Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thoughts On Ani Difranco's Righteous Retreat


When I first heard about Ani Difranco's Righteous Retreat - a 4 day intimate gathering of musicians and poets to discuss writing and inspiration hosted by Ani herself along with her friends and comrades Toshi Reagon, Hammel on Trial, and Buddy Wakefield - I was all OMG this is the most amazing thing ever how much is it and where do I sign up????

I never got any further than that because the price for a single room was $2700, but you could get a place to sleep for the starting price of $1100. Add in a plane ticket and you're looking at - at least - a $1600 trip. Money I just don't have and I really don't think many Ani fans - or at least the very starving artist just getting started person that this event would most benefit. True, the price includes a place to sleep and 3 meals and small workshops with and a performance by Ani herself, but still, the price just didn't sit right. The whole thing just seemed so not Ani. She's not someone who really likes to hang out with her fans beyond the one-sided concert conversations she might have during a show. In fact, she seems to do her best to avoid any interaction with anyone who might ask for a picture or an autograph or just someone who wants to tell her what her music means to them. And I don't hold that against her. It's gotta be weird to be asked for those things by someone freaking out over you just being you. So, yeah, this event just seemed weird.

That was before I ever even took into consideration where it was going to be held.

I will openly admit seeing the word 'plantation' in the location title didn't even phase me at first. I'm a white girl from Minnesota who doesn't deal in plantations and all they stand for that often. I didn't even put two and two together that Plantation + Louisiana = not a great place for this kind of thing to go down. It wasn't until I started to read the comments on her Facebook page and the event page filled with people disgusted by the location itself. So then I looked into it and then it hit me:

Ani, what the fuck is wrong with you???

Nottaway Plantation House is listed as a "stunning historic plantation" that has been "restored...to her days of glory". What? Gross. The thought that she thought this would be a good place for her fans to hang out for a few days just floors me. That she didn't think that it might make people uncomfortable for people to relax and "sun tan" (as her invite suggested we do) and then adding in the price of the "all-inclusive" trip - really just makes it so very un-inclusive and gross.

Oh, but she did think about it. And her thought was "woah".

After sitting on the internets frustration for 2 weeks, she finally wrote a message via Facebook to explain the decision and to let everyone know that she was canceling the event to "restore peace and respectful discourse between people". Basically, she wants everyone to shut-up. Her full letter can be read here: http://www.righteousbabe.com/blogs/news/11177617-righteous-retreat-cancelled

The whole letter reads like a bitter condescending ranting whine about she wishes everyone would stop picking on her. Calling fans who voiced how they were offended by the location choice as being full of "high velocity bitterness". Telling everyone that she was going to fill the place full of positive vibes and start anew. How everyone was going to visit an music school for underprivileged kids and inspire their creativity and musical outlets, but now they will just have to continue to be ignored because people don't want to chill out at a former slave plantation for the weekend. This so irks me. I really hope she still works to plan something for those kids. What a snotty thing to do. It's all or nothing. Now they get nothing because we weren't nice to Ani.

There were a million ways to handle this and she chose the absolute worse way. Her letter reads like nothing I could ever imagine coming out of her mouth.

But going back, how did this come to be in the first place?

I think (hope) we can all agree that Ani Difranco is not a racist. She has fought her entire career to bring equality to everyone. What this all boils down to is how absolutely removed and uninterested she's become to her musical career and all that entails. She no longer lives in Buffalo, her hometown she vowed to work to restore and the home of Righteous Babe Records. She moved to New Orleans, got married, had two babies and lived happily ever after. And that's great. I don't begrudge her personal happiness. But she just really doesn't seem to care about her music anymore and that has been growing ever more clear over the last 5-6 years. It really just feels like a means to an end her these days. She needs to put food on the table. She has a record label to uphold and people there who have paychecks that require her to keep touring and putting out albums. Both the tours and the albums have slowed down immensely - and that's fine, too. She deserves the rest after 20+ years of being on the road and releasing an album - if not two - every year.

But her biggest issue has always been her inability to see beyond her little bubble. Her songs are incredibly personal dealing with very specific personal situations. Her political songs are definitely wide  reaching and worldy, but they've become fewer and far between in recent years and are now living on some goddess resort where everything would just be super if only women were in complete control and we all ate leaves from our own gardens and never once turned on the TV for any reason ever. It's like a weird case of celebrity where, instead of being attention whoring and plastered on the cover of magazines, she's reverted to this little bubble where she doesn't interact with the world around her enough to see how real people live.

But I don't know her personally. I'm probably wrong.

What I do know is that the Ani Difranco I grew up with and admired would NEVER have even given this plantation a moment's hesitation as a place for her to commune with her fans. NEVER. The idea that it was a plantation alone would have been enough. But then once discovered that the owner is a right-wing billionaire who supports anti-gay, anti-aborition, and anti-women legislation and that these fees would find their way into his pocket and then into those causes should have just been the absolute no from a woman who has fought tirelessly for women's and LGBT's rights.

As her letter states, she saw the location and thought "woah" and decided to go through with it anyway thinking she could come in there and just wash away an entire disgusting history with a couple of folk songs. She didn't look any further. She even goes on to say that she can't be expected to look into everywhere she plays and who owns it and where the fees go. True. She can't. But some places just call out for a little more investigation, don't you think? There are places that even I have drawn the line that I won't or would never play. I honestly don't understand how this was all so overlooked. My assumption is that, as I said, she's become so far removed from the details of her music that she just gets told where to play and how much she'll make and says okay fine. She's turned her production on her albums over to her husband who, honestly, really muffles her sounds and puts way too much gloss on everything. And when asked about this, for example, how on Red Letter Year her guitar is really hidden and she seems to have made her guitar work less and less of the musical focus she was floored that anyone thought her guitar was missing on any of the songs. I mean, did she even listen to the album?

All of this just seems like stuff she has to do now. I guess that's bound to happen for everyone at some point. But, maybe I just wish she could fake it a little better?

My hope is that this situation wakes her back up and makes her realize her name stands for something now and maybe she should take better care of what its attached to. That doesn't mean she has to start spending all of her time on Righteous Babe and away from her family - but maybe just read the fine print on some things. Know that her fan base is a passionate one. Know that we look at things like this because she's fortunate enough to have fans that care about the world around them. Know that we aren't out for harm. Maybe look to someone like Amanda Palmer who openly engages with her fans and works with them to make things better. EMBRACE THE INTERNET for cryin' out loud. She could leave home so much less if she just got to know the internet a little more and all the cool things she could do from the comfort of her living room.

Right now, I am very disappointed in Ani Difranco. This whole situation was just confirmation that she just doesn't care anymore. I hope I'm wrong. I hope she proves me wrong.

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