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Deep Dive

How Raffi Became the All-Time Kids’ Music Icon — Without Compromising

To kids around the world, Raffi needs no introduction: The singer-songwriter behind "Baby Beluga" is a surviving — and still thriving — veteran of the children’s music industry…

To kids around the world, Raffi needs no introduction beyond his memorable first name. A surviving — and still thriving — veteran of the children’s music industry, the singer-songwriter made his first big splash in 1980 with “Baby Beluga,” the sweet tale of a “little white whale on the go” that happened to have the kind of hook his listeners wouldn’t forget four decades later. (He calls his older fans, many now parents themselves, “Beluga Grads.”)

Raffi’s repertoire and discography only grew from there: Since Billboard instated a Kid Albums chart in 1995, Raffi has notched 10 albums on the list, one of only 12 artists to do so — and, unlike commercial juggernaut contemporaries like Veggie Tales and Kidz Bop Kidz, he did so while remaining independent and refusing to ever market to children. He’s sold more than 15 million albums worldwide, according to his team’s sales reports, and his songs have earned 332.9 million on-demand U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.

But Raffi Cavoukian — the man behind the hits, now 71 — appears to have changed very little since the days in the mid-1970s when, thanks to a few chance performances for children, he set aside a career as a folk singer to focus on a much younger audience. (Cavoukian himself does not have children and is divorced.) Today, he still writes and performs his own music — typically he’ll write using guitar, though lately he’s taken to the ukulele, and in lieu of a home studio he uses the Sound Studio app and voice memos for demoing. He still devotes significant time to the causes he has long held dear, including climate change and the rights of children (a mission he has named “child honouring”). And he still speaks with the gentle, warm tone that has made his voice so approachable to kids for decades — and, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, a comfort to young people and parents alike. On the phone from his home on an island in Canada recently, his message sounded a lot like one of his lyrics: “Hang in there, everybody. And I’ll hang in there with you — how about that?”

Tell me about your current situation. Where are you? Are you working on music?

Most days I don’t know who I am, but apart from that everything’s normal. (Laughs.) I’m on Canada’s west coast — I live on an island called Salt Spring Island. Canada has taken this very seriously; we practice physical distancing to the nth degree, and I think that’s what’s helping us get over this hump. For the last four to five weeks, I’m just breathing deeply and staying informed but also wanting some time when I’m not thinking about negativity.

Last fall I had a really strong sense that I shouldn’t do concerts this year — I wanted a break — and how interesting that this is the year I got the break in. In the first couple months of the year, I did something I’ve never done ever: I produced somebody else’s children’s album. I just never thought about it [before] — I guess I was busy with my own projects! It’s called I Am Kind: Songs for Unique Kids, by Lindsay Munroe, a wonderful singer who’s a mother of three and lives in Massachusetts. She recorded her voice and the rhythm instruments in her hometown, sent tracks to my recording engineer, and we went to work dressing up the tracks. I did overdubs and played instruments and sang harmonies on many songs. It’s really a gem of an album [out now on Troubadour Music Inc.].

It’s an oddly fortuitous time for new kids’ music to come out — the genre is one of the few doing really well amid this crisis.

I think during this time especially, music gives comfort to kids and their families. I have one album called Quiet Time, a collection of my quiet songs, and parents tell me it works wonders at bedtime. I mention that in case kids are having trouble right now nodding off at night.

Raffi Guitar
Raffi Billie Woods/Courtesy of Rounder Records

It’s now been 40 years since your famed “Baby Beluga” came out. What were your original ambitions in music? Would you have ever imagined this kind of career?

No, I could never have imagined any of this. I was a folk singer before I was a children’s entertainer. In those days I dreamed of a career like one a James Taylor singer-songwriter would have. On my first album [for kids], Singable Songs for the Very Young, I was just trying to break even. But word got out that this album was irresistible, and through that word-of-mouth it became very popular in a very short time. And within a couple years, I knew my talents were best used in this surprising new genre for me. I think it was the first gold album that Daniel Lanois [the legendary producer of U2’s The Joshua Tree] was the engineer of. He engineered my first four albums.

Once I devoted myself to understanding children as an important audience, that was a window to a lifetime of learning about society from the child up, as it were. Twenty-two years ago, I was awakened from a sound sleep early in the morning with a two-word vision: “child honouring,” and that’s a philosophy I’ve developed with the Raffi Foundation for Child Honouring. Our early years are our most impressionable years. It behooves us to respect the child as a whole person. They learn the most sophisticated human tasks during their playful early mode of being. That’s a marvel in itself.

When you started writing for children, did you have to shift your thinking about what a song needed? Or did you write for kids much as you would for adults?

I had to change my thinking — it’s a different audience. Their life experience is limited in years, so [you think about] vocabulary, what children are intrigued by, what captures their imagination. It’s certainly different from writing for adults. But the focus on children is natural and reasonable. You sing about six little ducks or about bananas. You sing with humor and rhyming — the things you know will appeal to the young child.

What are those basic elements a song has to have, to you, to have a chance of reaching a wide young audience?

