Ani DiFranco is a well-known badass in the folk rock community. It's impressive enough that she's released over 20 studio albums in the past 25 years, continuing to gift the world with her soft, subtley twangy voice. On August 26, she's kicking off the first BabeFest in her hometown of Buffalo, New York, in Babeville. Cohosting with Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show and Lady Parts Justice, and Chastity Brown, a performer and Black Lives Matter activist for a festival combining comedy, music, and activism, DiFranco's hope is to inspire the young and the disillusioned to make democracy real again. I was lucky enough to catch DiFranco on the phone while she was waiting at La Guardia airport, trying to get home after a family vacation to Quebec.
Tell me about BabeFest.
I just want to inspire and connect people. I think that music and activism are a terrific marriage because we need to be connected and inspired in order to make changes in our society, so, you know we’re just hoping to get people involved...In my mind, voting is something you do on principle because your right to vote was fought for and to squander it is criminal, you know? Not just this election year, but forevermore. I feel like if everyone who could vote in America did, we’d have a vastly different and better country so that’s kind of the main thrust of BabeFest this year.
What are you excited for?
I’m excited for building energy among young people to be accountable as citizens and to get involved in politics, which is the only way a democracy exists.
So where did the idea of BabeFest come from?
Oh, well it came from my manager. He was like, “You should have your own festival.” And I was like, “Oh, well, I don’t know. I don’t want to white knuckle my own festival.” But the truth is, no matter how much I resisted the pressure and the responsibility, I really do feel very rewarded when I connect myself to other activists and help other people connect themselves and organize themselves. I think my shows in general are like that; people come to see my art, of course, but they also come to be with each other and sort of feel stronger and more inspired and learn about things that people are doing and that they can get involved in so it’s about community building and organizing as well as inspiring and transcending what is.
After over 20 years of music and activism, where do you draw inspiration from?
Oh, I mean, everywhere. I guess I’m lucky that I still really get off on my job, you know. Even right from the beginning, playing music, it made me feel less alone, it made me less pessimistic, it made me, again it made me feel closer to other human beings, which is what I most deeply need. I think that’s what we all deeply need, is to be connected to each other—to be a part of something. And right from the get-go, playing for, even if it was 10 people in a bar listening to me or interacting with me, I would feel happier and feeling more human than when I walked in and maybe, hopefully, helping someone else to feel that way too. And it’s still happening for me. I get up on stage and I’d like to think of it as a dialogue...When I’m off tour and I’m sitting home, you know, yelling back at my TV, it’s just a much sorrier state to be in, for sure.
Absolutely. And you’re still on tour now, correct?
I’m sort of on the endless tour of life, every couple of weeks or months I’m out again.
Have you been keeping up with the election?
The American media, you know, it’s...bizarre and very self-involved. There’s a lot going on in the world, but all we know about at any one time in America is a couple celebrities [and politicians]. They talk about what they’re going to talk about, what they just talked about, they talk about themselves talking about it and they talk about polls of what they talked about. Meanwhile, the world keeps happening, outside of that very self-involved conversation; so yes, I’m very aware of the Democratic Convention and what Donald Trump has to say about it.
Wow. So what would be your message to young people who you want to encourage to get involved, keeping that in mind?
It can be very disillusioning, very off-putting, understandably so...I think somebody like Bernie Sanders and the unexpected huge wave of support that he got showed that it is out there. I hope that that in itself will be an inspiring or encouraging message to other idealistic people, that “I can get involved in politics. I can come in from the outside and if I really am speaking truth to power, if I’m really standing up to people and not corporations, then people will respond to me. I will find support out there, even without the money. Even without the connections.” So I think it’s true that in order to really make a democracy real again, we have to believe first. We have to invest ourselves again, whether it’s going to vote, or run for office yourself, or getting involved in organizations that are trying to effect social change in your community, whatever way you’re going to go at it, there are possibilities that become stronger and bigger the more we believe in them, the more we try, so I think we’ve got to start believing first and make it real through our energy.
What do you believe in?
I believe that, you know, justice and equality are possible, that democracy is possible. I believe that America is a great experiment and the less that we can let ourselves be divided and discouraged, the greater the outcome of this experiment will be.
What do you mean by experiment?
It’s an ongoing quest to create representative democracy. There are many, many impediments, like voter registration laws that keep people from being able to participate and laws like [Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission] that empower corporations over people in the political process and make the rich control the whole game. These things have happened, but these things can be reversed; other things can happen. I think sometimes it’s easy to look at what is, and say, “This is just the way it is, and it’s so impossibly far gone or unfixable,” but it’s not. You elect a few more thoughtful, reasonable people to Congress and you get good laws on the other side. You elect strange extremists to Congress—that’s the kind of laws you get. But it’s just that simple. There are thoughtful, reasonable people to vote for in every election cycle and we need to take it seriously and get behind them or make ourselves one of them.
I was very moved by what you said. It made me think about what our next step should be.
Well, yeah. You know, gun control. There’s the most insane resistance to gun control and massacres have become almost weekly occurrences. You think, “Wow, our country is so insane! We just need to go to Canada.” But look at John Lewis and the other democrats who did that sit-in a few weeks ago. Of course, the Republicans just went on vacation and ignored them, but that sit-in alone speaks really far and wide to me. If we could just elect a few more people like John Lewis to Congress...It’s as simple as that. You just get a few people out of there, you get a few different idealistic people in, and suddenly change is happening. It’s really doable...If someone can re-engage the electorate, that’s the start.
Is that one of your goals for BabeFest? To re-engage the electorate?
Yeah, absolutely. VOTE DAMMIT! We cannot disengage, especially this election cycle. The presidential election is crucial here, it’s very crucial to many people’s lives. I think it’s, you know, it’s disillusioning, and I can totally understand it and relate to it. For someone who’s very idealistic, like me, to go to the polls at every election and vote for the lesser of two evils, which is so often what we have to do, but if you think about it as the difference—the lesser of the evils means life or death for some people; it’s imprisonment or freedom, it’s health or disease, the right to choose whether to be a mother or not. It’s huge, huge differences in lives. Maybe not your own, if you’re a middle-class privileged person. I guess I’m sort of speaking about the kind of privileged [voters who say], “Fuck it, if I don’t get everything I want, I’m just not going to participate.’ For me, you don’t just vote for yourself, you vote for everybody, and you try to move the ball down the playing field as far as you can in every election cycle with the knowledge that it might be frustratingly incremental or dissatisfying. It’s literally life or death for some people who are closer to the edge than yourself. To be an active voter is acknowledging that you are a part of something that your community, your city, your country is one family. You have to be responsible for your whole family, not just for yourself. Even pulling the lever for the lesser of two evils is doing something for your family.
Photos by Charles Waldorf via Righteous Babe Records
Buy tickets for BabeFest here.
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