Ani DiFranco: Still a Righteous Babe
For most of us, fighting “The Man” is a youthful exercise. For Ani DiFranco, it’s been a lifelong vocation.
Ani Difranco is an admired singer and songwriter known for her signature alternative folk rock sound and political activism. Among her accolades she has won the Woody Guthrie Award for social change, the Woman of Courage Award from the National Organization for Women, and two Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards.
She was born Angela Maria DiFranco in 1970 in Buffalo, NY, and began busking at bars at age 9. She became an emancipated minor when she was 15, graduated from the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts high school at 16, and started her own record label at 19. Her self-titled 1990 debut and all of her twenty albums were released on this label, now known as Righteous Babe records. DiFranco won her first of nine Grammy nominations for the song “Shy,” from her 1995 album Not A Pretty Girl (she won the award in 2003 for the package design of her CD Evolve). Her highest-charting album, Little Plastic Castle (1998) reached number 22 in the Billboard charts.
DiFranco published a memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream, in 2019.
At 47, singer-songwriter and agitator Ani DiFranco has discovered, within herself, an easy place to be.
Ani DiFranco: I know what and why I’m doing what I’m doing, and I feel at peace in it, you know? I’m over wanting to be somewhere, something else.
Such inner peace was hardly preordained for this Buffalo-born melodist and poet. DiFranco began busking in bars at the age of 9, won legal emancipation from her parents at 15, and launched her own label (now known as Righteous Babe Records) four years later. In hundreds of songs written over more than 30 years, she’s questioned hierarchies and called for justice. She’s never put business first.
DiFranco: It’s so ironic to me that the label “entrepreneur” has followed my name for decades and decades. Because it’s exactly the opposite, is my point. I don’t wanna be an entrepreneur. I wanna be an artist.
From the start, DiFranco was flagrant in her disregard for music industry norms— honoring self-expression over self-promotion, checking in with her conscience and not her accountants. She was, she sang, “Not A Pretty Girl,” and she would not be tamed.
DiFranco: It was this funny, like, “Oh, we’re supposed to go on tour when a record…” Didn’t work out that way. You know, or I’d get invited to play a TV show, for instance, David Letterman or something, and decide to play a very political song ‘cause I got three minutes on TV. I wanna say something. And they would say, “Mm, yes, we’d like a song, maybe, that’s more upbeat.” In other words, “We don’t want that song on our show.”
AJC: And how would that be delivered, and how would you respond to it? A tap on the dressing room door?
DiFranco: If I was ever switching into businessperson mode, like, “I’m running a record company here. We gotta get our artists on this national TV show,” I would say, “Well, pick another song. There’s lots of good songs.” But instead, I said, “No, that’s the song I wanna play.” And I didn’t go on the show.
DiFranco: You know, ‘cause that’s just… That’s how we did it. I was pretty uncompromising.
Ani DiFranco has also been rather uncompromising in her relationship with those who have carried her songs forward—the fans, who have found in her some version of themselves. Their devotion is a gift and a responsibility.
DiFranco: It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder, in a way, to… “Can I continue to give that to people? Can I not disappoint that person, and that person, and that person, who holds me so dear?” You know, the people with the “Babe” tattooed, or my face, or… You know. “Can I somehow live up to what you need from me? Will I falter? Will I fail you? Will I…” It’s pressure, you know? The pressure builds.
And so, says DiFranco, does the sense of community—the possibilities for social justice and change, that are so alive within her songs.
DiFranco: I’ve never felt less alone in my outrage. From my perspective, I’ve felt often like a voice in the wilderness—not that I ever was, not that I’m any more knowing than the rest of the human race. But there’s so much more openness around me right now, receptiveness from not just the tribe to, “Let’s talk about patriarchy. Let’s talk about…” I have never seen so many people saying, “Enough is enough.” I find that extremely exciting, extremely hopeful.
Hopeful and at peace, Ani DiFranco is today, no less a righteous babe—still singing against tyranny and boundaries, still writing the unexpected hook, still agitating for the art.