Ani DiFranco Speaks With James Campion

Aquarian Weekly 5/15/02 REALITY CHECK

A Discussion with Ani DiFranco Part I

I consider Ani Difranco a fellow soldier in these ridiculous, sometimes humored, but always-rewarding sieges on the elusively hidden truths of our silly human collective. Since the night this magazine sent me to an old theater in Portchester, NY to watch her perform nearly seven years ago, I’ve been a fan. That night she spoke to me like few other artists have. I’ve seen her play a half-dozen times since, and each one brings a new experience, always effusive and brutally honest.

Over 12 years and 15 records, her biting lyrics usually reflected my own well-crafted cynicism of a politically ambiguous world bloated with lethal doses of sweet propaganda primed to reduce us to merrily marching mindless hordes. But along with being a kindred spirit, DiFranco’s independence in the manipulative landscape of creative distribution has been a great inspiration for a young author butting heads with publishing icons. More than once I’d used her name as less noun than verb, as in: “These fuckers keep this shit up and I’m going to Ani this book”; to which I did, happily.

So when we met on a chilly, overcast spring day in the industrial pall of Poughkeepsie, NY, in the bowels of the Mid-Hudson Civic Center, set on the shores of New York’s famous river of simpler times when the folk singer might earn a cup of java from a passing stranger for spinning yarns of heartbreak, Ms. DiFranco and myself had ourselves a chat. Two admitted lunatics dissecting the greater good.

on a morning beatific in its indian summer breeze on the day that america fell to its knees after strutting around for a century without saying thank you or please – 9/11 poem

james campion: This stanza of the poem you performed so movingly at Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago hits home for me, because it succinctly projects what I’ve been writing about for years concerning the U.S. presence in the Middle East and our inability to fully understand the cultural, racial and religious issues that are prevalent there.

ani difranco: Except to exacerbate them. (laughs) Well…yeah. I really don’t have a mind for the hyper details of foreign policy, or of what the stupid white men are doing, but I feel compelled to express things like the United States exploitation of not just the Middle East, but also the “Third World”. Our capitalist selfishness in terms of using the world’s resources and labor and just manipulating weaker countries for strategic and economic reasons. That’s a very obvious and basic thing to say, but somehow I feel the need to keep saying it.

jc: You refer to yourself as a folksinger, which I find enlightening, because throughout the centuries folksingers or minstrels used music to comment on social mores or social wrongs of the time. So, as a folksinger, do you feel you can tap into those same things and not be sitting on CNN pointing the literal finger?

ad: (chuckles) Well, CNN would probably be an impossible place to tap into anything real since all of the information is completely co-opted and controlled by corporate forces. So, yeah, it is a much better venue to pick up a guitar and walk into a bar and talk to people one on one. I love my job; traveling and making art in very common, open spaces and feeling totally free to talk about political or social issues. Music is a very effective way to communicate and inspire.

I think that every room is a perfect venue for political change, whether it’s a theater with a stage in it or a whether it’s a classroom or whether its the halls of justice. I’ve been engaged in conversations recently where people ask me, “What do you think is more important? What’s more effective? What’s more legitimate statement: To make radical art or to try and get in the system?” And for me it’s Yes! Yes! All of it. Whatever you’re fucking good at.

I used to dance; I went to art school for years. I love to paint. But there was something about music and the inclusion of words, the literal communication through words that I really felt was my most effective way to make change, to inspire people, to become myself. But for somebody else it might be raising your kid to be a respectful, loving, thoughtful questioning person. There’s infinite numbers of ways we can change the world.

jc: Yes, but do you believe there is still a chance for grass roots movements?

ad: Ah! It’s happening as we speak. You know it. It’s all around us. I feel a new sense of optimism out there. We may even be surfacing from the 80s’, (chuckles) culturally speaking. Of course I have a bit of a slanted perspective from standing at my microphone, in terms of what cross section of young folks I encounter, but I am impressed and hopeful with the political will of the young people now. They recognize that they were born into…

jc: A fixed game.

ad: Yeah, an homogenized culture, and wanting to dissect that. We were probably born just early enough to know a time when you could actually buy a record at the local record store.

jc: You’re taking me back.

ad: Yeah, (laughing) I think that young people are beginning to question that sort of corporate super structure. You know, all of the protests in New York and Seattle and Prague. I find those all very inspiring.

jc: So, you’re optimistic.

ad: I am…optimistic.

jc: You’ve mentioned Ralph Nader at several of your shows these past couple of years. I voted for Ralph the first time around. I vote for people with no chance. I voted for John Anderson in 1980 and I’ve had high hopes for a third party candidate to arise for a long time. Do you have any confidence that politics is really any way to get to the crux of any issue?

ad: Absolutely, now more than ever. I think that is of primary importance. I was ten years old in 1980, so by the time I was coming to any kind of adult consciousness the political system was a corrupt, capitalist club of elite corporate CEO’s. The whole Reaganomics, and the whole Reagan/Bush regime we are still living under, and I think young people completely divested themselves from their government. There was such a disconnection.

jc: There’s a deep seated cynicism. I know. I’m there.

ad: Well, the cynicism is well founded. We’ve had our citizenship stolen and consumerism foisted upon us, and at this point, ironically enough, there is a reinvestment in the belief in government, a reinvestment of energy and involvement, and that is the only thing that can recreate or salvage our “democracy”. I just don’t see a lot of young people getting involved in party politics, trying to infuse themselves into the system if there is nobody to vote for. So, not only do we have to get out and vote; we have to get out and run.

