For most people, talking to Ani DiFranco about civic engagement is a little like being the apprentice of a master in a kung-fu movie.

They try really hard to figure out the lesson, and just when they think they have it, the master laughs, says something about a grasshopper and cracks them over the head.

Just like the maxims of kung-fu masters, DiFranco’s ideas about participating in the democratic process can be hard to understand because they are so simple: Be involved every day. Be aware. Have faith in the overall system. Have faith in the people.

All of these might come as pretty novel ideas to artists scrambling to organize voter registration initiatives. For example, Diddy readily admitted he had never voted before starting his organization Citizen Change.

But this is old hat for DiFranco. Her current album, Educated Guess, features the poem “The Interview” which, printed in the booklet, reads, “how can one talk on/the role of politics in art/when art is/activism.” Art is activism, and it is pointless trying to separate the two.

DiFranco has organized the “Vote Dammit!” tour, which will be rolling through swing states in the months before the November 2004 presidential election. DiFranco will play in Madison Sept. 28 at the new Overture Hall with comedian Margaret Cho as her co-headliner. Other stops on the tour include sets by DiFranco’s friends Dan Bern and the Indigo Girls and speeches by former presidential candidates Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean.

Several voter registration organizations will canvas the shows to make sure everyone in attendance is signed up to vote.

DiFranco and the other artists see voting as absolutely imperative.

“Exercising our right to vote is simply necessary for creating democracy,” DiFranco said. “I think that low voter turnout is not only a product of privileged apathy but a systematic brainwashing by the corporate media. I think it has been many years now that we have absorbed the message that we are consumers, not citizens, and that happiness will come materialistically rather than through being an active member of society. Without participation, we don’t have a democratic system; we have a capitalist system.”

DiFranco said she felt that while it was a natural and intelligent for America’s youth to feel disenfranchised in the political system, a reinvestment of faith in government was the solution to the country’s current quagmire.

“Young people were born into their disillusionment with the political system in this country. We have never known a time when ‘politician’ was not synonymous with ‘greedy calculating liar,'” DiFranco said. “I hope that we will see a heretofore-unprecedented number of young people voting in this upcoming election, and from now on.”

DiFranco said that the atmosphere of free thought had been stifled in the country in past months, but lately, everyday people were starting to question abhorrent policy.

“People let themselves get intimidated by the media, each other, insane maniacal politicians,” DiFranco said. “Americans have engaged in rampant self-censorship, a travesty given our freedom of speech, for too long now. Finally people are growing the balls to speak out.”

Traveling into election battleground states could put DiFranco in venues where all the progressive kids in a traditionally conservative area have turned out to see the tour.

“It is often the most conservative areas that I dread performing in because there is not a cohesive energy in the audience,” DiFranco said. “But it is those exact places where people need affirmation the most, who are thinking against the grain. So those shows can turn out to be the most fun. You just never know.”

Like every other celebrity voter turnout initiative, “Vote Dammit!” does not explicitly mention one candidate or the other, but the artists’ choice is clear.

“This tour and my politics have nothing to do with Bush,” DiFranco said. “Whether or not we are empowered citizens is an issue much bigger and more eternal than the joker in the Oval Office. I am simply about sharing and celebrating truth, in this and every tour.”

But it is clear DiFranco, who is a registered Democrat only so she can vote in primaries, is partial to Sen. John Kerry. Although she believes Kerry may not be the luminary “hero of the people” America needs right now, DiFranco said a Kerry win would mean a change from the terror alert bullies currently in charge.

“U.S. out, U.N. in — in Iraq, in Afghanistan,” DiFranco said. “We must remember we are not electing a king, and beyond the personality contest, the changing over of the guard from Republican to Democratic administrations will mean a whole new cast of characters in all kinds of appointments. It will mean people of vision will be able to get out of crisis mode and generate more momentum in their work.”