When feminist icon Ani DiFranco first stepped onto the global music scene with a defiant voice and black combat boots, she was just 19 years old.
She had an urgency about her: a mission to publicly dismantle the patriarchy with a charge for her fans to do the same. She was creating her own music, writing song after song in a catalogue that would eventually span to a 20+ album career. She was creating her own record label too—Righteous Babe Records—which would not only elevate her voice but also catapult other women into the recording business. She was also educating herself. By age 20, the songwriter was taking classes at The New School in New York, including Feminism 101. She was attempting the complicated tightrope between feminist theory and practice.
Today, when Ani DiFranco speaks, it’s easy to hear all of that work and care in her voice. She is deeply thoughtful when reaching for language, in a manner that makes evident all the years she has spent having difficult conversations about progress. When she speaks, you can almost see her underlining Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich in Feminism 101. You can imagine her chatting with Pete Seeger. Learning tactics. Making mistakes. Expanding her ideas of inclusion. Deepening the kind of spirit required to create real and lasting change.
Ms. spoke with DiFranco in the lead up to her April 18 livestream concert, celebrating the release of her new album Revolutionary Love. She spoke with us about poetry, feminism, domestic abuse, shame, allyship and places where vulnerability and strength can co-exist. She was calling in from New Orleans, with her children and dog moving through the background and her head newly shaved. At age 50, she could still feel traces of her younger self and “the epic journey” that led her there.
Emily Sernaker: How has this time been for you, creativity-wise?
Ani DiFranco: Creatively getting off the touring train has allowed me space and time. I have two kids who are in virtual school. So, in a sense, I have no space or time because we’re constantly together. But that’s also a blessing for somebody like me who was aching for more time with my kids because my job is travel.
It’s allowed me to explore some other ideas that I’ve had for a long time and never had a chance to, like Righteous Babe Radio. We launched this free 24/7 streaming internet radio, which is a lot of live music from me and my cannon, my musical community, a lot of poetry and spoken word, a lot of unique shows that we’re generating now. I host Woody’s Voice, a biweekly conversation curated by the Woody Guthrie Center in Oklahoma. We also have a Putumayo world music show that we’re airing. That’s been an amazing new ride. A lot of time, a lot of energy…no money. So, it doesn’t solve the absence of touring.
I’m working on a children’s book. I’m working on a musical. All of these sort of long-term creative projects that I probably wouldn’t have been able to shoehorn into my packing and unpacking lifestyle. That’s kind of cool, getting an opportunity to change it up creatively.
Sernaker: It’s powerful that you’re able to help so many artists through Righteous Babe Records. The folksinger Anaïs Mitchell of Hadestown actually spoke with Ms. about what your generosity meant to her.
DiFranco: Yes, Anaïs! There have been so many wonderful artists that have come through our house, stayed in it, and we got behind them for a while, and then they move on. And there’s a lot of great artists currently working with Righteous Babe Records. 2020 was probably our busiest year for the label itself. We released so many records. The day that my record came out this February, we had two releases. Jocelyn Mackenzie also released a record on Righteous Babe.
Sernaker: For readers who aren’t familiar with the history of Righteous Babe, could you share what it was like to create your own record label?
DiFranco: When I started Righteous Babe label, there was no “there” there. There was no office and telephone and staff. It was an idea. I made a cassette of my first album and I just wrote “Righteous Babe Records” on there in my little chicken scratch. It was my way of thumbing my nose at the corporate establishment. It’s very anti-capitalism, or that’s maybe not the right way to say it. I felt that this sort of hyper-capitalist society was to the detriment of culture, of art, of people, of just the human interests. I had this idea that I wanted to be an artist in the world without getting in that bed with those business bottom line minded people.
So, when I was 19, I started writing “Righteous Babe Records” on my tapes. After a year or two, I was driving around playing shows…we’re talking one guitar and a 69’ Beetle that I was traversing the country in. I had one or two tapes to my name. But the income started to be such that I could hire literally my best friend. Then my other good friend. That’s how the label itself really became a reality. From there, we just slowly grew over the course of a decade or two.
