“Every Time I Move / I Make a Woman’s Movement” – Thoughts on Ani DiFranco’s Song Camp Mistake
The internet has been buzzing the past day or two over a folksinger gaffe that, in the grand scope of All Things, let’s be perfectly honest here, is not really the end of the world.
A little background.
In 1989, a bald, nose-pierced, hairy pitted teenager from Buffalo, NY, put out a demo on a cassette tape. She had been performing in the Buffalo area for years, and had developed a guitar picking style that was unique, for lack of a better word. Many of her songs – though not all of them – were politically charged, feminist-focused, lyric-heavy tunes that pulled together the folk music tradition and the punk rock tradition with a healthy dose of ’70s womyn singer energy. For all their political posturing, though, the songs were always about the singer – Ani DiFranco. Her willingness to endear her personal experience to an audience, putting a face on “political” issues like abortion and abuse, discrimination and feminism, made her pretty popular among the college radio crowd. Her cassette tape demo sold like no tomorrow, and she got to discover that an artist could do just fine on their own, without the steam train rocket ship to stardom that record labels of the time were still managing to pull off for people like Suzanne Vega and other folk singer-songwriters in the 1990s. Besides, stardom was kind of creepy and weird, and she didn’t look like what you’d expect from your average workaday pop star.
Years went by and, the larger the stage, the higher the platform, the louder the mic, and the gianter the audience became in front of Ani DiFranco, the more she cashed in on the opportunity to get shit off her chest. She owned the responsibility of the folksinger – the opportunity to open people up to things like great old folksingers, like Utah Phillips, or under-known poets like her teacher Sekou Sundiata. She lent her time and money and celebrity to things like the Southern Center for Human Rights (which she featured in a documentary DVD about her crazy career) or saving old, beautiful buildings from demolition by going so far as to sue the state. The songs, she dedicated to exploring buzzterms like “atheism” and “racism” and “homophobia” with an exceptional amount of humanity and fumbling and curiosity and mercy.
All this stuff endeared lesbians and feminists and people of color to her work, due to her clear commitment to social justice issues. But here’s where the disconnect has taken place, I think.
To my mind, Ani DiFranco has always been a poet first, a guitar picker second, many other things after that. That she has seen fit to speak out about politics is a byproduct of her being a responsible, concerned citizen of the world. Not a politician. She’s done much of her Speaking Out through music – songs that explore ideas, from animal impulses (“Animal”) to promiscuity (“Promiscuity”) to trying to understand why people are so obsessed with other people’s sexual orientation (“In or Out”). There’s always been a bit of righteous indignation in there, whether she’s been preaching to the choir in the wake of her own abortion (“Lost Woman Song”) or revitalizing old coal mining tunes to address the fact that, just because there’s a black president in the US, doesn’t mean racism is dead and gone, much less understood or even understandable (“Which Side Are You On?”).
As artists with a conscience about their work go, Ani DiFranco has done her damnedest for 24 years to use the microphone in front of her face, to shed light on dark places and find pathways toward peace and understanding.
These days, she’s a mother of two small children, living in New Orleans with her husband even as she remains responsible for the incomes and benefits and livelihoods of those who work for her at Righteous Babe Records in Buffalo. (A company which now operates in one of those old buildings she and her partner Scot saved. When they renovated it, they did environmentalist overhauls, like putting in geothermal heating and whatnot, practicing what they preach, as they have always tried to do, whether it’s been employing the local mom and pop shop that uses biodegradable inks, for the concert t-shirts, and on down the line.)
So, it would stand to reason that, when some company that she knows about through her friends in the arts world, approached her and asked if she wanted to host a songwriting camp close to home, she might say yes. She might say make it real close to home so I can come home to my babies every night. She might call some of her radically progressive social-justice-minded artist buddies and ask them to help her out with it. And she might be blindsided when she discovers that, now that everything’s signed and ready to go, the place the company has selected for this song camp is a former slave plantation.
I just wanted to create a little context here. Not because I think it’s defensible to make money from that unacceptably violent history, but because sometimes we humans inadvertently fall into a pile of shit. Then we have to crawl out of it. It’s a little different from seeing a pile of shit and getting down on the ground and intentionally rolling in it, if you follow my logic.
When I learned about the Righteous Retreat, I thought it sounded pretty amazing. I was shocked at the ticket price, but figured you can’t make these things cheap or else they’d sell out in two seconds. I was surprised at the location, but figured with this crowd of radically progressive artistic types, maybe they were planning to lead a discussion about how to take back our shared history, turn it around, and make it propel us forward into a better, more peaceful, just, and equal world; maybe that discussion would lead to how art can be used to move us in that way, to open dialog around things that are tough to talk about.
As a white lady who grew up in a small southern town, I’ve never felt confident addressing racial issues. Neither I nor anyone in my family that I know would have stood for what went down even 50 years ago. So how do I talk about this? What are the words? What are the questions to ask?
When I see folks on the internet expressing rage at a woman who has dedicated her career – deliberately, consistently, for a quarter of a century – to social justice and the pursuit of understanding, of equality, and so on, because of one naive oversight, I feel at a loss. If we can’t allow our artists to make mistakes, how can we expect ourselves to progress? Yes, it was a major oversight, but does it erase or even overshadow 24 years of focused activism?
DiFranco could have begun her statement with some version of “I would like to express my sincerest apology.” Much analysis on social media has gone into trying to figure out why the words “apology” and “sorry” were nowhere in there. Personally, as a fan, as an activist, as someone who cares deeply about the abolitionist tradition, as an imperfect white lady who likes to see examples set by people who are smarter than me, I wish she would have used one of those words. I wish she would have stated that she, like most of us white people, is often unaware of the goggles of white privilege through which the whole world is seen. That it can be difficult sometimes for all of us – even those of us who are very careful and pay very close attention – to catch the things we do and words we say that come from a tradition of opression and violence. Like how even many slang words we employ daily are deeply rooted in the white oppression of brown- and black-skinned people. And how, if we don’t even know what some of those word histories are, we can’t even begin to expect ourselves to undo the bigger, more daunting insitutions of oppression. And so on and so forth.
DiFranco has a serious point that there is no hallowed ground in the US that wasn’t stolen from someone, in some violent tirade. Do we need to compare and contrast the violence perpetrated upon African-Americans and that upon Native Americans? It is, after all, all the same terrible, shameful history. She has a point there, yes. But “deeply sorry” goes a long way, and one would wish a poet would know the value of those words. Alas, even poets don’t always employ words perfectly.
Language is imperfect for all of us. Language is a bumbling, spitting, backfiring old jalopy of communication, but it’s often the best we can do to start down the road to understanding. Luckily, there is always time and space for clarification and apology. Maybe she’ll deliver hers the way she’s always done best – in a song.
Until then, there’s this one:
From Ani DiFranco’s Facebook wall:
it has taken me a few days but i have been thinking and feeling very intensely and i would like to say i am sincerely sorry. it is obvious to me now that you were right; all those who said we can’t in good conscience go to that place and support it or look past for one moment what it deeply represents. i needed a wake up call and you gave it to me.
it was a great oversight on my part to not request a change of venue immediately from the promoter. you tried to tell me about that oversight and i wasn’t available to you. i’m sorry for that too.
know that i am digging deeper.