Ani DiFranco Sings Out For Prisoners' Rights

Punk-folkie joined Me'Shell Ndegéocello and Spearhead's Michael Franti to encourage education as a solution to crime.

BERKELEY, Calif. -- If there were one point punk-folkie Ani DiFranco wanted to make clear at her appearance here last weekend, it was that the answer to prison overcrowding lies not in the construction of more prisons but in the building of a better system of education.

"We need to put the money back into education and not more prisons," DiFranco said at a press conference prior to her performance Saturday at a benefit concert to raise funds and awareness for the Prison Activist Resource Center and the California Fund for Women Prisoners.

For her and a handful of other musicians performing at the Berkeley Community Theatre, the issue of funding education in order to keep youths out of prison is one that needs to be addressed now, while the young people of America still have a fighting chance.

DiFranco, Michael Franti of Spearhead, poet/musician John Trudell and funk-rocker Me'Shell Ndegéocello first spoke out on the issue and then drove their message home with the benefit concert, which sought to draw attention to the problem of prison expansion in America.

The concert, titled "Critical Resistance: Music and Solidarity," kicked off a week of lectures, live performances and workshops at the University of California at Berkeley, designed to educate the public on crime-reduction policies that focus on education, not incarceration -- a response to the fact that over the past 10 years, some states in the U.S. have built more prisons than schools. The event was slated to include appearances by Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and activist/former Black Panther Angela Davis, whose organization, Critical Resistance, encourages money for education rather than jails.

"It's hard for me not to sound like a broken record by saying, education, employment, education, employment!" DiFranco said. "I grew up in Buffalo, New York, so I went to inner-city schools my whole life. I was always aware, from the time I was a little kid, about the crisis of never having the books, of never having staples for the stapler. Meanwhile, I was also aware that the suburban schools were starting to get computers, and that they were going on trips to New York or wherever."

Franti, whose wife teaches children from the Potrero Hill housing projects in San Francisco, became emotional at the press conference as he talked about his frustration at seeing the youth of his neighborhood end up in jail before graduating from high school.

"My wife, she's trying her best to prevent those kids from going in that direction," Franti said as tears welled up in his eyes. "She is a soldier, but she's almost at the point where she can't do it anymore. These kids are smart, handsome, strong ... but they go to selling the herb and by the time they're 18, they've been arrested at least once. I see the kids in the suburbs [doing the same thing], where there isn't 24-hour surveillance, and by the time they're in their late 20s, they are just considered beach bums. The kids in my neighborhood, by the time they are in their late 20s, are hardened criminals."

Later that evening, the artists performed to a packed house. Franti, as emotive onstage as he was at the press conference, was joined by members of Spearhead for a set that combined spoken word and hip-hop.

His dreadlocks flailing as he kept in constant motion, Franti spewed fierce rhymes that hit a range of political and race-related issues. "I don't care who the president is screwing in private," Franti yelled, referring to President Clinton's current sex scandal. The crowd went wild. "I just care about him screwing us in public!"

Singer and bassist Ndegéocello played a short but passionate set. Ndegéocello raced around the stage as she plucked at her bass, encouraging the willing audience to sing along and dance.

DiFranco, with just an acoustic guitar in hand, came out next and ripped through fan favorites, including "As Is" and "Little Plastic Castles" (RealAudio excerpt). In between songs, DiFranco joked and bantered with the audience, creating a feeling of intimacy in the large venue.

For an encore, DiFranco rounded up Ndegéocello, Davis, Franti and Trudell for a version of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" -- the perfect ending to the emotionally charged event.

Concert-goer Ann Renkin of Oakland was tired but extremely moved by the concert.

"It was like I could feel the passion the artists have for this cause," Renkin said. "It really inspires me. These musicians don't have to be here; they can just sell records and live a perfectly happy little life, but they choose to use their public image for this worthy cause, which is great.

"And it's even better that they really believe in this, and it's not just for today. It's a lifelong commitment for them. You can just tell."