An Exclusive Interview with Raffi

Read the complete transcript
of Jim McGaw's interview with Raffi.

The Renowned Children’s Troubadour Wants Kids at the Front of the Line
The man behind the microphone shuffles his feet, twirls an umbrella and sings of baby whales, bananas and playgrounds. But after the show he’ll be off to meetings with world leaders and policy makers, drumming up support for the rights of the kids for whom he sings.

ormal>He’s Raffi – as comfortable in an audience with the Dalai Lama as he is in front of an audience of preschoolers. For more than a quarter of a century, Raffi, now 54 but still beaming boyish charm befitting his occupation, has enjoyed unprecedented, sustained popularity as a children’s singer and songwriter. In fact, he’s bridged a generation: Kids who sang along to “Down by the Bay” and “Brush Your Teeth” from a scratchy vinyl copy of Raffi’s first album are now buying the CD version for their own children. North American sales of his 13 albums and three concert videos have topped 12 million.

ormal>An Advocate for Kids
But in recent years, Raffi has become increasingly visible as an advocate for kids, constantly globe-trotting to promote his vision of “child honoring” through his Vancouver-based company, Troubadour Music. Raffi dreams of the day when people see children as real citizens of the world, whose ideas and dreams are valued.

ormal>“What we [at the Troubadour Foundation, which Raffi recently founded] want is a child-friendly world, a world that respects children and sees them for the brilliant people that they are,” says Raffi after one of the 14 North American concerts he performed this fall to promote his first new album in seven years, the best-selling Let’s Play.

“We think there’s a certain logic to respecting the early years of life, where a lifetime of behavior is often set. It would be my hope that by the year 2020 we might seed the child-honoring revolution. By that I mean to have a worldwide broad understanding that the early years in a child are where we should be putting our priorities,” Raffi says.

“How are we going to do that?” he asks rhetorically. “I can’t tell you that right now. It’s an invitational process.”

Troubadour is trying to spread its child-honoring vision to the rest of the world, he explains. Whether national leaders and policy makers listen and get involved is up to them.

But something must be done, Raffi insists, because a society that doesn’t honor its young is a society asking for trouble. “Is it OK that one in five children in the United States lives in poverty?” the musician asks, adding that his home country, Canada, has failed to eradicate its own childhood poverty problem. “Is it all right that corporations can exploit the very young in countless television ads that the children are too young to have any means of evaluating? You only have to look at the epidemic numbers of children who are sexually violated and molested and many other indicators that will show you that we’re a long way from having a child-honoring society.”

A good first step, Raffi suggests, would be for adults to remember not to overlay an imprint of life onto a child, but instead to awaken a child’s own sense of what his or her life is like. “Otherwise, they end up in adult life acting out somebody else’s vision, and that causes all sorts of problems,” he says. “Then they’re going to psychiatrists and psychotherapists, spending huge sums of money learning how to breathe.”

Seeing Kids as Individuals
For Raffi, his own epiphany about children came in 1975. He was performing for a group of first-graders in
Toronto, supplementing his meager earnings as a folksinger.

“I knew nothing about children when I started working with them,” he recalls. “Before, it would go in one ear and out the other. But there I was in front of a first-grade class and I finally got it: Everyone here is an individual. These are real people.”

Then he went around the room and asked each child his or her name.

Much of his awakening Raffi credits to his former wife, Deb, a teacher who, along with her colleagues, showed him how to listen and respond to kids. But his child-honoring vision was also shaped partly by his own, often difficult childhood.

Born Raffi Cavoukian in 1948 in Cairo, Egypt, his family immigrated to Canada in 1958. There, he was picked on by classmates for being the “pudgy little Armenian kid with the funny name who couldn’t play softball or ice-skate,” he recounts in his autobiography, The Life of a Children’s Troubadour.

His home life wasn’t always pleasant, either. Although Raffi adored his parents, Arto and Lucie – they died within 12 hours of each other in 1995 – he recalls not being granted the dignity and respect he now believes children deserve.

