Liking Raffi is a whole vibe. The legendary children’s entertainer might be most famous for his gentle, golden tones and childhood bangers like “Baby Beluga,” but in more recent years Raffi Cavoukian has become an outspoken advocate for climate action, a “COVID zero” approach to the pandemic, and an educational philosophy he calls “child honoring.” He’s campaigned for Bernie Sanders, written “songs for compassionate revolution” aimed at adults, and has even become a very active Twitter user, often reaching out to his many, many #BelugaGrads in hopes that his long-held messages of compassion, empathy, and justice are still rattling around in those former kids’ brains.
Still, for all his activism, Raffi is best known for his work as a children’s entertainer and educator, and it’s a role he holds with pride. His latest project, Thanks A Lot, is a board book version of one of his most meditative and mindful cuts. (“Thanks a lot / Thanks for Sun in the sky. / Thanks a lot / Thanks for clouds so high,” and so on) The A.V. Club sat down for a rare interview with Raffi to talk about his decades in children’s entertainment, the TikTok resurgence of “Bananaphone,” and his beloved Raffi Foundation For Child Honouring.
The A.V. Club: Thanks A Lot is really about mindfulness, which is a term that we didn’t use when I was growing up but is such a hot topic for both kids and adults these days. What does mindfulness mean to you, and why is it so important to teach it to kids?
Raffi Cavoukian: I think those of us in the world who enjoy the comforts of our daily bread, our water, our air, or the nourishment that sustains us are wise to have a practice of gratitude that keeps us grounded in the blessings that we enjoy from day to day. And what this does, apart from making us feel good: It gives us a full cup from which to meet life’s challenges, because there are many.
I see the practical benefits of mindfulness not only related to our blessings, as I just mentioned, but also the wealth that we feel in our interconnectedness and the richness of belonging. So there are so many reasons to be mindful and there are so many ways to practice mindfulness, both with each other and with our young.
AVC: How have you learned to practice mindfulness in your own life? Has it always been something you’ve done or is it something you came to later in life?
RC: Well, the word wasn’t used much when I was young, you know, and it’s not really a word that I think of a lot. I think of simpler words like “awareness.” If you say awareness, everybody knows what that is.
What’s important to repeat is the sense of belonging that can be ours if we think of our lives that way. When you belong, you are in a group that cares and caring is what makes us human, so we get to participate in the art of being fully human.
AVC: People know you as a musician, but you’ve also branched out into creating the Raffi Foundation For Child Honoring, which advocates for decision-making that considers how our children will receive the world over time. Can you tell me a little bit about where that came from and what it really means to you?
RC: Have you got a couple of hours?
Child Honoring is a vision that came to me. It woke me up from a sound sleep in 1997. It was a Sunday morning, and when I bolted upright in bed with this vision that came knocking on my consciousness, it was two words: child honoring.
It was a peak experience, one that’s rare in life. I’d had a couple others earlier but in this one—this luminous moment, as I called it—I understood that I was being given something of value, something extraordinary, something rare, and it was a philosophy, intact, being given to me. I don’t know how to put it. Maybe being entrusted to me? I knew right then it would become the work I would pursue for the rest of my life.
Briefly, it is a vision of an extraordinary social-change revolution with the universal human at its heart, and that universal human is the human child. There was an understanding right in that moment that child honoring connects person, culture, and planet with a child at its heart. What this means is that if we are to do our best for our young, we need to do it in the personal realm, the cultural realm, and the planetary realm. You can’t leave any of those realms out. So, doing our best for our young, for example, includes protecting our ecosystems on which our lives depend. That’s not environmentalism, that’s practical caring. That’s mindfulness. That’s what that is, that’s connecting the dots.
You know, you have wonderful work being done all around the world by umpteen [non-governmental organizations], most of whom deal with the personal realm or they deal with cultural issues or they deal with planetary issues. Child honoring connects all three and says that the young child especially is the universal human, because the needs of all the world’s children are both irreducible and universal, so the young child then becomes the most visible sign of our species’ interconnectedness.
This is something to shout from the rooftops. A 6-month-old baby is the same physiological being the world over. It matters not their skin color, social standing of the family, or ethnic origin. It matters not! It’s the human heart beating in this young human animal.
So child honoring is a collective vision, an integrated philosophy, respecting earth and child simultaneously, and child honoring maintains that how we regard and treat the very young is the key to reordering our societal priorities towards health fulfillment, prosperity, productivity, and connection.
AVC: You’ve you’ve been making music and working with kids for a long time. Has what kids need changed in the time that you’ve been creating for them?
RC: You’re asking an important question.