Sernaker: I love the story about adding “babe” into the title. You sarcastically used it to push back at what guys would say, right?
DiFranco: Right. I sort of simplified the story just then because you’re right. In the beginning, I wrote “Righteous Records” because I felt that was just my way of expressing my dedication to my humanity. My idealism was: I’m trying not just to make art, but make change. Then we found out there is a Righteous Records in Oklahoma. A gospel label, and we got in touch with them and they were like, “Yeah, no, I think we’ll keep that name exclusively. Thanks.” So yes, putting the “babe” in there then was not just my earnest dedication to the cause, but my humor came into it at that point, which I think was really good in the end.
I’m sure maybe you know…feminists are so often stereotyped as humorless beings by a world that doesn’t seem to understand what an uphill battle this life can be for a woman, certainly for a feminist. I think that the “babe” in the name definitely cuts that off at the pass.
Sernaker: You just mentioned that you seek to be a changemaker in addition to an artist, which also comes up in your new music video “Do or Die.” You’re modeling protest as an individual and are endorsing the Breathe Act at the end of the video.
DiFranco: This summer I was out there on the street as often as I could joining the protest for racial justice. It was uplifting to be with thousands and thousands of people every day and to look around and say we are the majority. That was a very visceral, real, experiential [feeling]… this is America. It is diverse and rejoicing in diversity, showing that we understand our diversity is our strength, and we understand that no one can be free until we’re all free.
The challenge then becomes to translate that energy and groundswell of protest from the streets, to the halls of power. How do we translate this into systematic change? Because, of course, we understand that racism is sewn into our systems, our laws. When I discovered those incredible Congresswomen doing the work in the Breathe Act, I thought: here it is. They’re engaging with every modern civil rights organizing entity. It’s a huge coalition. They are attending to every aspect of what racial equality and systematic means.
Sernaker: You definitely emphasize the word “we” in the lyrics to “Do or Die.” There’s a feeling of you addressing the listener, including them in the conversation, right at the top of the record.
DiFranco: I feel like that line right there in the song “Do or Die” speaks to the whole album. Each of the songs exists in that place of damaged relationships and some of the songs are very personal. I’m talking about my personal relationships and trying to recover from traumas that we inflict on each other. From the damage that has been done without abandoning my family and that, of course, that metaphor applies exponentially outward.
The human family can’t divorce each other. Cancel culture is not the answer. When somebody, anybody, makes a mistake or treads on their fellow humans, we have to find a way of dealing with that because we can’t kick each other off the planet. The quest becomes: how to be the end of a cycle of violence. The violence tends to just go back and forth, back and forth between people. We need to figure out how to say it stops here and I am going to meet even my opponents with revolutionary love.
Sernaker: I actually heard you speak about this. It was a really gripping moment at your book release at The New School auditorium here in New York. I don’t know if you remember. The Q&A ended with a fan of yours, who was put off by a phrasing of the moderator that they felt was disrespectful or politically incorrect in some way. You jumped in and de-escalated the situation.
DiFranco: Yeah, I totally remember the moment you’re talking about. The moderator said “Ladies and gentlemen” once or twice to address the room. The person who came up to the mic was a trans person who very much took offense to that. They came up to the mic in attack mode, that was the energy of their message. I feel like I have this experience so often in my life now, where I see what is playing out around me. Then in my mind’s eye, I see an alternative reality, where that person comes up to the mic and says: “You know, this has been lovely and I really appreciate it a lot of what has been said, but I am a trans man, and I felt discluded by the opening welcome.” To approach it with, again, that spirit of revolutionary love with compassion for the other, and to approach it as a teaching moment instead of a battle. It does take an extreme amount of patience, and humility on the part of the oppressed, the marginalized…
Sernaker: [That they have] to be the teachers is problematic.
DiFranco: Yes, it is a weight. Many feminists in particular have spoken to that or people of color. They say, “We have to spend our life being so patient, so humble, and every moment is a fricking teaching moment. All of my energy is supposed to go to this?” And I would say no. It is not up to the people who are marginalized, who are discounted, who are disempowered, to give their whole life to this work of teaching and shouldering the burdens by themselves. I think the sort of the math I’ve learned to do in my head is that those that can afford to be that teacher in that moment, that is the work you are called to do.