“It doesn’t feel good to be mocked, humiliated or loved in a way that you’re suffocated, where you’re not loved for who you are, but as an extension of your parents’ wishes. I think The Beatles were only partially right when they said ‘All you need is love.’ For the child, you need respectful love.”

Although the child-honoring vision is primarily a jumping-off point for world leaders to rethink policies that affect their young, Raffi says he does support concrete changes in certain laws.

“For example,” he says, “I don’t think it’s right to hit a child, period. I can tell you from my own experience as a child who was hit that it serves nothing and it’s harmful. So would I support a law that does away with corporal punishment? Yes.”

Raffi and Deb parted ways in 1989 and never had children, which raises the question: Is he ever accused of lacking the parental experience necessary to make such strong pronouncements about how we should treat our children?

“Deb and I never felt the need to have our own children,” Raffi explains. “She was a kindergarten teacher and I’m with children a lot in my work. Some people just don’t have the strong drive to have kids.”

“I don’t set myself up as an expert on anything,” he adds. “I have thoughts and observations that I share, and I ask questions. Having kids doesn’t necessarily make you an expert on them either.”

Raffi points out that he wants to be a strong voice for parents, too, because their job is more challenging than ever.

“I am for societal decisions and policies that help parents give to their children. Obviously, I wouldn’t be in favor of economic positions that force parents to work or the kind of situation where there’s not adequate childcare. We should have as many parenting or child development centers as we do video stores. Parents are being pulled in different directions, with so many economic stresses on them. Children’s needs are absolute, so as a society you need to re-order your priorities such that you have economies that take care of those needs.”

And that’s one of the messages that Raffi is bringing worldwide, although his involvement in bigger issues isn’t exactly a new thing.

Music with a Message
Having been vocal about environmental issues for years, in 1990 Raffi released an “ecology” album for older listeners called Evergreen Everblue, which was also notable for being one of the first major CD releases that didn’t use the wasteful cardboard longbox. The CD flopped, raising questions about whether Raffi’s name was too synonymous with kids’ music.

With that in mind, one may wonder how receptive world leaders are to Raffi’s message. Do they take him seriously or do they see him simply as the man who sings “Baby Beluga”?

“They are actually amazed when I come because I don’t just speak, I sing. I was at the World Bank in April of 2000 to speak for 10 minutes and sing my song ‘It Takes a Village.’ After 300 World Bank people – all dressed to the nines – were singing and hollering and clapping, they said to me, ‘It’s wonderful to have music in a presentation. We can hear the message in a different way.’ There’s a place for a song as a communiqué that goes to the heart as well as the head.”

Raffi has also sung to former South African president Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and, most recently, to the United Nations Children’s Summit last May and to attendees to the People & Planet Conference in Ontario in June. The latter conference centered squarely on the environment, something near and dear to Raffi’s heart because he speaks of child honoring as “an ecological paradigm.”

Kids have universal needs – food, clean air and clean water – and through their natural generosity, they think all other children should have the same.

“The child is somehow closer to the primary world,” says Raffi. “What frustrates young people is that they’re not seeing leadership from their government (on environmental issues). There’s a conflict between ecology’s intergenerational, long-term thinking and the short-term institutional constructs of both economics and the political cycle.”

Next on the Agenda?

If you’re worried that Raffi’s new role means he won’t be entertaining young children anymore, have no fear. Although he’s performing fewer concerts these days, Raffi says he’ll continue to make new music – he wants to take piano and accordian lessons – and is even considering a TV special or series geared to older kids.

“There are too many reasons for preschoolers to watch television and I don’t want to give them another one,” he jokes.

At the same time, he plans on stepping up his role as an advocate and hopes to co-author a book to help get the child-honoring message out.

“The child-honoring vision has a certain logic to it,” he says. “When you’re starting to build a house, you don’t start with the roof. You start with the foundation. We just need to repeat this message and sell it worldwide.”

Go to RAFFI Resources for more reading, music, and websites.

Read the complete transcript of Jim McGaw's interview with Raffi.

Jim McGaw is an associate editor for United Parenting Publications and the father of two boys.

From United Parenting Publications, December 2002.