Kids’ needs don’t change. The world around them changes. The universal and irreducible needs of the very young remain the same. Nurture, nourishment, physical dwellings that are safe in safe environments. Clothing, food, and shelter are the basics, but also love.
If you think about it, we all crave respectful love. We crave to be seen and respected for who we feel we are. That begins in early childhood, and I think respectful love is the prime nutrient in the ecology of the child. And that’s why it’s the first child honoring principle out of nine principles.
AVC: When you started, you could make a record, put it out, and that’s how you’d connect with kids. Then you started making longer videos, recordings of concerts and whatnot, and that meant you could, in effect, come into those kids’ houses and they could connect with you and identify with you. Now, I think the way kids absorb media is with a Spotify playlists or a random stream of YouTube videos. Have you changed how you try and reach kids at all?
RC: I think how the recorded music reaches kids and families has certainly changed. Less so how I approach making music for children, because my respect for my young audience and their families has grown, if anything, over the years. True, when a new album comes out, less people buy CDs. But that’s fine, that’s the way it goes. Maybe we’re saving the materials that go into these discs.
There’s also the other advantage, in the sense that I learned last year from Spotify that my music is in 92 countries. It’s streamed in 92 countries, and I said to myself “Whoa!” That’s great, because in the old days I used to need an international agreement with the distributor and your major label, they would have to confer, like “Which of Raffi’s albums will be suitable for international audiences?” And they would have to repackage them and stuff like that, and contracts would have to be drawn up. I mean, it was really something decades ago to even have an international agreement. Now it’s a snap of a finger or less. The streaming sites seem to be everywhere and the music has a chance to be heard everywhere, which is amazing if you think about it.
On the video side of things, I think all of us have become used to—especially in this pandemic period of video conferencing—how the screen has become more and more a part of our lives, for better or worse, and the good sides of screen connection are understood. What’s less understood is the proliferation of screens in the lives of young children and what the impact of that might be on the young child’s psyche. Those who know children well and those who know the very young have recommended no screens in the life of children 2 and under for good reason. The way I explain it—and this is just my way of saying it—but what you want in the very young is that they bond with the rhythms of a slow summer. The wonder of looking up at the sky and lying down under a tree. You want the the real smells of the three dimensional world. That’s what you want for a young child growing up in a formative period when what is forming is no less than how it feels to be human. You don’t get that from a screen.
AVC: It’s interesting, too, because I would like to think that my husband and I are mindful about what we show our 3-year olds. We don’t like certain shows, and we only show them educational programming most of the time, but then if I want to show them a Raffi video on YouTube, for instance, they might see an ad there for something that I would rather they not know about, or a show that I don’t want them to watch. How do you feel about having your videos on YouTube?
RC: Well, there are a couple of choices there. By no means is a video of proliferation, either on YouTube or anywhere else, ideal. By no means, because if you want an ad-free YouTube service, you’re going to have to pay for that monthly. I understand. So there are some choices, as always. In my case, you can access a lot of my videos through the Raffi Foundation video channel.
I think what I’m getting at is parents have to pick and choose what the source of the video content is that they’re serving so that it can be commercial-free. I’m very, very big on commercial-free childhood. That’s why I’ve never done any advertising myself. I’ve never, ever used my platform as an opportunity to sell things to anybody other than the music. That’s inherent in what I do.
AVC: I find that really admirable, and we’ve always tried to do that. And then the second we send them to daycare or preschool, they know about princesses and Paw Patrol and all these other incredibly commercial things. We could only do so much.
RC: I think it’s a lot more work for parents these days in some ways to be discerning because all the stuff’s coming at you from every direction. So you have my sympathy.
AVC: You also have a lot of #BelugaGrads, who are kids that have grown up with your music. I know you’ve released some music for adults, but how are you trying to reach those people and what do you hope Beluga Grads are taking from from having listened to your music for so long?
RC: Well, there seem to be tens of millions of new Grads in the United States and Canada, and now further afield in the world, and what a privilege it is for me to know that my music has longevity and that succeeding generations are enjoying it.
I experienced this firsthand pre-pandemic when I did concerts. It was amazing. I would walk out on stage and I would feel the love in the concert hall, I would say, in a qualitatively different manner than I did decades ago. I think there’s an accumulation of goodwill and appreciation that has happened over the decades, and so the moms and dads who are there with their young kids were Raffi fans themselves when they were kids, and that’s that’s a fairly recent phenomenon. I’ve enjoyed it so much, and I continue to hear, from Beluga Grads, statements like “your music was the soundtrack of my childhood,” and it’s still stops me in my tracks. I just take a breath and feel so grateful that that is the case. It’s a huge honor and privilege to be a friend of the family to millions.
