an Ani DiFranco show is a progressive, people come with their own contradictions and come to my work from a different place. I’m not always just preaching to the choir. So I really worked hard to write a song that could really put out concepts of women’s civil rights, feminism, the evolution of our relationship with abortion without alienating people. I wanted to make it a song that even somebody of a different opinion could hear and might plant a seed for a future change of mind.
AB: Getting back to Katrina, you live in New Orleans now, and the song “J” really puts out there some of the incredible burdens that the city and the Gulf continue to bear. Could you tell us a bit more about that song?
AD: Well, there are so many things to talk about, aren’t there? One of the other elephants in the room for me other than patriarchy is slavery. I think when a society has such a profoundly dark and awful evil such as slavery in its history, then it leaves scars that are very, very deep. And unless we collectively address them and really put our effort to healing them, they’ll perpetuate. The United States of America are still suffering from the echoes of slavery. I think we’re still reeling from all the pain that is a result of it, and that’s a reality.
The song “J” I wrote last year as the BP oil spill was happening. You know, they were burning the oil on the surface of the Gulf every day for weeks and weeks and the smell just blanketed New Orleans, and we were all breathing it in! It was this daily reminder that we are all plummeting in the wrong direction, squeezing the Earth of the last few drops of blood, not only toward environmental peril but into international wars over this dwindling resource.
One thing that Obama promised, one thing that we all know we must do is evolve our industry and our technology to being green and sustainable. We need to move away from fossil fuels and nuclear power, both of which I think spell doom for human society. I was trying to make a lot of connections in that song “J,” including a lot of connections that I was aching to see made around me. People were hit very hard economically and environmentally down here, and immediately you’d see people putting up posters that said “Boycott BP!” It seemed very narrow in focus to me and didn’t make the connections in addressing the root of the problem.
AB: Final question: What role do you think music has in changing the world and are you hopeful about its prospects in doing so?
AD: Oh yeah! Music has as many roles as people make it. I traveled to Burma once years ago to witness the people’s struggle for democracy, meet some people and learn some stuff. And I had this incredible experience over and over again in the Burmese jungle or refugee camps or health clinics with very oppressed, very devastated people. I show up, and I’m white and I’m American and I’m privileged and I have an experience that these people can’t fathom and vice versa. There was this huge chasm when I met people for all good reasons. And then, in these meetings, what would invariably happen was that a group of children would get up and sing an invocation, which opened people’s hearts up a bit. Then the guitar would come out, and I would sing along with the people I was traveling with.
As soon as that happened, everyone there was family. And it was a daily reminder of what music is and what it can do. It can connect people from opposite realms of experience or the planet or the universe, and it can bring them together. It was an amazing trip that really reminded me why I do what I do. So yes, I do believe that music has an intense power to connect us together, to inspire us to become ourselves. I think that’s why I gravitated toward music when I was younger. I was attracted to a lot of different art-forms--dancing, painting. But there’s something about music that people hold so close. It’s such a powerful art-form, and that’s why I live for it.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist based in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and has appeared in Z Magazine, TheNation.com, New Politics and SocialistWorker.org among others. He can be reached at email@example.com.