I’ve been engaged in conversations recently where people ask me, “What do you think is more important? What’s more effective? What’s more legitimate statement: To make radical art or to try and get in the system?” And for me it’s Yes! Yes! All of it. Whatever you’re fucking good at.

I have a friend I was just talking to last night who spent the last week in D.C. meeting with all these representatives and senators about this Yukka Mountain in Nevada. They’ve already spent four billion dollars on nuclear waste all over the country, and they have this plan where they want to ship it all to Nevada and dump it in an Indian Reservation.

jc: (sarcastically) That’ll work.

ad: Yeah, and it’ll never leak and it’ll be fine. No problems. So, here is my friend Susan attending meeting after meeting after meeting with all these senators, and she’s trying so hard to get these people to vote “no”. And when I spoke to her last week she was saying, (dreary tone) “Okay, I’m going to D.C. and I’m fixin’ to get really disillusioned and I’ll probably come back as a car bomber…”

jc: (laughs) Into the mouth of the beast.

ad: (excited) But after days and days of meetings, she called last night and it was so great to talk to her because she was re-inspired at the possibility of one person to make a difference. These senators just vote on what their aids say they should vote on. You know how it is. But she felt that her presence really had effectiveness that week.

If people had any idea how much power they have, shit could really change. If we just started exercising it. There’s some kind of African proverb that says; “If you don’t think one person can make a difference, spend a night in a room with a mosquito.” So, yeah, I am longing for an inspiration of progressive young people to change the system, and really get inside the system, not just working from without.

jc: When you write in your songs and speak at some of your shows; it is from a humanist standpoint, politically. You have this artistic individualism about you. So how did you react to the whole patriotic fervency that we just passed through? Not to demean why people lean on the group dynamic, but sometimes individual thought can be sucked out by this conglomerate – “Unless you’re with us you’re against us” mentality that happens when a nation is wounded. Did you feel at all ostracized from the vox populi?

ad: Well, that’s nothing new. The day I stop feeling that way I’ll have to start questioning myself. (laughs) But yeah, it’s just so sickeningly sad the way calculated propaganda and these huge media outlets could twist the idea of patriotism. They’ve done it forever. Completely inverting it. Go back to McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities? When it is the most American activity of all to express yourself, to fight the government when it’s wrong. Democracy is about, “If you don’t like your government, change it. If you can’t change it have a fucking revolution.” They wrote it right in the constitution.

jc: Ready your muskets I always say.

ad: (laughs) Yeah! There’s some quote, I wish I could remember which Founding Father said it.

jc: Jefferson’s “Let’s have a revolution every ten years.”

ad: Oh, I don’t know, that’s a good one.

jc: I’m paraphrasing, but he did say it.

ad: You see? There is always this, “hear what you want to hear – see what you want to see”. They can twist things like the constitution or the Bible into any kind of oppressive tool.

jc: But isn’t the Bible an oppressive tool?

ad: It depends on how you read it; same as any document. They are just tools to be used, they can be used against us as well as for us, but there are certainly many positive messages in the Bible. I think Jesus…

jc: Ah, love and forgiveness.

ad: Sure, I think reading any document literally, especially something like the Bible, which is all metaphor, is so misguided. I’m not really interested in Jesus as a “walking on water” kind of guy, but as a revolutionary, as a guy who was trying to free the slaves, fuckin’ A. There it is right in the Bible: “Slaves bad.” (laughs) “Love your brother!”

jc: They took care of that guy.

ad: But there was some quote I read somewhere recently, it might have been from Jefferson, that “to not criticize your government, especially in times of war, when your government is perpetrating violence on another people, to not be critical is an act of treason.”

jc: I think it might have been John Adams. Those guys were all maniacs. If you read about the Founding Fathers, and get outside of the textbooks, they were downright radical. When you discuss McCarthyism it was in the 1950’s, not the 1850’s. And that gets back to the original question about your art, because I believe the only true voice left is through free expression. Art may be the only thing not annexed in a fluent dialogue between people and ideas, but every once and awhile when someone gets close to the bone, so to speak, they try to manipulate their words or tear pieces of them away like a Jesus or a Gandhi.

ad: Right on.

Next Week: Part II

For a complete unedited transcript of the conversartion: Ani Dialogue

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