I’m trying to remember the other part of your question.
AVC: What would you want Beluga Grads to have learned from your music and to be taking forward into their lives?
RC: I’m going to see if I can take my time with that answer.
On social media, I’m able to keep in touch with my fans, and that’s a delight in various ways. The moment we’re in right now collectively is extremely challenging. We have the twin global crises of the climate emergency that affects the entire world and another global emergency called the COVID virus and its variants. We as humanity are being called upon to do something that we rarely do, which is to act in concert, or to act collectively with each other in mind. For reasons both selfish and altruistic, they go hand in hand. Both of these crises, the climate crisis and the COVID crisis, require of us that we think of one another, that we put each other first as a way of putting ourselves first. “First” is the wrong word, but do you see what I mean?
So it’s my way of saying that in various avenues, I’m reaching out to Beluga Grads and calling on them to become change-makers in the world. There is no neutral place where we live anymore, if there ever was. There is the circle where we belong, and that circle is not just our family, it’s our community, it’s our nation, it’s our world, because climate change connects us as we’ve never been connected before—whether we like it or not—the same way the COVID threat connects us. We are interdependent for survival.
That’s the key message we need to learn. So whether it’s the song that I did with Yo-Yo Ma last year for the 40th anniversary of “Baby Beluga”’s release—I did a special version of “Baby Beluga” in which at the end I sang [Sings.] “Grown-up beluga / Grown-up beluga...” and I entreated Beluga grads to [Sings.] “Sing a song of peace, sing with all your friends, sing a song of diversity, sustainability, child honoring. We need to hear you.” That’s my message to Beluga Grads. We need to hear you, and your heart.
AVC: “Baby Beluga” was a huge hit for you. How did that song mark a shift in your storytelling or in what you thought you could connect with kids about?
RC: I think what “Baby Beluga” did for me is it took my career to another level of popularity.
I don’t know what it is about that little white whale on the go. Oh, my. It seems to move hearts so much. So you can imagine how I might feel when a young parent tells me that for their 6-month-old, when that song comes on, everything just calms down. I think, “Wow, that’s magic.” I didn’t know it was going to have that effect. How could I have known?
So, I don’t know. I just give thanks. In a way, “Baby Beluga “was the first environmental song I wrote, but I mean, what’s an environmental song?
It’s a whale of a song, by the way. It’s singing the praises of beauty. You know, we are drawn to the beauty of the natural world of which we’re a part. So here’s a magnificent creature, a baby.
It was so interesting. I remember my then-wife saying to me when I was writing the song—she knew I was writing a “save the whales song,” essentially—“Make it about a baby.” I said, “Why?” But she was a kindergarten teacher, and she said, “Because children love babies.” She knew that was true. I might not have been aware of it at the time so I took her advice. Good boy, Raffi.
Something about the baby whale swimming wild and free seems to stir the imagination so sweetly for so many, and I am thrilled beyond words.
AVC: On your Twitter recently, you lamented that, because of COVID, sing-along concerts might not be doable for years. How are you, as an entertainer, feeling about the future of connecting with audiences? If you think about it, a lot of toddlers have lived almost their whole lives in this pandemic, and that’s a large chunk of isolation and a lack of connection with other people.
RC: It’s a great concern, really, on many levels. Mental health being one of them, and our emotional well-being another. I do believe we will congregate without fear at some point in the next few years. I just can’t say when. That’s what that tweet was about. It was a tweet recognizing what we’ve lost.
I think you also know that I’m a zero COVID proponent. In other words, I wish we had been much stricter about all this in Canada and in many states. Actually, some Canadian provinces—the maritime provinces—have done extremely well with a zero COVID approach. I don’t know why the other provinces haven’t taken that up—my own coastal province of British Columbia, included.
But where there’s crisis, there’s opportunity. Last year, during the first year of the pandemic. I released a new album not of my own music, but the music of Lindsay Munroe. I want to talk about Lindsay for a moment, and the music we’ve made together, because that was a delightful surprise for both of us. She’s a mother of three who had done small performances for children in Massachusetts where she lives. She’s done a few online videos, Instagram, YouTube, and she caught my eye. I thought, “She has a wonderful way with music for kids. She seems very natural, very genuine,” and we met at one of my concerts. We had a word or two and then one thing led to another and it led to a musical friendship in which I asked her if she would write songs for children. She did, and I thought they were amazing.