It depends on the subject matter. If it’s a nature song, or a song about an animal, or about foods that are fun to eat, that shapes the song. But at the same time you can use rhyme and repetition — that’s why a chorus, a refrain, is good to have in a children’s song. That works well in pop music too, but we’ll leave that alone. (Laughs.) Humor is also a wonderful element, where appropriate. And the tone with which you’re singing is also important. One would hope it’s a tone that is loving and caring and respectful, meeting the child halfway. Being a children’s entertainer is a service in a way. If your compass is set on respect, you can’t go wrong.

Thinking about “Baby Beluga” now makes me realize how many of your songs are about a harmonious relationship with nature — and I wonder if my generation of Raffi fans subconsciously absorbed a concern about the environment from you. You’ve always married your art and activism in a very organic way, which can be difficult for famous artists.

That’s kind of you to say. “Baby Beluga” and “All I Really Need” were among my first environmental songs. I evolved in my appreciation for songs of that kind. I’ve actually just released, for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a retrospective spanning 40 years — a compilation of snippets of some 15 songs in a video. Intellectually I think it’ll quite delight my fans to hear this — it’s not for young children, it’s for Beluga Grads like you. In 1990 I actually put out an ecology album called Evergreen Everblue — it wasn’t one of my more popular albums, but educators used it a lot. There’s a lot of teachable, shareable, hopefully huggable moments.

I’m a fierce defender of democracy, a passionate ecology advocate and a climate activist since 1990, when I first heard about global warming. And now the pandemic has forced us to change our ways in a way we couldn’t have imagined six weeks ago — we can imagine better the unprecedented actions we must take on behalf of our collective future. For young children, all you can do is hopefully write songs like “All I Really Need” or “Green Dream” or “Baby Beluga” — singable songs that are accessible. You don’t want to frighten young children.

Raffi's Climate Mobilization Poster Courtesy of Raffi Foundation

Decades ago, you founded your own company, Troubadour Music Inc., to release your music. What spurred you to do so? And did you ever entertain major-label offers?

I formed Troubadour Music Inc., or a version of it, first back in 1975. So in 1976 when my album came along, it was on my own label, which was wonderful because it allowed me to protect my artistic integrity. I wasn’t answering to someone else. Right from the start it was wonderful to be an indie label, making the best music I could. When I went to do the sequel to Singable Songs, I remember a big label called me and offered some money to record it, and I said, “Thank you, but no, I’ve got this.” It was an easy decision. The first album was selling very well, so it allowed me to make the second album no problem. I’m really glad I stayed with my decision.

As a children’s entertainer, have you faced the same quandaries over ownership of your work that any artist would?

Yep. But if you get really good advice, the advice is the same. You don’t sell your songs, you retain ownership, and you lease them — that gets you the best royalty situation with the very popular streaming [platforms] these days. I certainly think about [how to release my music] a lot — it’s no longer automatic just to produce an album and think that’s how it will be listened to. People just have different choices now, and that’s OK. The digital world has certainly changed things, mostly for the better.

I’d imagine streaming has been great for you, introducing your music to even more generations of new fans. Do you pay attention to those numbers?

It’s been really good for me, and I’m sure we get that kind of info, but I don’t think about it too much. I’m just grateful I still have so many fans.

You’ve always shunned commercial endorsement or marketing to children in any way. Was that a hard decision to make, and have people tried to convince you to do otherwise?

The decisions have been easy when it comes to respecting my audience. The producers of the movie Shrek approached me a few years back to do a “Baby Beluga”-themed movie, and as thrilled as I was to get the call, it took me and my people five minutes to say no. We asked, “Are you going to market this directly to children?” “Yes.” “Oh, well, that’s unethical, to market directly to children who are not old enough to know the merits of what they’re being sold.” All through my career I’ve had endorsement offers from all kinds of companies, and I’ve turned them down. Recently a digital communications company wanted to use the actual recording of “The More We Get Together,” and I immediately said no. The amount of money was irrelevant. If the government came along and wanted to use one of my songs in a public service announcement, and I liked the message and thought it was worthwhile, I’d consider that.

Well, speaking of commercialism and kids’ music, I have to ask: What do you think of “Baby Shark”? Certainly it’s hard not to see “Baby Beluga” as a precursor to it.

You may not believe this, but I don’t know what “Baby Shark” is. I’ve heard the two words, but I don’t know what it is, and I’m not sure I need to know. (Laughs.) I can leave some things alone. But my song “Bananaphone” keeps being enjoyed. I often remind people that the B-phone predated the iPhone for many years. Oh, yes, I do have banana jokes I tell. What’s the first thing you hear on a bananaphone? Yellooooow!

Raffi Banana Guitar
Raffi performing onstage June 14, 2014 in Halifax, Canada. John David/Courtesy of Rounder Records

Has quarantine inspired you to write any new music?

Well, I do a [Bob] Dylan imitation, did you know that? I wrote a song called “Dylan Sings Quarantine.” Guess who sings harmony on it? Lindsay [Munroe]! Some people actually thought it was Dylan singing with me. (Laughs.) And I did a follow-up called “Dylanesque: In the Wind.” I recorded them on my iPhone, and Lindsay harmonizes. It’s physical-distancing duets!

Have you heard Dylan’s new 17-minute-long song?

I haven’t made it through the first minute yet. I heard it and thought, “Really, JFK?” I’m told it’s good, so I guess I should try to finish it. Maybe I should sing along with that!