In February 2017, Ani DiFranco was one of the marquee performers at the Folk Alliance International festival in Kansas City.
DiFranco performed several songs and during her keynote address spoke at length about the importance of voting to the democratic process. “Resistance and persistence” was her motto.
DiFranco will not be performing at this year’s festival, which is Feb. 14-18 at the Westin Crown Center. But she will be in town for a show Feb. 20 at the Madrid Theater.
From her home in New Orleans recently, she spoke to The Star about last year’s Folk Alliance, sexism in the music industry and, again, the importance of exercising your democratic rights.
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What can you tell us about your upcoming show in Kansas City?
Well, it’s the first show of the tour so it will be just me and my drummer, Terence Higgins. Our bass player, Todd (Sickafoose), can’t make the first few dates. So it will be like an Ani show circa 1992 — Ani and a drummer. But come early and see the opening act: Gracie and Rachel. They are really lovely. They’ll also be jumping in and guesting on my set.
A year ago you were in Kansas City attending the Folk Alliance International. It was about a month after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and people at the conference were riled. What do you remember about the experience?
I remember being very happy to be there among my tribe, the folk world, so many friends and comrades who go back so many years. That’s always a good feeling, especially in perilous times.
I remember, too, a lot of questions like, “Where are the political songs from a folk world that’s so famous for being a wellspring of politically radical art?” And I was like, “I don’t know. Hip-hop?”
I wondered the same myself. How bad does it have to get before the folk singers get political again? Not to be pessimistic; I’m sure all kinds of s*** is happening that I’m not aware of. But you’d think there would be an even stronger critical mass of rebellion through art.
In the year since, what have you seen to make you optimistic?
I’m seeing a lot of people starting to join in, people who hadn’t — all kinds of people coming out of the woodwork all over the place, taking to the streets or getting involved and supporting organizations that are trying to do the good work in this world. All of my activist community is very heartened by how much support they suddenly have and the energy people are bringing.
The resistance is happening and it is pretty strong. And that’s really good for us and important, especially in America and the cult of celebrity, that we take it to heart that we have to do this ourselves.
We can’t wait for a savior to save us. That was kind of the danger with Obama. We all put our feet up and figured it would all be fine. So you see people thinking more democratically now. “Oh, he pulled out of the Paris Accord. C’mon cities, c’mon governor, c’mon corporations. We have to organize ourselves and make this happen.”
The Folk Alliance this year is again addressing the issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault. You have on your own started a label and built a career outside the industry, but you must still be exposed to that kind of behavior nonetheless.
My life as a female has been riddled with all kinds of sexual misconduct. But I think it’s terrific that now you can see women becoming so human in our country and our time that their stories and experiences are becoming legitimate.
If we keep going down this road, there’s equality at the end. It’s a good first step to acknowledge the sexism in patriarchy.
In terms of my job, I have experienced being psychologically disempowered, condescended to, patronized. I’m working on a memoir and talking about the years and years of touring on my own without a crew of my own.
I’d show up to venue after venue after venue and the house sound guy is the gatekeeper between myself and the audience. He’s very territorial. He doesn’t want to be told by a 5-foot-2 chick how she wants her acoustic guitar to sound. They all think they know better and they all have an attitude and they all push you down.
So what do you do?
You have to develop ways of trying to get over. With me it was a smile plastered over my face, trying to kill them with kindness and get through with sweetness to “Pleeeease turn the high-end down. That’s all I want. Of course you’re bigger and stronger and more important and more knowledgeable, but I can tell you the exact frequencies I would love turned down, sir?”
I used to wear platform boots for a decade or so and it was just about getting up to shoulder-level so everyone wasn’t literally talking down to me. That’s what happens when a little female steps up and tries to be part of the conversation.
You support many social and political causes. Is one more important than the others? At the Folk Alliance last year, voting was your prime message.
I’m one of the early waves of the generations of disillusionment. I feel I was lucky to be born in 1970. I had a glimpse of a hopeful America. There was still a flickering flame of “We are making progress in our social movements.”
Then there was a systematic crackdown — using our own tax dollars to neutralize any revolutionary movement and maintain the status quo and keep people disempowered.
I think if you are an educated, studied person who has read about it, you know exactly how hopeless it all feels. … The irony is you have to believe in democracy. It’s like love: If you don’t believe in it, it’s not there. It’s all about believing in it. And the first act of creating a real democracy is voting.
They don’t make it easy. It can even be a heroic act. I think until we start that process, you wait around for someone you really want to vote for. But waiting around is not the way to get to that point.
Ani DiFranco performs Feb. 20 at the Madrid Theater. Gracie and Rachel open at 8 p.m.