Raffi Revealed

The mild-mannered Raffi--every preschooler's hero--is actually a man with quite a lot of opinions. Here, he talks to NEWSWEEK's B. J. Sigesmund about his audience, his deep commitment to children and why in 26 years of performing he's never done a TV commercial. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You don't use many bells and whistles or gimmicks in your music. Why does this work for children?

Raffi: It's singalong, it's that basic. We love singing with one another. I learned some of that from Pete Seeger. He was a master of the great 2,000-person singalong. Harry Belafonte was another I learned from. Children need something to do. They're naturally doers, not viewers. When you were 5 years old, you didn't want to hear about something, you wanted to participate.

You're now seeing second generation fans at your shows--your earliest fans are now taking their own children.

I'm grateful that they've stayed with me and grown with the work, pun intended. I meet them backstage or I hear from them, by letter. They say it feels amazing to share the music with their own children.

You also have teenagers at your shows.

I like to joke that I've become a nostalgia act. The teens come in groups of four or six and they're happy to be a part of something that once meant a lot to them.

At one moment in your shows, you ask the audiences to sing with you.

It's a lovely moment because I like to hear their voices. That's what I remember when I leave the stage. Sometimes I ask the girls and the women to sing, and then the boys and the men. That's lovely because the voices are different.

Let's talk about TV. You're a big proponent of the idea that it's not very good for kids. NEWSWEEK has that subject on the cover this week--dueling essays about how good and how bad it is for children.

TV is not the natural friend of the child. Young children, in order to learn about the real world, are not helped by overindulgence in the electronic screen. In the early years, when your primary connections are being made, you need to play with real elements. I favor a very restricted use of TV and video products, even my own. It's also the reason why I've never started my own TV show.

You've had offers to do so?

Many, but we turned them all down.

You've also turned down many commercial endorsement deals.

It's unethical to advertise to young children who are not old enough to appraise what they're being pitched. I have never taken part in any direct advertising to children or any associated advertising.

Your company, Troubadour Records, is working toward a "child-honoring" vision of the world. Can you talk about that some?

It's the vision that I'm advancing and promoting through my music and through my company, Troubadour Music, which is a triple-bottom-line company ... You have not only financial goals, but also social and environmental responsibilities as you do your business. A "child-honoring" economy wouldn't leave to future generations to pay the costs of doing business. You as a company are acting as a caring member of the community.

Children and community were also part of the inspiration for your new CD, "Let's Play!," right?

Part of honoring the child is to understand the importance of play. Play is the language that all young children speak. It's their way of being in the world. You know how children try on adult clothing? They're roughing out a picture of how they'd be as an adult. Play affords a young child the dimension he or she needs to be truly glorious.

You've resisted being called an "activist."

I'm a humanist, I'm a musician, I'm an artist. That's what I am. I'm working for every child, but not in a political way. I'm interested in how they grow and flourish and how their dreams take life.

Years ago, you helped do away with the cardboard "longbox" that used to house new CDs. You've always worked very hard toward protecting the environment.

I don't use that word. You can't diminish nature to a pathetic, objectified stage. And to do away with the longbox, well, I was only one of a number of artists--Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, the Beach Boys. We were just stating the obvious.

Sore subject, but can you talk a bit about your attempt to break into the adult music market, 1990's "Evergreen, Everblue"? Why didn't it work?

It was my ecology album, and it was for older audiences. I was hoping for radio and video airplay. It didn't achieve that. In that sense it failed, but this goes underreported: the songs from that album are much-loved and sung in classrooms throughout America. I'm pleased with that. The album sold 250,000 copies.

Also, you've got no kids of your own. People have pointed out the irony there.

I wrote about this in my autobiography. Neither my ex-wife nor I felt the need to have our own children. It was a personal decision. I can only say that much.

The last question's about that autobiography. "The Life of a Children's Troubadour" was published in 1999. But you were only 51 when it came out--what prompted you to write it?

In October of 1995, both my parents passed away. That was life-changing, and I knew right then that I had to write my life story. I'm very happy I did it. I knew it would be cathartic. It effectively wrapped up an era of my life. Then I was able to get to the next one.