Older and wiser Righteous and radical folk activist Ani DiFranco continues to challenge society, herself

For Ani DiFranco, one of the most interesting aspects of her journey on the road to becoming what many consider the “indie-girl-icon of the ’90s and beyond” is that it was all pre-Internet — it affirms that there is such a thing as life both beyond and before the world’s most influential tool.

Righteous Babe Records, DiFranco’s impeccably iconic record label, was created almost three decades ago in an effort to preserve creative freedom for herself, and eventually many other artists. She had an idea, and the existing alternatives simply wouldn’t suffice. 

“I couldn’t imagine any other way. You know the norm — get a big record company and have them steer you. How you look and dress, how you play the single … even the idea of needing to have a single. It all went against my folk singer and activist nature. Waiting for the team of professionals to come and give me permission? No. I couldn’t be slowed down.” 

DiFranco says that at the time, she was moving into the folk underground and discovered a world of people who were not a part of the commercial music industry. “I had many examples around me of indie promoters and labels. It isn’t that I came up with something, I just took it further than the people around me and the overall roots underground had taken it.”

Folk music has long been associated with protest, and is known as a genre that puts pressure on those in power — it revokes oppression’s ability to silence the masses. DiFranco, a long-standing staple in the musical activist community, has been quoted broadly as stating that it’s her job as a folk singer to continue this work.

“I want to start by contradicting myself,” she laughs. “I think it’s all of our jobs. I think whatever line of work you are in, you have opportunities to be present and accountable. The world of the folk singer, it’s what has drawn me in and kept me in it. It’s a world designed around that awareness. It’s not enough just to live in the world, you’ve got to contribute to it, you’ve got to change it for the better.”

With a life and career that have impacted her fans, supporters and the music industry as a whole, her memoir has been highly anticipated. No Walls and the Recurring Dream (2019, Viking Press) is a beautifully crafted recollection of DiFranco’s formative years and captures an intimate introspection of her career. 

She opens the book speaking candidly about her performance directly following the events of 9/11 in 2001 — despite the delicacy of timing, she felt drawn to perform her poem Self Evident, prose specifically exploring the fallout and political underpinnings of the event. While it was exceptionally difficult to perform due to the audience’s understandably intense emotions and reactions, she had a burning message and a story that needed to be told.

DiFranco offers a reflection on how she navigates these delicate topics and events, as her work constantly addresses the pain points so many people are feeling. She picks it up from the beginning.

“When I started out, I was desperate. I was a desperate young woman trying to make space for myself and find myself in this world. I was throwing a lot of things out there, as any young person without a thought paid to consequences or repercussions, I couldn’t keep quiet anymore. I refused to be erased.”

But as she gets older, she says, “I have more of a sense of myself. I have enough space in this world where I can feel myself existing that I can choose when to challenge and be more nuanced with (these topics). I want to put my radical ideas into a world where I think they’re missing, but I want to do it in a way that doesn’t repel. When you can express yourself in a way that others are ready to receive, that becomes more resonant and productive.”

Authoring a memoir gave DiFranco the chance to view her past through a different lens. “I feel more grateful than ever before. There is so many ways to come at the telling of your own story, and, depending on what side of the bed you wake up on, you may portray your life in a different light,” she says.

“As I was writing, I was challenging myself.” 

She says she asked herself: “ ‘Is the memory you’ve had in your back pocket all of these years of your childhood … does it need to be that dark?’ As I really walked myself back into it, I was like, ‘Look at that cool thing and that cool thing.’ The people who were difficult or hurt me along the way, writing the book was useful to say, ‘But look at what that person also gave me and supported me.’”  

Righteous Babe Records is constantly moving forward, and DiFranco is eager to release a compilation record, The Prison Music project, next Spring. Her hope is the human rights crisis of mass incarceration can be further understood through songs written by those who are incarcerated. 

(Photo courtesy GMDThree.)

And DiFranco plays the Bella Concert Hall Friday, Aug. 9 followed by a concert at Edmonton Folk Festival Saturday Aug. 10. 

Sarah Allen is a recent graduate of Mount Royal University’s Journalism program. She is an arts advocate and has taken a recent interest into Calgary’s blooming circus community. A self-proclaimed storyteller, her work focuses around photography, videography and written content.