The Curious Case of Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco rejects any categorization that feels limiting to her, and bristles slightly when I mention that some people view her as a feminist songwriter who directs her work primarily at like-minded females.
“I’m just writing about my life,” she says. “Other young women were the first to relate immediately to the voice that was singing and the story that was being told, but over the years, my audience has broadened and broadened. The mosh pit is probably still eighteen and still female, but the audience in the room will be all kinds of people and even all kinds of ages, which I love. It’s a much more holistic feeling to me to be not just singing to my tribe.”
She knows that male listeners have, at times, looked the other way—not expecting a female artist who’s been heralded by many as one of the most important feminist icons of the last few decades to produce music that might easily be processed by “dudes,” but she means for her work to be all-inclusive.
DiFranco makes a good point about how people perceive her work from a sexual identity standpoint by turning the question on its head: “I think to be female in a world that’s largely imagined by men, from day one, you get very used to translating. ‘What are your favorite bands?’ And they’re probably mostly boys in those bands, but you relate to those songs—you know what that experience is because you translate. I think it’s a little rare for a man to have to listen to a woman singing about her experience and find a way to relate to it, but I’m finding it more and more.”
While the realization of an imbalance in society that favors patriarchy has been a long running theme in DiFranco’s work, she is quick to point out that this should not be construed as anti-male—but rather as a flatout call for balance in accordance with the laws of nature.
“I keep going back to the sort of fundamentals of our societal diseases—the hyper capitalism, the destruction of the environment, the endless wars, the hierarchies of racism and class—and all of that comes from unchecked patriarchy,” she posits. “And it’s not that the masculine sensibility is bad or wrong, it’s just that on its own, it will create disease.”
As I raise a clearly dude-affiliated eyebrow at this last bit, she smiles and adds, “Just the same as a female [sensibility] on its own—I’ve been to enough women’s music festivals to see the problems of matriarchy, you know?”
She laughs and continues, “I’m trying to laugh about the unexplored reality of, what if female sensibilities dominated since the dawn of time in all aspects of society? You would see much different diseases. As I get older, I understand more that peace is a product of balance. You can’t start with imbalance and end with peace.”
For roughly 25 years, DiFranco has been writing songs perfectly in line with the motives of the recent Occupy Wall Street movement—decades before protestors erected the first tent at Zuccotti Park. She is an avid supporter of the “99% Deficit Proposal” authored by economist/activist Kevin Zeese and is working to have the proposal brought before Congress. She keeps her soul in fighting shape by surrounding herself with fellow activists.
Her manager, Scott Fisher—who has worked with the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Innocence Project—is deeply involved in anti-death penalty causes. And her former road manager, Susan Elsner, is a board member of the Nuclear Information Resource Center and is a civil society liaison for the United Nations.
DiFranco’s philanthropic reach extends locally as well. Her Righteous Babe Foundation supplies much-needed funding for the New Orleans-based Roots of Music after-school program, which provides free music classes, academic tutoring and a hot meal for around 120 underprivileged kids, five days per week.
She positively beams when she talks about the kids whose lives have been changed for the better through Roots of Music. “It’s really cool to see these kids have a reason to be, you know? It just makes them taller,” she says. She even enlisted the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders to provide brass for the title track of Which Side.
The political side of the new record strikes me as more patriotic than activist, but maybe patriotic is the best way to define modern activism anyway. After all, the Occupy movement is more about wresting the democratic process away from corporate money interests and putting it back into the hands of the American people—what’s more patriotic than that?
The title track reminds the listener that the election of Barack Obama shouldn’t be tallied like some liberal-minded version of a certain “mission accomplished” banner from a decade ago. A line from the record’s centerpiece—a stunningly perfect New Orleans folks song entitled simply “J”—reflects progressives’ disappointment in the Obama administration’s performance thus far (“Dude could be FDR right now/ but instead he’s shifting his weight”).
However, DiFranco is quick to point out the difficulties that the President faced when trying to go forward on issues that the general public seem to have lost interest in. “If you’re standing on the higher ground all by yourself with nobody to talk to, it’s not gonna work,” she says. And, as a woman who has had to overcome an awful lot of obstacles in the male-dominated music industry, DiFranco feels empathetic about Obama’s status as the first black president.
“To be a black president—to be a female president—anyone knows that you have to work overtime to not alienate, to not scare people,” she says. “If he were to throw his weight around like George W. did, there would be a very different reaction. You can see how the political theater changed instantly—you know, people standing up and shouting ‘you’re a liar’ at the President in the halls of Congress. The underlying realities of racism make it that much more difficult for him to take charge and use the power that we have given him, that we wish he would really use.”
If she’s critical of Obama’s lack of tangible changes and policies, then she’s equally critical of citizens’ complacency toward that inaction.
“If he felt an immense back up—if the hordes that actually left their house on the last presidential election day and registered and voted for the first time—if we had stood behind him and kept saying, ‘No, we’re serious, we will support you to end this war. We do want universal healthcare.’ If he really felt, in this arena of dragons and monsters, that he had the force of the people behind him, he’d be more empowered to act in the way that we want him to act. But we as people kicked back and said, ‘OK, fix it.’”
The transient qualities of New Orleans seem to be a perfect fit for Ani DiFranco’s traveler’s heart, and it’s gratifying for a longtime resident like myself to see her embrace our funky neighborhood as her own. Likewise, the stable presence of her husband and soul mate, Mike, and their daughter Petah, have allowed her to appreciate the virtues of standing still every now and then—and to enjoy the mundane pleasures of planting seeds and nurturing new roots. And when she speaks of the new home that she has made with her family, her eyes sparkle with a child-like wonder that she wears very well.
In light of that sparkle, Ani DiFranco still takes her marching orders from that shy, 15-year-old girl that she once was—the child who first picked up a guitar simply to make music for all the right reasons, as most kids tend to do.
Three decades later, now a wife and mother in the far away city of New Orleans, I suspect that this Buffalo girl sometimes sees her teenage self smiling back at her from the mirror—and it is in that smile that she has found a bridge to the kind of peace that she’s always longed for. Honestly, how many of us would be able to look our optimistic teenage selves in the eye and not feel like we have a lot of explaining to do? This might be the definition of staying true.
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