Ani DiFranco: One Righteous Babe

UPDATED 7/15/14:

Below is Episode 24 of The Martin Lastrapes Show Podcast Hour, "One RIghteous Babe," in which Martin and Chanel discuss discuss Ani DiFranco's epic and controversial 9/11 poem, "Self Evident," as well as her pioneering efforts as an independent artist.

My decision to become an independent publisher began about two years ago, while I was having lunch with my brother Greg at Vitello’s, an Italian restaurant in Studio City, CA, best known for being the spot where Robert Blake allegedly murdered his wife.  As we waited for our food, I was moaning about how frustrating it was trying to get my novel, Inside the Outside, published. “Why not publish it yourself?” Greg said.

I wasn’t the least bit interested in publishing it myself.  I wanted to be a traditional author with a literary agent and a book deal.

"I just can't imagine I'd be able to reach many readers if I published it myself."

"Even if you reach only a small audience, at least people would be reading it," he said.  "And isn't that the point, to have people read your book?”

Because there was—and is—a long-standing stigma attached to self-publishers, I feared that bucking the system would somehow taint me, making me unappealing to any future publishers.  And I told Greg as much.  It was at this point that he pulled out his trump card.

“What would Ani DiFranco do?”

Ani DiFranco, if you’re not familiar, is a singer, songwriter, poet, and political activist who, once upon a time, walked away from a record deal offered to her by a major label, choosing instead to find her own way as an independent artist.  Along the way, she created Righteous Babe Records, which allowed her to forge her way outside of the mainstream, succeeding primarily because of a loyal army of fans built largely on word-of-mouth.

In an open letter to Ms. Magazine in 1997, Ani says:

“I’m just a folksinger, not an entrepreneur. My hope is that my music and poetry will be enjoyable and/or meaningful to someone, somewhere, not that I maximize my profit margins. It was 15 years and 11 albums getting to this place of notoriety and, if anything, I think I was happier way back when. Not that I regret any of my decisions, mind you. I’m glad I didn’t sign on to the corporate army. I mourn the commodification and homogenization of music by the music industry, and I fear the manufacture of consent by the corporately-controlled media. Last thing I want to do is feed the machine.”

I first became aware of Ani DiFranco when, in the early spring of 2002, my girlfriend asked me to go with her to see Ani in concert at the Grove of Anaheim.  I’d never heard of Ani and I really wasn’t interested, but, being a loyal boyfriend, I begrudgingly agreed to go.  For the most part, I was underwhelmed with the show, until halfway through when Ani began reciting a poem she was working on, which she would later call “Self Evident.”

It's an epic poem about the tragedy of September 11, which is unapologetically critical of both America and then-President George W. Bush. Bush, at the time, was at the height of his popularity, so bashing him hadn’t yet come into vogue.

I wasn’t even sure if I agreed with everything she said in the poem, but it was so powerful and unflinching that I instantly became a fan.  I went on to listen to all of her records (I believe she had thirteen or fourteen at the time) for the next couple of days, while scouring the Internet for her song lyrics, which themselves read like poetry.  I eventually became acquainted with her story of being a maverick, of creating her own path.

So, when, while we sat in our booth at Vitello’s, Greg asked me, “What would Ani DiFranco do?”, what he was really doing was holding me up to the standard of my artistic hero.  He knew that for me to reject the idea of being an independent author would be akin to rejecting Ani DiFranco.  And he was right.  Humbled by my brother’s simple logic, I decided it was time to reject the system that had already rejected me—over and over again—and try my hand at being a maverick.

In that same open letter to Ms. Magazine, Ani says:

“We have a view which reaches beyond profit margins into poetry, and a vocabulary to articulate the difference.”

Torch in hand, Ani has been leading the way for nearly twenty years, inspiring artists like myself to take the road less traveled.  Her example provides me with no small amount of hope that there are treasures to be discovered in the place where ambition and integrity meet.

And I thank her for it.