- Former member of Vote for Change
- Supported the Communist Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua
- Composed a song to honor Fidel Castro titled “Cuba Is Way Too Cool!”
The blues-and-rock musician Bonnie Raitt was born on November 8, 1949 in Burbank, California. Raised in “a politically active Quaker household” in Los Angeles and New York City, Raitt in the early 1960s attended what she would later describe as a “progressive Quaker camp … that had a lot of counselors from the East Coast colleges where a lot of interest in folk music and civil rights and the peace movement was mushrooming…. So that kind of tied music and politics together for me.” In her teens, she developed a passion for political protest songs, particularly those of Joan Baez.
In 1967 Raitt enrolled at Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, majoring in African studies with the goal of eventually working in Tanzania, where, as she later recalled in a 2002 interview, “President Julius Nyerere was creating a government based on democracy and socialism.” (When Nyerere relinquished control of the country in 1985 after 23 years of rule, Tanzania was one of the poorest, most corrupt countries in Africa.) “I wanted to help undo the damage that Western colonialism had done to native cultures around the world,” Raitt added.
Radicalized by the antiwar and civil-rights movements of the Sixties, Raitt began neglecting her studies and “hangin’ out with 70-year-old blues guys who drank at 10 in the morning.” She perfected her craft, however, by playing guitar with such blues legends as Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Sippie Wallace. In 1970 Raitt dropped out of college and signed a contract with Warner Brothers Records, which released her debut album, Bonnie Raitt, the following year.
Alcoholic and overweight, Raitt was widely praised by critics but found relatively little commercial success during her first two decades in the music industry. Then in 1989, with renewed sobriety gained through the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and psychotherapy, she made the career-saving album Nick of Time for Capitol Records that brought her four Grammys and instant stardom. Two years later, Luck of the Draw opened the way to three more Grammys.
As a political activist, Raitt has embraced a wide range of left-wing causes. In 1979, for instance, she co-founded the anti-nuclear-power group Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), with Graham Nash and Jackson Browne.
In the ’80s Raitt supported the Soviet- and Cuban-backed Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua, performing at benefit concerts to raise money for “Countdown 87,” an umbrella group whose aim was to discredit and derail the Reagan administration’s aid to the Contra rebels in that nation. Raitt also performed at fundraisers on behalf of the Christic Institute, which backed the Sandinistas and spread communist propaganda against the U.S. military in Latin America.
During the ’80s as well, Raitt did concerts to support the Sanctuary Movement, through which local law-enforcement and other government agencies blocked federal efforts to apprehend refugees and immigrants who had entered the U.S. illegally from Central America.
Raitt is one of a number of rock singers whose reverence for the famed linguistics professor and America-hater Noam Chomsky, has inspired them to create music to accompany recordings of his spoken words. According to one report, in 1996 Raitt and a former producer for the Rolling Stones were putting together an album “with high-profile rockers pounding out rhythms to back Chomsky’s lyrics.”
In March 1999 Raitt performed in a concert at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana, where she sang “Cuba Is Way Too Cool!”—a song she had newly composed in honor of Fidel Castro. The lyrics described Cuba as “a happy little island,” while the U.S. was a “big bad wolf” that “look[ed] the fool.” Raitt also met Castro and embraced him during her stay in Havana, and she told local journalists that it was “good to be here while Cuba is still not so under the influence of the West.”
In January 2003, Raitt joined more than 100 well-known Americans in signing a high-profile antiwar statement composed by Not In Our Name, a Maoist organization founded by Revolutionary Communist Party member C. Clark Kissinger.
In 2004 Raitt became a member of Vote for Change (VFC), a coalition of musicians and bands that raised money for America Coming Together‘s effort to help Democratic Senator John Kerry win that year’s presidential election. Among VFC’s other members were Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and R.E.M.
In 2007, Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Graham Nash revived their 1970s anti-nuclear message by urging Congress not to approve federal loan guarantees for the construction of any new nuclear power plants.
In July 2008, Raitt and folk-blues singer Maria Muldaur collaborated to create “Yes We Can,” a musical and video homage to Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
In October 2009 Raitt joined Pearl Jam, REM, and other entertainment-industry luminaries in supporting the newly formed National Campaign to Close Guantanamo—i.e., the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba.
In the summer of 2013, Raitt was a signatory to a letter asking California Governor Jerry Brown to terminate his state prison system’s practice of placing incarcerated gang members, gang associates, and serious offenders in isolation cells for 23 hours per day. The letter depicted such cells as “extensions of the same inhumanity practiced at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.” Among the other signers were Noam Chomsky, Jesse Jackson, Jay Leno, and Gloria Steinem.
That same year, Raitt and a number of likeminded activists teamed up with the Sierra Club in asking President Obama to “lead an effort on the scale and with the urgency we need to phase out fossil fuels and lead America, and the world, in a clean energy revolution.” Other participants included Alec Baldwin, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elle Macpherson, Edward Norton, Yoko Ono, Susan Sarandon, Russell Simmons, and Tom Steyer.
In 2015 Raitt recorded a song for Buy This Fracking Album, a two-disc musical compilation intended to warn listeners about the dangers of hydro-fracking as a means of accessing shale oil and gas. “One of the most critical environmental issues of our time is banning fracking everywhere because it destroys our water, our communities and our planet,” said Raitt in a statement.
As of mid-2015, Raitt had a net worth of approximately $12 million.
For additional information on Bonnie Raitt, click here.