Famous for putting a little white whale on the international stage, children's entertainer Raffi Cavoukian was once invited to perform at a kid-centred event to help welcome another fresh face who was making a splash. It was 1993, Bill Clinton had been elected President of the United States and the Disney Channel was producing an inauguration special. For Raffi, a funky tie was definitely in order: a zebra stripe at the knot and then splashes of red, blue and orange. Before the big finish, when Raffi would perform This Little Light of Mine, he was introduced to the president-elect, who zeroed in on the accessory.
"He pointed to it and said, 'Oh, that's a very nice tie,'" says Raffi, launching into a bang-on Clinton imitation. "'I used to wear ties like that before I ran for president.'"
We're in Raffi's Centre for Child Honouring – a small suite of offices steps from Saltspring Island's float-plane dock. There's a photo on the wall of Raffi's Clinton moment along with a framed letter from the 42nd President of the United States thanking him vaguely for the "special part you played in the Inaugural Week activities." Raffi, who has lived on Saltspring since 2010, brought that tie out of retirement recently. The singer, whom parents of young children love (is there anything cuter than your three-year-old singing the words to Baby Beluga?) and love to hate (Bananaphone – that most wormy of earworms), is making waves again – political ones.
He has been weighing in on the current election campaign, tweeting up a storm and recording a number of campaign-related sing-songy videos. In one of them, where he strums his guitar and gently urges viewers to "vote, vote, vote for democracy," he is wearing that same tie.
"I wanted something colourful," he says, pointing out that the tie features both NDP orange and Liberal red. When he can't find any green, he lands on a plant in the room. "There's the green," he laughs and claps. (He neglects to mention the tie's Conservative blue.)
Raffi has been using his considerable social-media presence (more than 33,000 followers on Twitter) to encourage voters, especially young people, to cast a ballot – and to vote for anyone but the Conservatives.
Sample tweet: "It'll be the media's fault, if by some strange twist SH gets the most seats – way too soft on the corrupt, 3-time election cheater," he wrote on Monday.
If that kind of language seems incongruous coming from the guy who urges toddlers to shake, shake, shake their sillies out and wiggle their waggles away, Raffi says that's not so.
"A children's troubadour speaks about things that matter to children – and most things do, actually," he says. "I'm not trying to just be cute here. If you're serious as a children's advocate, as I am, you've got to look at whether the governance is ethical and democratic. Cause what are we teaching our kids? How are they supposed to be inspired to go into public service? Or is public service only going to attract the scoundrels because they see that other scoundrels get away with their sins?"
Raffi figures he is well positioned for the task – targeting his "Beluga Grads," as he calls them: People who grew up on his music and are now of voting age (possibly with kids of their own). After all, who better to trust with your electoral choice than the man whose voice sang you to sleep as a kid? Or sings your children to sleep?
"Oct. 19 we all can vote to get our Canada back," he declares in another made-for-the-election song, I Want My Canada Back! Also, he recently released Green Dream, the first single from his upcoming album Owl Singalong. He makes it clear that the song is not a Green Party endorsement (even if Raffi will be voting Green); Elizabeth May is the party's candidate in his riding and he calls her "prime minister material." But it certainly has a political resonance.
"I sent the song to ministers of environment, ministers of health and education," he says, adding that his accompanying letter made it clear that he did not write the song for the Greens and that he does not belong to a political party. "I wrote it in the spirit of what every family wants for its children – a bright, green future. That's the spirit of the song. Martin Luther King had a dream. Raffi can have a dream. A green dream."
He pauses. "Let me savour that moment," he says, impressed with his turn of phrase. Then he bursts into peals of laughter.
'The more we get together'
Raffi Cavoukian was born in Cairo in 1948, the child of Armenian parents. Ten years later, the family moved to Canada. An aspiring folk musician, Raffi's direction was set when his future mother-in-law, the director of a Toronto nursery school, asked him to sing for her students. This was challenging – he hadn't grown up in an English-speaking home and as a result didn't even know the words to such basic songs as Mary Had a Little Lamb or Baa Baa Black Sheep, as he wrote in his 1999 autobiography Raffi: The Life of a Children's Troubadour.
His music career prospects floundering, Raffi considered hanging up the guitar when the same woman made another suggestion: that he record an album for young children. He released Singable Songs for the Very Young in 1976 on his own label, Troubadour Records. One track, The More We Get Together, became a children's standard. Four years later, he released Baby Beluga – the title track became a kids' music juggernaut that still brings down the house for the preschool set.