So all of that led to her first album, which she asked me to produce, and I did. The album is called I Am Kind: Songs For Unique Kids, and we did that album without ever being in the same room. She recorded her voice, her ukulele tracks, and her rhythm tracks from Massachusetts and sent them to my engineer, and then my engineer and I got together and dressed up the songs with other instruments, my own harmonies, and in two or three months we had an album that is magic.
So that’s the good side of digital technology. It’s my way of saying, during a pandemic when it wasn’t possible to fly places, we said to ourselves, “Well, here’s what we are able to do, so let’s do it.” And sure enough, we made a second album this year and that’s just been released and it’s called Frogs And Birds. I know that children and families are going to love these songs. Lindsay’s daughter Mem, who’s 9-years-old, sings on the title song with her mother, and it’s beautiful.
So we’re learning things about how we can connect during times when we can’t physically be together. Maybe that’s all for a reason that we can’t even imagine right now. The greater benefit of it, I don’t know. But we’re doing what we can. Me included.
AVC: There are certainly big downsides to COVID and to isolation, but there are other things that we’ve learned during this that were important to learn, including new ways that we can connect.
RC: Having said that, I mean, sorry, but nothing takes the place of a real hug, whether it’s with a 4-year-old or a long lost relative that you haven’t seen for a long time. Grandparents, parents. We need each other. We are social beings. We need those hugs. But of course, we need to do it in a way that’s safe. So, short-term pain for long-term gain is how I see it.
I take very seriously our collective responsibility to wear masks, to get our vaccines, to keep our distance, to know what our protective bubble is. Now that there’s the fourth wave, I take all this very seriously. If you’ve looked at my Twitter feed, I keep reminding us of our duty to each other to stay safe and be kind. If I could wave a magic wand, my wish would be that we would pursue zero COVID very, very strictly as a goal. That would probably bring us the best chance of getting through the dangers of this threat sooner rather than much later.
AVC: I agree with you, but I just can’t see how we get there. It’s hard to imagine how a lot of people could ever be convinced to get on board, which is troubling.
RC: Raffi for President! Raffi for Prime Minister. We’ll do an online campaign. I will travel all over the place and you can be my campaign manager.
AVC: Well, that is certainly something I’m not qualified for, but I thank you for your confidence.
Let me ask this: Is there a song that you really love but never took off like you really wanted to? Or a song that you wish more people loved as much as “Baby Beluga”?
RC: Oh, what an interesting question. There are some songs on my Owl Singalong album, like the title song that I quite like. There’s also a song on that album called “Green Dream” that I think most families will find fascinating. [Sings.] “Green Dream. I have a green dream.” It’s very rhythmic. It has cellos in it as well as the ukulele, electric guitar, bass, drums, and children singing.
On my Lovebug album, there are a few songs, too. I think we did one that’s kind of a counterpoint to “Mr. Sun,” and it goes [Sings.] “See the moon, moon in the starry sky, shining way up high.”
So there are a little gems like that in these albums that are certainly not well known, but one would wish that that they might become so.
AVC: You never know. “Bananaphone” has gotten a new life on TikTok. These days, you don’t know what’s going to pop and when.
RC: Yeah. There we go. That’s a song with a-peel.
You know what you first say when you get on a banana phone?
AVC: I don’t.
AVC: I walked into that one.
One last question: You’ve been making music for a long time, and I’m sure you’ll continue to make music for another 40, 50, however many years, but have you thought about how you’d like to be remembered?
RC: I’d like to be remembered as someone who cared.
What I would love is to figure out a way that, after I’m gone, my legacy might be something that my Beluga Grads could hold collectively with hopefully some joy for the the time we’ve been together and the songs that they love and that they might, after my passing, take seriously the spirit of child honoring. They could all take my online course on child honoring, too. Well, I hope that part happens sooner than later, but I think my legacy in the hands of the tens of millions of Beluga Grads would have a lovely ring to it.
AVC: I think that’s a very good guess as to what what will happen many, many years from now when you’ve slipped from this mortal coil. Just look at how people have embraced the messages of Fred Rogers.
RC: As you saw in this interview, I like to bring a spirit of play into everything I do these days. I think there’s something about play that not only creates a kinder world, but allows us to be mindfully enjoying our days moment-to-moment rather than postponing joy.
I think there’s something to be said for the beauty that surrounds us, whether it’s natural beauty or the beauty in a child’s voice that moved us in a given moment to fill our hearts with the stuff that buffers us when we fall.
To get back to that first question-and-answer that we had: These are the emotional deposits we make into our heart. These practices of joyfulness and caring and laughter playing just for the fun of it, that’s what will allow us to do well when the going gets tough. They allow us to keep going with a good heart and a good spirit.