Ani DiFranco is one of America’s most thoughtful and socially committed musicians. As a teenager she founded Righteous Babe Records, which continues to support grassroots community organizations and promote independent artists, and she has been an important feminist voice for women growing up in the 1990s. DiFranco recently received the Woman of Courage Award from the National Organization for Women.
I’ve long appreciated your commitment to society and the future. Does the future ever make you afraid?
Yeah. Especially right now: socio-politically and environmentally we are, in this country, faced with all these dire crises. It’s hard to feel hopeful, but I just keep coming back to the basic understanding that the forces of life and creation must continue. Even in the face of the forces of death and destruction.
What do you do to stay sane and optimistic?
There are many different ways I struggle to retain my sanity in the midst of insanity. I hate to say it but I do not turn on the TV or watch the news. The news I do get I get by word-of-mouth, from alternative publications, things online, The Nation magazine. Something that keeps me balanced about myself and my work is to not read any reviews or anything ever written about me.
Is there some spiritual philosophy behind your work?
I’m sure there is, but I don’t have any particular religious or spiritual context I put it in. It’s a philosophy of connection and love for this planet I come from. Whether you feel connection and oneness in terms of reincarnation—I am this now but I will be that tree later—or you put it in terms of God in all of us, I think it is all inherently the same understanding.
Who has guided you to your way of viewing the world?
There has been a lot of teaching along the way. Teaching from my parents about caring for and accepting and treating other people well. Tons of reading—I couldn’t even begin to describe my consciousness-expansion through reading. And teachers who taught me either through their actual words or just the presence of their spirits. Somebody like Pete Seeger. I don’t remember any actual words that we’ve exchanged, but his presence, whenever I am in it, is very instructive. Very peaceful, very inclusive.
You’ve said, “The biggest crime is to throw up your hands and say, ‘This has nothing to do with me. I just want to live as comfortably as I can.’” What is the root of your concern for other people?
My connection with them, my oneness with them. The older I get, the more I am aware of the fact that we are not just one family here on this planet, but one organism. Cutting off one limb is not a good idea for anyone. I am coming around, with new vigor, to my initial, instinctual feminism. Focus on relationship and connection is a sensibility that desperately needs to be infused into our government and into our culture. The global patriarchy we live within has a lot to do with all these crises we face. The fallacy of individuation and the hierarchy of individuals is at the root of all these social diseases.
What do you make of the fact that the word “feminism” has fallen into disrepute? Even some young women are saying, “I want nothing to do with that.”
My whole generation by and large won’t identify themselves as “feminists.” It’s a dirty word. And it’s not accidental—it was a deliberate campaign by the conservative right to take that word, that concept, and that history from us. There’s a whole extraordinary activist history behind that word which makes our society one of the greatest on the planet, and we don’t appreciate the power or the relevance of it. I am hopeful, in that I think young women are just beginning—and I hope young males will, too—to use that word again and understand its relevance.
What is the next step for feminism?
To my mind it has to do with growing beyond understanding feminism as equal pay for equal work. It’s much bigger than equality for women. As my little poem on my new album says, it’s about reprieve from this doom. We have to understand collectively, as men and women, that we need to balance the dynamic of the sexes and truly empower women. We need to work towards a consciousness shift, to include the female sensibility in all of our apparatuses. That is the prerequisite to solving all of these crises we’re faced with.
You’ve said that for you, “Live performance is activism, exorcism, and music school.” What are you exorcising?
Plenty of my own little demons. Writing songs and then offering them up day after day, year after year, is a cleansing process for me. I expel all of my worries, my angers, my self-hatred. I would probably be in this world with a whole lot more demons if I didn’t have music.
You’ve also said you “never reached for the corporate carrot because success does not come from fame and fortune.” What do you think makes one successful in life?
Self-realization. The people I know who are most self-realized are the most successful people, busy becoming themselves at every moment. I have always had this instinct to avoid people whose energy is bringing me down, such as people in the music industry with a profit motive. Those kind of people never smelled right to me. My instinct has always been to stick with people who have something to teach me. I’m surrounded by really cool people doing really cool work, and I’m much happier that way.