While a lot of music for children these days has some quirky, appeal-to-the-parents edge about it – think They Might Be Giants, Dan Zanes or the Barenaked Ladies' Snacktime! – Raffi's is ever earnest and sweet, with positive messages delivered through simple rhymes.
Now this mild-mannered crooner for kids has turned into a fierce political commentator using his social-media platform to, for instance (and perhaps paradoxically), warn of the perils of social media for young people (He has also published a book on this topic, #lightwebdarkweb: Three Reasons to Reform Social Media Be4 It Re-Forms Us – dedicated to Amanda Todd, the B.C. teen who killed herself after falling victim to cyberbullying.)
While his political activism goes way back – he's been engaged, he says, ever since Watergate burst onto his black-and-white TV in Toronto in the 1970s – Raffi emerged as a notable political voice last year when teachers in British Columbia went on strike and he took to Twitter to defend them, and decry the provincial government, in particular B.C. Premier Christy Clark (whose party, the BC Liberals, is not affiliated with the federal Liberal Party or its provincial counterparts, and is closer ideologically to the federal Conservatives). For example, when Clark tweeted that the government was committed to negotiating a fair deal as soon as possible, Raffi responded, "nobody believes you."
When the federal election was called, Raffi vowed to use his social-media platform daily to encourage people to vote – and to lambaste the Conservatives.
Here's another sample tweet: "NEVER AGAIN harper NEVER AGAIN NEVER NEVER NO NEVER NEVER NO NO NEVER AGAIN #elxn42 NEVER," Raffi wrote on Monday.
"It takes a village to raise a democracy. And I'm just doing my part and I'm urging villagers to do their part," he says, sitting on a couch, his laptop perched on his knee.
He's getting traction, too. Between Aug. 2 (when the election was called) and Oct. 6, during which he posted more than 3,200 election-related tweets – Raffi gained nearly 3,000 followers and was mentioned in more than 34,400 relevant tweets. (His five most-used hashtags include #endharpergovt and #duffy.) And at the Saturday farmers' market on the island, where he signs books and CDs at the Centre for Child Honouring table, he greets a steady stream of people who tell him they love his tweets, thank him for the stance he took on behalf of B.C. teachers, and offer their own (perennially negative, he says) opinions of the Stephen Harper government.
It's not all a social-media love-in, though. Raffi attracts a fair bit of criticism – such as the time respected Maclean's columnist Paul Wells called him out during an exchange about the election. In a couple of tweets sent on Sept. 1, Raffi called Harper "a lawless, rogue PM" whose government "was convicted of wrongdoing in each of last 3 elections." Wells (whose most recent book is The Longer I'm Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006-) responded, "The Governor-General, Elections Canada and the Constitution disagree with you, you flatulent crank."
When I repeat the "flatulent crank" bit back to Raffi in his office and ask what it was like to read that tweet, he tells me to watch my language, then laughs. He says the person to ask is Wells. "What was that about for him? Because I would like to know," he says.
Wells, when contacted by e-mail this week, elected not to get back into it, pointing out that this happened a month ago and adding that he wishes "everyone the very best."
When asked to comment about Raffi's anti-Conservative Twitter use, a CPC spokesperson e-mailed a response reaffirming the party's platform, but did not directly address Raffi or his criticisms.
For all of his activism, Raffi is still focused on his music. He's touring again, after a decade-long absence from the stage. He records at his home studio on Saltspring. He occasionally delivers keynote speeches on child honouring, and sometimes includes a performance of his motivational songs for adults accompanied by an instrumental CD ("I call it Raffi-oke"). He also live-tweets Canucks games (although with Eddie Lack gone, he's not sure if his heart's still in it) and, this week, he sent out a couple of Taylor Swift quotes. So his social-media presence isn't all political blood and guts.
"I have a diversity of interests and to me they all kind of go together. They're of one world because … issues don't exist in silos. Neither do kids, neither do seniors. We all belong in a circle of belonging and one thing affects the other."
When I ask how he'll react if the Conservatives win, he refuses to respond. "I can't accept the premise of your question," he says. When at one point he refers to the Harper government, he makes a show of having trouble acknowledging it as the party in power, taking a long pause and big gulp in between the words "federal" and "government."
"That was good, Raffi," he adds, then giggles.
Throughout the interview, Raffi enjoys several thigh-slapping, floor-stomping laughs – often when he's particularly pleased with something he has said. This election is the most important in a generation, he believes, but he appears to be having fun with it nonetheless. Politics can be unappealing and ugly but I've got this feeling Raffi is having a blast. "I'm glad you came today. I had a lot to get off my chest," he says – and he laughs.