RAFFI Interview Transcript: Part 1
TRANSCRIPT: An Exclusive Interview with RAFFI

The following is part 1 of the complete transcript of Jim McGaw’s interview with Raffi, conducted in Boston on September 23, 2002.

Tell me about the Troubadour Foundation.

Through a series of consultations with people that we respect we heard that the easiest way for Raffi to advance the child-honoring vision was within the existing Troubadour music company, rather than through a separate nonprofit institute.

So, we’ve integrated the two and made the Foundation a division of our for-profit company.

But the goal of the Foundation is still the same?

Absolutely the same, yes. What we want is a child-friendly world, a world that respects children, that sees them for the brilliant people that they are. And through that vision, the world will be enriched immeasurably for everyone. We think there is a logic to respecting the early years of life, which is where lifelong behaviors are often set.

Now, reading your book [The Life of a Children’s Troubadour, by Raffi, Homeland Press, 2000], there was one moment, I guess it was in 1975, when you were doing a performance at a school and…

The lightbulb!

Right. And I want to ask about that lightbulb. The way you described it in your book it was almost like a spiritual thing for you. Was it something more than that?  How did you get from point A to point B?

I love reminding people that I knew nothing about children before I started this work with them. And I owe a great deal to my former wife, Deb, and my teacher friends who taught me about children and how to see the child. I had a lot of conversations.

Before this “ah-ha!” moment, Jim, it would go in one ear and out the other. I told you I had no kids. But there I was in front of that first-grade class, and then I finally got it that everybody here is an individual. This is not a group of first-graders. These are individual people.

Children are not little adults. They’re a different kind of person in those early years. They see the world differently. They are in the early stages of learning all about the world. They have needs that are unique to each individual child, and, at the same time, universal to all children. So, to get back to the lightbulb, it was an important moment. You’re absolutely right to highlight it.

How come so many adults still, to this day, don’t treat kids as real people whose feelings should be valued, and how do we get them to see that light that you saw? 

If it can happen for me, who was quite ignorant about children, it can happen for anyone. As I say, I was fortunate to have people around me who did see children for who they are. I think it can happen in a number of ways.

Generally, it’s acknowledged that we will treat our own children the way we were treated as children. But this is a young being who has a voice, who has dreams. They’re not our dreams. They’re the child’s dreams. And I think we need to remember that we as adults are not here to overlay an imprint of life onto a child, but to awaken the child’s own sense of what her or his life is about.

There have been so many beautiful writings about this. Kahlil Gibran talked about it in his book, The Prophet. He said, [paraphrase] “your children are not your own. They come through you, but they’re not of you.”  There are many beautiful inspirational writings we can turn to.

The phrase “To thine own voice be true” comes to mind. And in the covenant that I wrote - that’s where I talk about each child being seen as an original blessing here to learn his own song, to hear her own voice.

Because otherwise they end up in adult life acting out somebody else’s vision and that causes all sorts of problems. Then they’re going to psychiatrists and psychotherapists, and spending huge sums of money learning how to breathe.

So the idea of the child-honoring vision is (and I’ve spoken to the Dalai Lama about this in a very fortunate meeting I had with him in northern India) to prevent or avoid a vast amount of unnecessary suffering.

There’s always suffering in life and there’s joy in life, but I think there’s a great deal of suffering we can prevent by seeing children for who they are from the beginning.

I watched a promotional video made when you visited the Dalai Lama. What can we learn from what the Tibetan community is doing right with kids in those children’s villages?

Well, I’ll offer a caveat first. You can’t easily compare the two situations, because over there they’ve got Tibetan children’s villages that have state support from the Tibetan government [in exile] to house and feed children so that the Tibetan people and the Tibetan culture can have a future. It’s a very conscious caring and caretaking of the young of its culture so that the culture may have a future.

I’m looking to answer your question in a serious way. Certainly, I think there’s inspiration in remembering that when the Dalai Lama reached India after his trek, after he fled under duress, among his first thoughts, apparently, was that if the Tibetan culture didn’t look after its children, it wouldn’t have a future. He understood that, and acted on it right away.

His plan then was to have a Tibetan children’s village. That was one of the first things that they established. Building on that, I think that if a culture does not honor its young, it’s a society asking for trouble in a number of ways. I’m hesitant to make a comparison between Tibet and the U.S. because this society [the U.S.], is a vastly different setup.

I really meant in a general sense. Like you just said, if we don’t honor our young, we’re in trouble. I guess what I’m asking you, are we in trouble in North America at all?