Each of us has a role to play and that role changes over time. I feel like with that lens in mind, I have been writing myself into existence for thirty years. I came from a place in this world where I felt very small, very disempowered, very discounted, very pushed down, very afraid. I listen to my early songs and I hear songs of survival. I hear songs from the perspective of prey to a world of predators. That’s what it was like, being twenty and on my own and in New York and walking down the street at night. Now, after thirty years of writing myself strong, writing myself safe, writing myself into a fully realized human being, despite the odds, despite a society that does not always recognize the full humanity of females, I am in a position now where I can be that teacher. Where I can, in that moment of that book talk, try to de-escalate, where I am ready now to step into that place. Of course, I don’t do it perfectly and I’m still learning. I’m still growing, and I’m still trying my hardest and failing all the time.
Sernaker: In your memoir, you talk about taking classes at The New School like Feminism 101 and reading Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Ntozake Shange and Carol Gilligan. What does being part of a “feminist continuum” mean to you?
DiFranco: It means everything to me to jump into that river. I came into being because of all those women. All those second wave, feminists, writers, poets, philosophers, revolutionaries made me understand who I am. They helped me tune in and be able to hear the sound of my own voice. Through the din of the patriarchal culture, they taught me to trust in myself and my instincts and my perspective to understand I’m not crazy. I’m not alone.
Sernaker: In that Feminism 101 section, you wrote: “It cemented my will to become part of a process of breaking silences and challenging the code of resignation sounding patriarchy.”
DiFranco: It’s simply that you can’t start with imbalance of one of these fundamental binaries that I see as masculine and feminine. I don’t see women are feminine and men are masculine. I think masculine and feminine are in each of us. Whether we identify as female, male or in between or neither or both and, the swirl is within us, among us and between us.
Even in our very selves, even in me as a woman, if the masculine in my nature is upheld and recognized, and affirmed, celebrated, and the feminine in me is always doubted, and suspect and undercover, I myself cannot be fully realized and let alone a society that elevates the masculine and devalues the feminine. I think that’s a fundamental imbalance of human societies if you go around the globe. You can’t start there, you just can’t start from patriarchy and get to peace because from one imbalance begets another and another and another.
Sernaker: You’ve also spoken eloquently that women’s reproductive rights are civil rights.
Sernaker: I know that’s an issue close to your heart.
DiFranco: Yes, and I really do think language is so important. We need to drive the language around this issue. Because putting it in patriarchal, religious language — in moral language — is not right. I think that women’s ability to control their own reproduction, to decide when to reproduce, is fundamental to being free in a society.
In modern society, [if you can’t] choose when you want to reproduce as a female, you are a reproductive slave. You will never be free as long as you are under the control of an external force telling you that you must have a baby now. You will never be free or emancipated in that circumstance. You have to understand reproductive freedom as an element of civil rights, only applies to people with reproductive systems. Then, if you feel you are morally against something, be it having an abortion, homosexuality, whatever the patriarchal religion says, if that is your religious belief, then for yourself you may absolutely choose not to do these things that you agree are immoral. But to tell other people with other beliefs, and other lives, that they have to abide by your religious beliefs, I think that’s where [it’s problematic].
Sernaker: How can language and activism work together? I’m thinking again of the song “Do or Die,” there’s a great moment where you mention using a pen to pick the locks.
DiFranco: I’ve always been quite skeptical of laws because they have not served everyone equally. The laws that are supposed to make us all equal in America have not succeeded. Then along comes the last administration, and I found an incredibly renewed sense of respect for the law. I thought: “Wow, these rules, this democracy, and as imperfectly as it has served so many of us, is a whole lot better than fascism. It’s a whole lot better than dictators.”
This is contained in that song “Do or Die” in that line that you brought up: “They use their pen to pick the locks.” Our founders created this democracy with a pen and paper. It allowed for a peaceful transfer of power, which it wasn’t until we’re were the brink of losing it…the profound gift that is. As imperfect as the system has been and unequal for people, this is a system we can work with. This is a system we can grow.
