“The More We Get Together”: an interview with Raffi

Remember Raffi? Of course you do. Which means you should probably also remember “Baby Beluga”, “Bananaphone”, and “Down by the Bay” – songs we loved as kids and still love today. The Canadian children’s singer is touring Canada with a new album after having taken time away to focus on and develop the Centre for Child Honouring.

While in Saskatoon, he sat down with family physician and founder of Upstream, Ryan Meili, who contributed this article, to discuss music and the making of a healthy society.

Ryan Meili: 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 a important song.

Raffi: 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.

RM: That makes me think of the social determinants of health, one of which is social supports and social inclusion. And one of the risks for ill health is social isolation.

Raffi: Right, and it’s not just for the elderly. It’s for everyone from day one. That includes teens today isolated by social media, or conversation avoidant teens, for example, teens with conversation phobia that would rather text than talk. I hear from psychotherapists who have these people as clients, people who are living among others but don’t connect. They have social anxieties brought about both by neglect and by spending time with the wrong things.

RM: Social inclusion is something of a neglected health determinant, as we don’t end up talking about it a great deal. Part of the reason is because it’s not as easily connected to public policy as, say, housing or income. So one of the questions is: what can we do as a society? How do you increase social connection?

Raffi: 39 years after recording “The More we Get Together” I’m writing an adaptation of that song which says” “The more we sing together the happier we’ll be; the more we read together, the happier we’ll be.” The ‘we’ in that case is parent and child. I’m doing that because A) It’s true again and B) With the popularity of shiny tech devices – that’s what I call tablets and such things – with shiny tech being used as babysitters and childminders and so on, it’s a great intrusion into the real world developmental needs of young children. The Canadian Pediatrics Society and the American Association of Pediatrics, they have both, for years, talked about children two and under having no screens in their lives, but the populace doesn’t respect that advice and they’re not respecting the advice around social media as well. Which I think is a shame.

And it may be because too many young parents today themselves grew up with too much screen time, and now they’re so drawn into so much screen time as adults, that they don’t even notice it’s a problem with their own kids. We still don’t take the formative years seriously. Formative should be the new f-word that every parent should understand. Everyone. It should be the word that we understand like we understand ‘cappuccino’ or something. Because what’s forming is nothing less than how it feels to be human—that’s what forming! It’s not just flesh and bones. It’s who that person’s going to be for their whole life. All that gives us a sense of who we aspire to be on the inside. Our sense of our inner self of managing emotions, understanding our emotions, self-regulation, that’s all developing, but not in isolation. It’s going on within the mirrors that our caregivers hold to us in their gaze, in their regard, in their loving touch, or lack thereof. All those things are connected, it’s a way of coming to your ‘social determinants of health’ phrase. And of course these co-exist with environmental determinants. It’s a way of getting at the whole of the person, and you can’t leave out environmental context.

RM: It’s very interesting that you grasp onto that word ‘formative,’ because it’s very 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.

Raffi: 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 selected play as the mode of being that best accompanies that formative socialization? Our nature is primarily playful. That’s the being you are. This is not unimportant. 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.

As a child you’re amazed at what these adults, these huge people can do and you are imagining yourself one day being able to do what they do, or more, if you are lucky enough to have an imaginative mind, if that way of being has been encouraged and not curtailed, you see, by early caregivers. So, the Respectful Love, which is the first principle of Child Honouring, sees the child as the child is and offers the conditions supportive to how the child is, how the child learns—the child’s playful way of being.

RM: When you talk about the impressionable, susceptible, and vulnerable, it means that the health of that child is, thus, very indicative of the health of that family dynamic, the health of their environment, the health of the culture and society. It’s as though seeing what’s happening with kids in our society is the canary in the coal mine of whether we’re a healthy society or not.

Raffi: Yes, they are the indicators. Exactly. Philip Landrigan calls the child the most vulnerable member of society. It’s in the child that our aim to ‘do good’ meets its test. Whether we succeed or not depends on how the child is impacted by what we create socially in our communities, and in our nations. As the child goes, so goes society.

RM: Speaking of measuring what happens in society, you wrote a song in your album Resisto Dancing called “Count With Me,” about the Canadian Index of Wellbeing. Can you tell me a little bit about that idea and why that was important enough to write a song about?