Oh, goodness! [laughter] ...just look at the  country of Canada. In 1990 the government they had this goal of eradicating child poverty in Canada in 10 years. Well, 10 years later, child poverty rates were higher. More children were living in poverty than before. Yes, we have a problem.

Is it O.K. that one in five children in the United States lives in poverty?  Is that O.K.?  Yes, we have a problem. Is it all right that corporations can exploit the very young in countless television ads about products that the children are too young to have any means of evaluating?  Is that exploitation O.K.?  The corporate targeting of the very young as exploitable consumers. Is that O.K.?

You’ve only to look at the epidemic and pandemic numbers of children who are sexually molested - that gives you one part of the picture. There are many other indicators that would show you that we are a long way off from having something that we’d call a child-honoring society.

Your latest CD was produced both before and after 9/11, was it not?

I really meant in a general sense. Like you just said, if we don’t honor our young, we’


Was that a struggle to complete for you?

It was, yes, but I had no choice but to complete it. By that I mean I knew I must. Like everyone, I was hit very hard by 9/11, and just regrouped and carried on.

And the latest song that you released, the peace song for the children of Israel and Palestine, how shortly after 9/11 was that recorded?

It was written and recorded in April 2002.

I’m surprised you didn’t play it [during your Sept. 22, 2002 Boston concert]. Are you keeping the songs with a deeper meaning and message somewhat separate from your live performances? Do you think the kids would get it? “Salaam Shalom” wasn’t written with children as an audience in mind. When I say that I mean that it wasn’t for young children. It wasn’t for the 3- and 4-year-olds. It was written for older kids and adults, for choirs who might sing it, that kind of thing. For my performances, I’m careful to put together a show that I think the audience will have the best time with.

I want to talk a little bit about the ecology. Why do kids seem to get all the problems with the ecosystem, and the adults don’t?

Well, it doesn’t surprise me that children get it because children don’t have a whole lot of concepts getting in the way of their generosity. Their naiveté works for them. In my experience, they are very generous beings. When you sit a child down and say, “Do you want all the world’s children to have food and be O.K. or just half of them?”  no child is going to say, “Just half of them.”  They want everyone taken care of.  Even at a very young age, they can empathize with other children.

I’m wondering about the Earth Day movement. It was three decades ago when we first had Earth Day. A lot of the kids that were so passionate about it then have grown up and become jaded bureaucrats and CEOs that couldn’t care less. How do we keep kids now from being corrupted?

I think what frustrates young people is that they’re not seeing leadership from their government. In a number of polls in Western countries, you find that the populace is ahead of the government in terms of wanting some action on environmental issues. 

Why is that?  Somehow political leaders haven’t figured out that engaging the long-term good of the people is something they might put across in an election. Mind you, the electoral process is such that it rewards the short-term. You get into office and suddenly forget your campaign promises, and you’re thinking about re-election.

So, there’s a conflict between ecology’s intergenerational long-term thinking and the short-term political cycles. We need to look at that conflict. We need to find ways to reward the right action, the long-term thinking -- and maybe how we need to do it is to change some of the economic cycles.

If you were able to have a quality of life index as a measure of society, you would have to measure more than just the money that was counted from quarter to quarter (regardless of where the money came from). If you had a more intelligent index of how well we are doing as a society, such an alternative index would be thinking of-- what was it the Native Americans talked about -- the effects of an action today on seven generations from now.

yle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Courier New'">You’re doing fewer shows now because you’re focusing your energies in child advocacy more, but you’re still primarily known to most people as a children’s entertainer. Does that help or hamper your efforts as a child advocate?  How does the policymaker see you?  Are they very receptive to you? 

They actually are amazed when I come and speak and sing. Because I don’t just speak -- I always sing as well. I was at the World Bank in April of 2000, and they asked me to come and speak for 10 minutes and sing my song “It Takes a Village.”  And afterwards, after 300 World Bank people all dressed to the nines, were singing and hollering and clapping “It Takes a Village,” they said to me, “It’s wonderful to have music in a presentation. All we hear are speeches,” and they said. “This song puts it in a different way. We can hear the message in a different way.”  So the songs seemed to be helping people. And I keep writing them. Inspirational songs, I call them

“Turn This World Around” is another one. I wrote it for [Nelson] Mandela. So there’s a place for song as a communicator.

You’re always going to have that musical element?

Yes, that goes to the heart as well as the head. It doesn’t just go to the heart; it’s a well-written song, it goes to both simultaneously. So I look forward to continuing that.

 How many shows do you do in a year now?

This fall we’ve got 14 concerts. I also make other kinds of appearances, speaking and singing at conferences.

Continue for Part 2 of the Raffi Interview transcript.

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