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Want a Healthy Society? Take Care of the Children

08/05/2015 06:17 EDT | Updated 08/05/2016 05:59 EDT
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Group of Children Smiling Concept

Beloved Canadian children's singer Raffi is touring Canada with a new album after having taken time away to focus on and develop the Centre for Child Honouring. While he was in Saskatoon, we sat down to discuss music and the making of a healthy society.

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You mentioned that "The More We Get Together," the first song on your 1976 album Singable Songs for the Very Young, has a special significance. Can you tell me more about why that's such an important song.

What the words contain is truth about the human condition: the more we come together in various ways, the happier we'll be, the more resourceful, the more productive, the healthier we'll be. I'm learning in my 60s that it's in relationships that we're strong, because none of us is an island. We don't exist outside of relationships, if you think about it. And so, we need to reap the benefits of the riches of relationship.

You talk a lot about the importance of understanding the concept of the formative years, which is connected to the idea that what you're exposed to in those early years, as you become who you are going to be, is what determines whether or not you're going to be able to have a healthy, happy life or not.

Those are the years in which we are most impressionable, susceptible and vulnerable. The young child is most impressionable to family dynamics, to cultural values and to environmental conditions. The young child, I regard as a genius. Your son Abe is a genius, he is learning (amongst other things) the more socially complex processes, such as language acquisition and speech, We still don't know exactly how that happens, but we do know a fair bit. He's learning that and, as I like to say -- wonder of wonders -- the mode of being that evolution has selected as best suited to this complex learning is play! I find this utterly fascinating. Why should evolution have chosen play as the mode of being that best accompanies that formative socialization? Our nature is primarily playful. This is not an accident. It's through play that the child tries on the world for size. They are essentially imagining their way forward.

The young child is the canary in the coalmine of the health of our society.

This vision of Child Honouring you describe, did that emerge from your experiences singing for children for years?

I think the vision came to me when it did in 1997, as a result of my then-25 years of being a children's advocate. During my career, as I've understood the kind of people children are and the unique vulnerabilities and the irreducible universal needs that young children have, it certainly brought forth the child advocate in me to say 'If I'm going to take these people seriously, if society is going to take children seriously, then it must meet their irreducible needs.'

These needs cannot be reduced. They are primary in young children. That's why the young child is the canary in the coalmine of the health of our society. If we will not meet those irreducible needs, what does that say about our values, our morals?

As a songwriter, I've stayed so positive in my writing for children. Even my 1979 protest song was not protesting this, that and the other. "All I really need is a song in my heart" -- it's a protest expressed positively. By focusing on the true basics of life, A Song in My Heart, that's the human spirit, the spirit of being human. Something to wake up for, right? Food in my belly; love in my family; clear air, clean water; the rain, the sun; these are the elements. So, the strongest protest song that I could write in 1979 was that song. And I did think of it as a protest song, even though I don't introduce it that way in concerts.

To come back to your wonderful work and your brilliant frame in A Healthy Society, you said something about "Politics is medicine on a larger scale." That spoke volumes to me. Politics is creating the conditions by which people live, in the laws and so on: it's affecting their health. You also wrote in your book that income is the most important determinant of health, correct? Well, if that's true, how can any government justify a growing inequality in incomes. That to me is amoral, it's immoral, it's indefensible. I remember in Economics 101 at the University of Toronto. We talked about maximizing capital. Well, I'm not interested in maximizing capital, I'm interested in a society that maximizes the goodwill and the resiliency of its children.

Child Honouring emerged from your work as a children's advocate and entertainer. Has Child Honouring changed your approach to music and performance?

Actually, my musical career was Child Honouring in action as I went along. I made choices in my musical career -- especially about what I wouldn't do -- that came from honouring the child, that came from respecting children. For example, I've never done direct advertising to children, because it's unethical. You don't advertise a sales pitch to a child so young that they can't understand it, and might be taken in. Quebec has a law that bans such advertising to 12-and-unders. Over the years I was approached by all kinds of companies asking me to do endorsements for them. I wouldn't do endorsements. I didn't see the point selling fast food to kids, just because they love my music. I thought that was wrong. So, I've turned away potentially millions in endorsement offers. The producers of the movie Shrek came to me about 6 years ago and they wanted a Baby Beluga movie, and we asked them two questions: "will this be directly advertised to children?" and "will there be lots of ancillary products made from cheap PVC sold to children?" And the answer was yes to both, so the conversation ended.

I grew up with songs that were described as songs of universal love. Peter, Paul and Mary sang them. Pete Seeger sang them. So I came from the 60s as a young kid, an impressionable teenager and I loved that spirit of universal love. I loved that. Songs like "If I Had A Hammer"! It's that spirit that has lived in some of the songs I've written, that I've included in the children's albums.

My inclusion of these songs was simply was in that spirit of enlightened, hopefully, universal love. Songs that could have musical value, that was the thing; you never want to preach. If your song works as a good piece of music and it's enjoyable, then it has a good vessel for the values in it.

An expanded version of this interview appeared on the website Ominocity

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