Sernaker: Let’s talk about your love of poetry. It’s unique that in your shows and albums, you’ve really made a choice to have spoken word present throughout.
DiFranco: I have a love affair with song and my guitar but sometimes only a poem will do. The silence around the words and the rhythmic freedom of a poem. The lack of necessity to rhyme when you take the music away. All of that when it’s just you and your words and the air and anybody who’s there to receive it.
Poetry has been the vehicle especially for feminists in our culture. I’m sure it’s not disconnected from the fact that women are caregivers, are so busy feeding and loving others that, to have a room of one’s own to write the novel to create the epic work, long, skinny columns of very distilled thoughts has been a traditional medium of feminist movements. It’s like: I have five minutes, and I’m going to try and communicate the world through this poem.
Sernaker: Many people in the United States didn’t realize how much they needed a poem until they heard Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman.
DiFranco: Oh, my gosh, Amanda Gorman! I know. We’re going to be okay. Remember the Parkland shootings and the young women from that? Emma Gonzalez. Now, Amanda Gorman and the climate activist Greta Thunberg. These young women… thank Goddess.
Their nimbleness of mind and freshness of perspective, and genius, that is very much of a female nature. The fact that they are finding their way to the world stage now and that humanity is opening up enough to listen to those young female voices is so hopeful for the 21st century. It is making it different from the last. But yes, isn’t that something? It says it all right there that every time a President, the leader of the free world, the most powerful man, so far, is being installed in office, who do you call? A poet.
Sernaker: I’d like to ask about “Shrinking Violet” if you feel comfortable. There are so many women stuck in quarantine in domestic situations that they cannot get out of, either verbally or physically abusive. And we know that number has gone up. Why was it important for you to share this song?
DiFranco: Part of me didn’t want to include that song on the new record. Part of me never wants to sing it again. I had to write it because that’s how I get through life. But sharing it, and broadcasting it – is very uncomfortable.
I did it because of exactly what you’re saying. I know that I’m not alone in feeling scared in your own home. I know that there are many, probably more women than men, but all kinds of human beings right now that are stuck at home, like you say, in fear. So, I’ve written about it.
As songs I’ve written go out in the world, I hear whispered messages back and “Shrinking Violet” is often paired with “Bad Dream.” I already feel glad that I included them. It’s just, you’re not alone in these things. Even the most brilliant, active, powerful women out there in this world might be struggling mightily. When they go home, they might be feeling disempowered in their private sphere. I think it’s so important for us to know that we are not alone in our struggles, in what we consider our failures and weaknesses. So yeah, getting back to your original question, [it’s] the bravery of just being honest. Showing yourself succeeding, failing, being strong, being weak. All of that helps to allow for others to do that for themselves. My only message is you have just as much license as I do to be all the aspects of yourself and to be unashamed of them.
Sernaker: How has this impacted your experience of understanding what art can do? I mean, you already knew that art helps people not feel isolated, as your fans have testified.
DiFranco: The mighty second step that happens after you’ve created something to go share it in real time. That is a heavy duty connection point I sure miss. But even like you said, just the act of writing it out of your body, even if you only have that, that is really important.
I had this experience [years ago] where I came home to my house in Buffalo and there was a man upstairs. He was in my house, in the dark, in my bedroom waiting for me. I managed to talk him out of my house without any physical violence… I wasn’t even going to tell anyone because I knew people would worry about me. But every cell of my body got affected. I started having panic attacks all the time, thinking: I’m having a heart attack, gripping pain in my chest and can’t breathe.
I told myself mentally, that’s cool, I’m good moving on. But physically, it’s like: no, that was very traumatic. Now you have to process it. You have to deal with it in some other way than pushing it down and moving on. I grappled with what the aftershocks physically of having panic attacks for months. Then finally, I sat down and wrote a poem called “Parameters.” I put on a record at that time. It took several hours, I wrote it in one go. Afterwards, I’m not going to tell you the panic attacks completely disappeared, but…
Sernaker: It created space for it.