Raffi: I was doing some work with Charles Pascal, who first told me about the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, but I had also been working with Ron Coleman at the Genuine Progress Indicator in Nova Scotia and others with Redefining Progress. I was aware of the limitations of the GDP with the Robert F Kennedy quote and others, and the more I thought about it, I thought, “this is crazy”. Why are we, in our society, so obsessed with economic growth as counted by GDP, as though that’s the basis upon which we should reward CEOs and politicians and so on. It made no sense to me, so I wrote “Count With Me” as a satire.

The style is a British Pub drinking song, if you will, and it’s about the limitations of the GDP: “counting only the money makes no sense to me” the song says. From which the song points to an Index of Wellbeing because we need one, we need a wellness index to be the primary indicator of how society’s doing and how we reward those operating in it.

To me, it’s insanity that one might use the word ‘externalities’ to describe social and environmental impacts. We live in a social and environmental world. To pretend that we don’t is dangerous and quite weird. But that’s our economy; that’s what runs the country. So that’s why, if you take Child Honouring seriously, you see why the goal is a transformation. It’s a reordering of societal priorities…I don’t call it the Compassionate Revolution for nothing.

RM: This vision of Child Honouring you describe, did that emerge from your experiences singing for children for years? Is there some connection between having been a children’s entertainer and taking on this mission?

Raffi: 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.’

Irreducible is an interesting word. 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? It’s an untenable situation, really. But, you can’t leave the meeting of those needs to families on their own. Penelope Leach, had a book, Children First, in which she said that the best parenting today is not enough without societal support. That was in 1996. If that’s true, then you’ve got to have a fiscal policy whereby a family isn’t spending 60% of its income on rent. That’s untenable, it’s not sustainable. You’ve got to have a caring society. You can’t have these neoliberal policies masquerading as ‘holier-than-thou’ political longevity. They deserve to fail.

RM: So despite the idea of a Compassion Revolution, and a relentlessly positive focus, sometimes you still get mad. There are things you feel it’s really important to be critical of.

Raffi: Well, you can’t not get mad. I mean, if you care about children, there’s going to be a lot that makes you angry about how this society treats children or the conditions that this society allows to persist.

But, 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.

RM: If you think about it what we’re talking about, that’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right? Which is also the Social Determinants of Health. But you’re protesting their absence by showing what the presence would look like.

Raffi: Correct. Correct. As for Maslow, if you read my latest book, #lightwebdarkweb, I have some Maslow there. I can’t get enough of this aspect of Maslow. [He] said ‘healthy individuation requires resisting unhealthy inculturation.’ So, if the unhealthy inculturation is GDP masquerading as societal progress, then you resist that.

In the Child Honouring vision, a young person is supported to be who he or she feels that they are. You support them so that they would self-actualize as they grow. That’s the premise of Child Honouring and the first principle ‘Respectful Love’ is you have less stuff to undo later, or less therapy. We’re all going to have our trials and tribulations being human, but you have less wounding, and certainly less core wounding, to work out later. And I say this as person who was not respected for who I felt I was as a child. My parents certainly loved me, but they did not respect my personhood. It was a certain kind of love. It was often a coercive love. That they loved me was the grace. I mean, if they didn’t love me, I would be a total mess, but they did love me and I understood that. But, it also left me conflicted. Well, if they loved me, why would they humiliate me or hit me? Why would they do that?

We must respect the volitional being that we have in the young child, and not to coerce, not to impose our notions, even as we do the delicate dance of guiding, which as parents, it’s our duty to do. We must guide them and sometimes we must be firm, even as we are loving because they are not old enough to understand the choices. But there is enough evidence on the young child, evidence with which to re-order societal priorities. We will, of course, gather more evidence, because that’s just what we do. We like evidence, we like research, but we don’t have to wait for more in order to act.

It’s way past time to actually put in place the societal supports needed for a family to thrive. It’s way past time to reward a full-time worker with a living wage. I don’t understand those who say ‘The business world would fall apart if we had to pay people more than the minimum wage, and we’re going to be stingy about growing the minimum wage.’ All you have to do is say to someone, ‘Put yourself in the place of someone on minimum wage.’

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. Capitalism, 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.

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

Raffi: 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.

RM: What is the drive to talk to really young people about those values that impact how they might see the political world around them, eventually? And how might that influence the ways we make decisions as a society?

Raffi: In writing songs that I’ve included in children’s albums, some of the songs have been what we think of as children’s songs and some of the songs have been what we think of as ‘good for children.’ So, in that latter bin would be songs like “This Land is Your Land,” which I didn’t write, but the inclusion of these so-called values songs, some call them message songs — “All I Really Need” — is a message song, or there’s “This Little Light of Mine,” which really came from the Civil Rights movement in the US.

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.