Born in Cairo, Egypt, to Armenian parents, he spent his early years in Egypt before immigrating with his family to Canada in 1958, eventually settling in Toronto, Ontario. His mother named him after the Armenian poet Raffi. His father Arto Cavoukian was a well-known portrait photographer with a studio on Bloor Street in Toronto. His older brother Onnig Cavoukian, known as "Cavouk", is also a famous portrait photographer. His younger sister is Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's former Information and Privacy Commissioner. His parents died within 12 hours of each other, his mother dying first, of abdominal cancer.
In the early 1970s, Raffi frequented a guitar store near Yonge and Wellesley called Millwheel, where he met other developing Canadian musicians such as David Wilcox and John Lacey. Raffi ran a coffee house at the University of Toronto up until 1980. He befriended Lacey, a folk guitarist from Oakville, Ontario, who helped Raffi improve his finger picking (John went on to become a steel guitar player). Raffi continued playing folk guitar in various coffee houses in Toronto and Montreal before hitchhiking to Vancouver in 1972 to find "fame and fortune."
He returned to Toronto after a few years and was invited to sing for a Toronto public school. Despite his own hesitations about singing for kids, he was an immediate success, and thus he began his career entertaining children.
He moved to Saltspring Island near Victoria, British Columbia, in 2008.
Raffi started his own fund, and now is an environmentalist as well as a musician.
Once called "the most popular children's singer in the English-speaking world" he is well loved by many children born in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s for his popular children's songs. His autobiography, The Life of a Children's Troubadour, documents the first part of his award-winning career. Some of Raffi's best-known children's songs are Baby Beluga, Bananaphone, All I Really Need, and Down by the Bay.
Most of Raffi's children's albums include small, simple, folk instrumentations featuring Raffi's vocal and guitar work. Early works included contributions from Toronto-area folk musicians, including Ken Whiteley, The Honolulu Heartbreakers, and Bruce Cockburn. Raffi also incorporated many world music sounds into his records.
Raffi preferred to play in small intimate settings. In his autobiography he notes that he turned down a very lucrative offer to perform a concert at Madison Square Garden because he thought the venue was too large for him to connect to children. He also wrote that early in his career, he found it difficult to perform for kids under 3 years old because their short attention span was distracting to him and to the rest of the audience. This led to him taking a hiatus from children's performing in the mid 1980s.
Raffi is currently the president of Troubadour Music Inc., a triple-bottom-line company he founded to produce and promote his work. He released recording for a number of other artists, including Caitlin Hanford and Chris Whiteley.
As of 2012, Raffi continued to perform and appear occasionally across Canada and the United States.
Raffi's recent musical work focuses on social and environmental causes and appeals to the generation who grew up with his children's music ("Beluga Grads") to effect change in the world. He also promotes those causes through his books, academic lectures and as a speaker. In 2007, Raffi wrote, recorded and produced the single, Cool It, a rockabilly "call to action" on global warming with Dr. David Suzuki in the chorus. Cool It was the theme song for Dr. Suzuki's recent Canadian tour to promote action on climate change. In February 2016, Raffi released the song Wave of Democracy in support of American Senator Bernie Sanders run to be the nominee of the Democratic Party (United States) and the US Presidency.
In the 21st century, Raffi has devoted himself to "Child Honouring," his vision for creating a humane and sustainable world by addressing the universal needs of children. The Child Honouring ethic is described as a "vision, an organizing principle, and a way of life—a revolution in values that calls for a profound redesign of every sphere of society." His "Covenant for Honouring Children" outlines the principles of this philosophy.
In 2006, with Dr. Sharna Olfman, he co-edited an anthology, Child Honouring: How to Turn This World Around, which introduces Child Honouring as a philosophy for restoring communities and ecosystems. It contains chapters by Penelope Leach, Fritjof Capra, David Korten, Riane Eisler, Mary Gordon, Graca Machel, Joel Bakan, Matthew Fox, Barbara Kingsolver, Jean-Daniel Williams, and others. The book's foreword is by the 14th Dalai Lama. Resisto Dancing: Songs of Compassionate Revolution is the companion music record album for that book.
In a 2006 speech, Iona Campagnolo, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, referred to Child Honouring as a "vast change in the human paradigm."
Raffi advocates for a child's right to live free of commercial exploitation and he has consistently refused all commercial endorsement offers. Raffi's company has never directly advertised nor marketed to children. In 2005, he sent an open letter to Ted Rogers of Rogers Wireless, urging them to stop marketing cell phones to children. He also turned down a film proposal for "Baby Beluga" because of the nature of the funding, which was based on exploitative advertising and marketing.
Raffi has been hailed for his work as "Canada's all time children's champion."
In October 2006, Raffi was presented with the Fred Rogers Integrity Award by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston, for his consistent refusal to use his music in endorsements that market products directly to children.
In 2012, after learning details surrounding the online bullying, exploitation and ultimate suicide of teenager Amanda Todd, Raffi and his Centre for Child Honouring co-founded the Red Hood Project with business owner, former Crown prosecutor, community and arts philanthropist and advocate Sandy Garossino and design professional, writer, educator and community activist Mark Busse. Red Hood Project is a movement for consumer protection for children online that launched in November 2012.
In June 2013, Raffi published his book, Lightweb Darkweb: Three Reasons To Reform Social Media Before it Re-Forms Us, a revealing look at both the benefits and the dangers present on the Internet and critique of society's unquestioning embrace of social media.Order of Canada (1983)Order of British Columbia (2001)Doctor of Music, from the University of Victoria (honorary degree)Doctor of Letters, from the University of British Columbia (honorary degree)Doctor of Letters, from Wilfrid Laurier University (honorary degree)Fred Rogers Integrity Award (2006)Special Achievement Award at the SOCAN Awards in Toronto in 2000.Honorary Doctorate of Letters, Vancouver Island University (2014)Good Luck Boy (1975)Singable Songs for the Very Young (1976)Adult Entertainment (1977)More Singable Songs (1977)The Corner Grocery Store (1979)Baby Beluga (1980)Rise and Shine (1982)Raffi's Christmas Album (1983)One Light, One Sun (1985)Everything Grows (1987)Raffi in Concert with the Rise and Shine Band (1989)Evergreen Everblue (1990)Raffi on Broadway (1993)Bananaphone (1994)Raffi Radio (1995)The Singable Songs Collection (1996)Raffi's Box of Sunshine (2000)Country Goes Raffi (2001) (tribute album)Let's Play (2002)Where We All Belong (2003)Song for the Dalai Lama (2004) (commemorative CD)Quiet Time (2006) (compilation)Resisto Dancing – Songs of Compassionate Revolution (2006)Animal Songs (2008) (compilation)Songs of Our World (2008) (compilation)Communion (2009)On Hockey Days (2012) (single)Fun Food Songs (2013) (compilation)Love Bug (2014)Owl Singalong (2016)Best Of Raffi (Feb 2017)A Young Children's Concert with Raffi (1984)Raffi in Concert with the Rise and Shine Band (1988)Raffi on Broadway (1993)Raffi Renaissance (2007)The Life of a Children's Troubadour (2000)Child Honouring: How to Turn this World Around (2006)Lightweb Darkweb (2013)Shake My Sillies Out (1988)Tingalayo (1988)Rise and Shine (1995)One Light, One Sun (1995)Like Me and You (1996)Spider on the Floor (1996)Baby Beluga (1997)This Little Light of Mine (1997)Wheels on the Bus (1998)Everything Grows (1998)Down by the Bay (1999)Five Little Ducks (1999)