DiFranco: Yes, it was a marked difference with healing from the act. That’s before I shared it with anybody. You can write your heart and soul into a letter and never send it. The fact that you’ve articulated it for yourself, you’ve released it from your body, onto the page or into whatever medium you express through that is a healing process in and of itself. The sharing then becomes another different opportunity for healing and connecting and evolving with community. But even just the act of self-expression is medicine in and of itself for those of us that are sick from isolation and sick from feeling erased. To write it down and be your own witness is something.
Sernaker: I also wanted to ask you about physical appearance. Throughout your career—especially in “I’m Not a Pretty Girl” and “Imperfectly”—this is something you’ve explored in depth. I remember hearing your lyrics in college: “I’m okay, if you get me at a good angle. You’re okay, in the right sort of light. We don’t look like pages in a magazine, but that’s alright.” The permission of that felt unique. It’s something young women don’t really hear.
DiFranco: Being fixated on trying to be pretty is an incredible energy suck. Of all the things you could dedicate your skill and attention and talents towards trying to win at the game of competition for the male gaze, it’s just like ew. What a inspiration suck from women. That winning, that seeing other women as competitors, it’s all very subliminal shit.
Seeing the show, getting the thumbs up from the patriarchal beauty standard is the route to power, to self-empowerment. It’s all such a huge diversion. Actually, sabotage is, I think, so much of our potential as women. So yeah, it’s come up a lot. I imagine I have a lot of songs ahead of me about getting old. It’s like “I’m not your boy toy” when I’m young and cute. Now it’s like, okay, young and cute is kind of in the rear view. I look more like my mother every day to me. I am 50 now. I suppose from here, I keep counting up not back down again, so I think the new horizon of being not a pretty girl is not being a girl at all. I’m moving towards being an old lady. I’m going to search for the power in that. Against once again, that sort of patriarchal point system. Warding the male gaze and turning my own gaze on myself. One of the elements that I’ve offered in my songs over the years and the albums and the songs is: you’re also there. Your gaze [matters]… why don’t you look how you want for yourself?
The physical, the body image stuff, and the trying to win the game of who has the prettiest face and the biggest tits: that’s a trap. I recognized it as disempowering very early on and dividing. How do they divide workers of the world against each other to go fight for fascism. Whoa, what, how does that mind meld work? And the same thing with women. How have they so successfully divided us, pitted us against each other? As competitors vying for the treats from the master.
Sernaker: Physical appearance also feels worth exploring because you shaved your head again in your new music video. Do you want to speak about hair in particular?
DiFranco: Yes, I shaved my head again recently at age 50 and I hadn’t since I was 20. Which makes me look at the fact that it’s a different world around me now. I hope that I had played a part in that. These days, there’s a lot of women with shaved heads. I think even in the context of being sexy, of being pretty, of being gorgeous, of being desirable, there’s that tiny opening showing there’s actually a lot of ways to be feminine. There are a lot of ways to be beautiful.
My shaving my head in the video was just me checking in with myself again. I do it as an intuitive thing. I felt, well, my hair was getting shorter every day of the pandemic (I was cutting it myself) incrementally. Every time I would Zoom with somebody they would be like “Wow, you have less hair again.” Then I got to the point where I just thought, I think I just need to shave it again. Then we were going to make this video and I thought, well, maybe we’ll make it part of the action. When it came down to the moment of reckoning, my two friends are in the bathroom with me. I’m like, you know, maybe just short is good. And they’re looking at me like “We’re doing it.” I thought here we go: bumps and nooks and crannies and 15 year old sags and wrinkles. Age 50. Okay, bring it on. Bring it all on.
It really worked, I have to say. From my own personal point of view and wanting to check in with the sort of revolutionary that I stomped into the world to be. For weeks on end after I shaved, I would get up in the morning of course not remembering. I’d look in the mirror and be like, “Ah!” I saw me at 20. Every day, it was like, oh, and then my life flashes before my eyes and the epic journey since that moment when I was 20 and did it the first time. The immense change in me and the immense change in my society and everything. It really did serve to really put me in touch with that span. With that evolution with what epic change has taken place within and without myself. Also the work yet to do.