Q&A: Raffi Returns to the Road

After a decade-long hiatus, children's music legend Raffi will play at Berklee on Saturday. What has he been doing for the past 10 years?


On Saturday, singer-songwriter Raffi Cavoukian will play at the Berklee Performance Center, and to a certain subset of music fans, he’s a far bigger celebrity than Bob Dylan and Justin Bieber combined. These fans tend to be small—children, actually—and their musical idol is best known by only his first name.

Indeed, Raffi may be the most successful children’s music star in North America, with more than 15 million albums and DVDs sold. And that doesn’t count the number of times kids hear his songs like “Baby Beluga” and “Down by the Bay” in playgroups and day care. The current tour is being marketed to “beluga grads,” parents who grew up with Raffi’s music who are now raising their kids on his music.

What most people may not know is that Raffi hasn’t toured in 10 years, instead focusing on children’s advocacy. He founded the Centre for Child Honouring, which aims to change how the world treats children; he cofounded the Red Hood Project, a movement seeking protection for children and teens who use social media; and he’s written a new book Lightweb Darkweb, also about the need to reform social media for younger generations. For all his efforts, Raffi’s received accolades on a much broader scale, such as the Order of Canada, the United Nations’ Earth Achievement Award, and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

We spoke to Raffi this week about both aspects of his work. The conversation strayed far from tunes about playful whales to deeply serious topics, but throughout, Raffi’s earnestness shone through:

First off, I have to ask you about your longevity. I heard your music as a child, and now I’m playing it for my own kids. What does it feel like to be playing in a room for whole generations raised on your music?

Well, first of all, I’m delighted that you seem to be one of the tens of millions of “beluga grads” in Canada and the United States. It’s a thrill for me to be on the stage again after an absence of over 10 years. There are two generations of fans. The adults, “the beluga grads,” are tweeting and e-mailing that they are thrilled to experience the music again, and it’s a further delight to see the glow in their children’s faces. I’m very grateful for this longevity musically, and as an experience, it’s a great feeling to walk out on stage and be greeted with a roaring welcome.

Why the 10-year absence from touring?

I had done everything I had set out to do and much more in my concerts, in my touring span of two decades. I felt it was time for a break and I wanted to develop the concept of child honoring. It came to me in a vision in 1997, and I’ve spent a great deal of my energy devoted to this universal ethic, which is simply to honor children for the persons that they are from the beginning of life, to create humane, peaceful, and sustainable societies. The Centre for Child Honouring was founded on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, where I live—it’s a beautiful community of 10,000 people—to advance child honoring as a universal ethic worldwide. We’ve been working with local programs and international partnerships, including a very fine organization here in Boston, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Reading about the different organizations, it all seems to go together in a holistic way—from protecting kids from being targets of commercial marketing to protecting them from predators on social media. And there are your environmental efforts, which also ties into some of your songs for kids about nature.

It’s all about respect. It’s been the core value that has been my whole career in a career spanning four decades. I have refused all commercial offers to use my work. In fact, the producers of Shrek wanted to do a Baby Beluga movie, and they insisted it had to be marketed directly to children. We said that’s unethical, and we turned it down.

With the Red Hood Project that I cofounded with the Centre and two colleagues in Vancouver, we demanded safety in social media for children from sexual predators. We still have not heard from Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook in response to the open letter we sent her. We’re asking people to read the letter and become a cosigner. My book, Lightweb Darkweb, is in response to the suicide of Amanda Todd, a Vancouver-area teen who took own life in October after years of torment online by a sexual predator.

Unfortunately the situation hasn’t gotten much better: We had a similar suicide in Halifax a couple weeks ago. You can see every day how young readers and users of social media are at risk, not only from a loss of privacy, but there are also wolves out there in the  woods—cyberwolves. That’s how we chose the name for the project, Red Hood, after Little Red Riding Hood.

It’s very important that parents take time to educate their children about the Internet, but parental guidance alone is not going to do it. The companies have to play their part.

You talk about the Internet and sexual predators, but what about cyberbullying? Here in Massachusetts, we’ve had the famous case of a teenage girl from South Hadley, named Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide after being bullied at school and online.

Bullying doesn’t begin to cover the torment that victims suffer online. There’s always been bullying. But what it used to be in the pre-digital world was that if it was at school, it stayed local. You don’t have that anymore. You now have a local incident that’s broadcast everywhere, and that aspect distorts the situation, and amplifies it, causing terrible shaming. Who needs that? And the victim doesn’t even have safe haven anymore when they get home. That’s all part of the dark side of the Internet. Kids these days have a hard time understanding what’s public and what’s private, so they need our help. Shiny tech makes everything too easy. The medium is the problem, so it behooves us as parents, and as a community, and as a society to subdue the darkweb if we’re going to have a lightweb worth cheering.

Bringing it back to the music, I see that your songs also respect the kids’ tastes as well. When my daughter hears your music, there’s pure joy on her face, and I enjoy it too because your songs are not condescending.

Hence the longevity. Right from the beginning, my roots are folk music. My roots are Pete Seeger. I’ve always wanted to make music with respect for the young listener, with the best quality I can give it. Children respond to caring and humor, and they deserve the best that you have to give them.

In the late ’80s, I was working in a record store and remember stocking your albums and selling them to parents. Even then, I noticed that you produced and released your own music. How have you managed to do that all these years in a tough industry, and have digital music and online sales made it easier to find your market?

It’s harder, actually. The music market has been on quite shaky ground over the last few years as we’ve gone mostly post-CD. We have our digital sales of course, but there’s been a decline in CDs. Our perspective has been that I’ve been lucky to have been one of the artists whose sales have kept up rather well. The popularity has not waned, and I think that’s because we haven’t sunsetted any of the old titles.

Especially since you’re now reaching new generations of them. I mean, think back to the ’70s. Could you have foreseen your success in this line of music and a career devoted to helping children? And is that something you think about now when you walk out on that stage to the roaring welcome?

There are some things one can’t imagine, because life keeps surprising you delightfully. I’ll be singing the old songs now, and there will be some new songs. I’ve recorded them, but the audience may not know them. It’s great fun, and people’s remarks afterward have been that they’re thrilled with what they’re hearing. It makes me feel like I’ve still got it. Of course, there’s a lot of white now in my beard… Well, the times they are a changin’…

Raffi plays the Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, on Saturday, May 4, at 1 p.m.