By Jeff Miers
News Pop Music Critic
In a sense, Ani DiFranco has spent most of her life preparing for the storm of controversy that arrived on her New Orleans doorstep in January.
Having booked a songwriting seminar and performance roundtable retreat for artists and writers at the Nottoway Plantation outside of New Orleans, DiFranco was deluged by a social media-borne tidal wave of negativity. The storm’s epicenter was the suggestion that booking such an event at a former slave plantation put the lie to everything the outspoken feminist and civil rights activist had spent her career crafting.
A determined and purposeful stranger to the vagaries of social media – “It’s not now, has never been, and never will be my thing,” she told me – DiFranco learned of the erupting controversy only after friends began bombarding her answering machine with messages of sympathy. Cornered, and with a definite requirement to address the situation, like, yesterday, DiFranco issued first an outline of her purpose for scheduling the retreat, and then an apology and a cancellation of the event. None of this pleased the feminist community that forms a significant part of her fan base.
And then everything went dark in the DiFranco camp. Suddenly, the very subculture DiFranco has worked tirelessly to become a representative of had turned against her, and it was left to the likes of Fox News to feebly plead her case. The universe had turned upside down.
The irony was baffling to behold, for DiFranco had earned her stripes as an artist who routinely sought to give voice to the voiceless, and for whom issues of race, gender bias, patriarchy and the divisive consequences of economic terrorism were familiar songwriting themes. That she would have to defend herself against allegations of racism seemed absurd. And yet, she had done the work. If anyone could rise to the challenge of having their very core beliefs questioned in such a very public and bitterly vitriolic manner, she would seem to be the one tough enough to do just that.
On Friday, when DiFranco returns for a show in the house that she and longtime manager Scot Fisher built – Babeville, the renovated church at the corner of Delaware and West Tupper – she will greet her hometown audience for the first time since the Nottoway controversy erupted. She’ll do so with some new songs in tow, though none is likely to directly address the situation. But one can expect an emotional homecoming from the fiercely independent DiFranco.
Earlier this week, DiFranco spoke to The News by phone from a stop on her recently launched tour. Not surprisingly, she tackled this and other issues head-on, both passionately and eloquently.
Q: In retrospect, does it seem to you that the whole Nottoway Plantation situation might’ve been treated differently if you happened to be male? Other artists have hosted gatherings at the same site – Todd Rundgren among them – and no such controversy erupted.
A: Make no mistake, it was women who came after me. There are different rules for feminist icons than for everyone else. We made a mistake by not realizing that going in. In the South, these places are all around us. People use them all the time. Others, for whom these places are solely symbols, and not part of the day-to-day architectural reality, are not able to see that you would have to go very far north to avoid presenting anything on a piece of land that was not somehow part of the history of slavery and racism in this country.
Mistakes were made by my organization, and one of them was to not address this, not be accountable to this, right up front. But as my husband said to me while all of this was going on, if anyone should be at a site like this, it’s me. “You would’ve met it head-on,” he said to me. I needed to hear that, because this completely devastated me. It was an incredibly painful blow delivered by a group I’d dedicated my life to. A small but incredibly vocal group. Now, when I walk down the street, I feel ostracized from the tribe. I shy away from people now, where I never did in the past. When you feel immense pain, and you attach it to a particular group, you feel a bodily reaction when you encounter that group. This was such a lesson to me. A very painful lesson I’m still learning from.”
Q: Were you surprised that your motives would be so misunderstood, and the very core of the personae you’ve presented through your art questioned?
A: Yes. In all of this emotional duress, I tried to avoid the vitriol. Tried to look past the craziness to see if there was any legitimate criticism, and something to be learned. It’s an ongoing thing. An incredibly humbling thing. To be a human, a monkey, and to feel that your fellow monkeys have banished you, it just makes you want to die.
Q: At the core of all of this seems to be a cold hard fact – this country has not adequately faced its own past, and race is still the biggest issue there is.
A: There is no racial justice, and until there is, we will all suffer. Even a white person like me can suffer. Racism hurts everyone. The pain of slavery reverberates throughout our whole society. There’s an age-old debate, something learned in Feminism 101 – the debate over the white bias in feminist history. Suddenly, I was made into a representative of that bias. That crushed me.
Even after all of this, I still think it would be OK to go there, but we’d have to be completely upfront about the whole discourse. If you look at the language in the Nottoway brochure, which I foolishly didn’t beforehand, you see that it is actually completely offensive. If we had been there, we could’ve addressed this. And it needs to be addressed.
Q: As an artist who pretty much wrote the book on going the independent route, what are your thoughts on streaming sites like Spotify, and how streaming itself affects the artist?
A: Well, just because I’m in music, that doesn’t make me an authority on this, any more than the next guy. I will say that resistance seems futile, because it’s happening. Before this transition, we made records, we had our records in hand, we sold them at shows. That’s no more. So musicians have had to adapt. I see myself as an upper echelon of street musician, and so many of the musicians I know live a hand-to-mouth existence. I speak to many of them, and they are legitimately bemoaning the loss of one of the main sources of their meager income. It’s tough. But there must be something healthy to come from this. The only thing I can think of is, the pool of musicians will, of necessity, be distilled down to the most dedicated, the folks for whom making music is not an option, but an imperative.
My husband put it this way: “It was a blip in time that there was so much money to be made from music. That was the anomaly, and now it’s over.” I think he’s right. But again, I am not the absolute authority on this.
Q: With your growing family responsibilities, your work rate has understandably slowed a bit over the past few years, but I understand you are in the midst of crafting new music.
A: Yes. I’m most of the way through a new album, working with Todd (Sickafoose, bassist) and Terrence (Higgens, drummer), who are my New Orleans tribe. I love playing with them, and what we’ve been doing has been real organic, real natural, raw, in a way. I want to finish by the end of May, and have it out in the fall.
Q: Is the music helping you get through what’s happened over the last few months?
A: Yes, always. I’m 43 now. I taught myself to speak freely before I was 20 years old. I have nothing to hide. But now, after being hit with all of this, fear has entered into the equation. I’m trying to get back to that place where I can speak freely again. And I’m slowly getting there.
WHO: Ani DiFranco with Eric Himan
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE; Asbury Hall at Babeville, 341 Delaware Ave.
TICKETS: $32.50 advance, $37 day of the show