Apathy never suited musician and feminist icon Ani DiFranco.
From the moment she decided to enter the music industry as a teenager, she felt confident about what she didn’t want as an artist.
“I just had big ideas when I was a little person; one of them was that big business and the interests of big businesses contradicted the business of art and democracy,” DiFranco said in a recent phone interview from her New Orleans home. “I just didn’t want to participate in it, you know? When I started out on the road to having my own record company and doing my career independently, I didn’t have a big plan. I just knew what I didn’t want to do. I met people in the music industry — label people — and thought, ‘Yeah, this is the world I don’t feel right in.’”
At just 19, DiFranco created Righteous Babe Records, through which she has since produced 20 of her records, which follow in the footsteps of folk singers and activists Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger in their socially aware music with outspoken, political lyrics.
Now fans can catch DiFranco, with opening act Gracie and Rachel, in Wilkes-Barre on Friday, May 11, at F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the concert starts at 8.
The audience can expect to hear a wide variety of DiFranco’s politically charged music, which offers a range of perspectives on topics old and new. Most recently, she released the album “Binary” in June 2017.
“It’s a pretty political record,” DiFranco said. “The title track is kind of a reflection on the way I’ve come to see my whole world, that existence itself is something that’s made up of relationships. Nothing exists except in relationship to something else. … That sort of theme, which is not disconnected from my feminism, weaves through a lot of the songs and kind of binds the record together. Like all of the records, it goes a lot places and says a lot of things.”
One of the singer-songwriter’s favorite tracks of the record is “Play God,” which touches on the issue of reproductive freedom being a civil right. This song came to fruition when DiFranco decided she was tired of waiting for someone else to write a song about how she felt on the topic.
“I want to hear more politically conscious songs in my world, things that help me to articulate myself — what I think and what I feel,” she added. “It ends up being me trying to write the songs I want to hear. Like, (expletive) somebody’s gotta write this one.”
After nearly 30 years in the music industry, DiFranco is a fairly decorated musician — garnering nine Grammy award nominations and one win — and activist, with awards including the National Organization for Women’s Woman of Courage Award and the Woodie Guthrie Award, given for being a voice of positive social change.
“There are definitely more people politically active (nowadays),” DiFranco said. “It’s so, so great. I’m sure there’s a way to look at this current political situation, like it had to happen to shake us awake. There were so many complacent, so many numb, so many lost in their disillusionment. This kind of political, social crisis has been extremely effective.”
Major protests, such as the Women’s International March, and the #MeToo campaign gave DiFranco hope that people still care and want to make connections with one another on a grander scale. Much of the root of activism, DiFranco said, is about “supporting and inspiring each other.”
“That’s part of what I love about my job, is being out there, engaging with people and talking to people,” she added. “It makes me feel more alive and definitely more hopeful. You can imagine my shows are gatherings of communities who sometimes find themselves on the outskirts of the status quo. I love my job more than ever.”
Getting real with Ani DiFranco
Q: Do you think you could have been as vocal of an activist as you are without your music?
A: I think my music has been a great tool for me as an activist, if you can look at it that way — it all comes from the same place. I used to love painting, I used to love dancing, I used to do different things. But my job sort of shook down to music and activism. It’s really like all of the things I’ve done have come from the same place. I don’t even see them as being separate endeavors. It’s all my attempt to connect myself to other people to uplift myself, and maybe other people along the way if I’m lucky. It’s all the activism — the art — it’s all the same to me.
Q: Do you ever worry about being too outspoken? How do you think others conquer that fear?
A: I think that fear gets you nowhere in this world. Just when you were asking that question, my mind flashed to in the late ’90s in Buffalo, New York, where I grew up and lived. There was an abortion provider that was shot in his kitchen by a violent anti-choice person. I am very outspoken on reproductive freedom. I was playing to these big audiences, and that was around the time laser pointer pens just came out. I remember being on stage and seeing this red pinpoint light moving across my chest and my head. These moments of mortal fear, of what it can be to be “outspoken,” to stand up in your truth and say it. But mostly on the other side of the coin, I have felt it has made me freer, it has made me happier, it has made me stronger. People have reacted a lot negatively to my outspokenness, but what hit me harder every step of the way was people that came with gratitude and solidarity. All the anger that came my way, it didn’t matter compared to that.
Q: If you give one piece of advice to the young women in America, what would it be?
A: Don’t be afraid to really embody your own truth, your own reality. There’s a lot about women and the way we think and process the world that is an aberration to the status quo, with patriarchy being the defining factor to all of the world’s societies. Women have to be really intrepid with the way they think and act to see and recognize and embody their own ways of knowing. I think, the more that we can do this — strike a gender balance in society, politics, culture — that is going to be the beginning to the road to peace on earth. Feminism is the final frontier. We can’t start with the fundamental act of patriarchy and get peace. Balance is what peace is made out of. It will take the feminist efforts of all of us.