Toshi Reagon is a folk/blues/gospel musician who sings, plays guitar, and is an icon in the women’s music scene.
Reagon was born in Atlanta and grew up in Washington, DC. She comes from a family of activists in the African American folk music scene. In an interview she did with blues legend and civil rights activist Odetta, Reagon said, “I feel like I got the right mom at the right time in the right place.”
Reagon is the daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon, co-founder of the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Cordell Hull Reagon, a civil rights activist. Both parents were members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Freedom Singers, a group that toured the USA and taught people about civil rights through music. “In fact, it scares the shit out of me to think about my mother driving around the country in the early sixties in a car with three other black people with nothing but music in their bodies as weapons,” Reagon says in her article, “Freedom Songs, Love Songs.” Reagon attended college, but dropped out to become a musician. Her first big break came when she was asked to open for popular musician Lenny Kravitz on his first world tour.
Reagon began teaching music for free in response to the attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001, putting into effect her belief that activism begins at home. In an article by Liana Jonas in The Advocate, Reagon said, “The best way to fight is to be a member of your community and fight with what you know.”
Music, Romance, and Reviews
Reflecting on her ability to speak to her audience through her music, Reagon said, “Thank God I’m an artist… I have a vehicle for what I feel and what I see.” She described how music functions for her:
No matter how I participate, either as a listener or a singer, I like the way a song can cut across all prejudices, how a song can change your mind. I know sometimes it only lasts for the length of that song, but I like that raw power. When I sing something and it feels sexy or romantic to folks, I like how people don’t care how I look or how they look, or what sex I am or they are. Music will do that. The whole idea of going to see a show with any kind of good music being played is romantic, baby. (“Freedom Songs, Love Songs”)
Reagon is renowned for her eclectic mix of genres and energizing live performances. Much of her music has roots in gospel and funk, with lyrics ranging from salvation to sensuality as well as activism. Writing for The Morning After: Performing Arts in Australia, critic Chris Boyd describes a Reagon performance he had witnessed in October 2007:
Music, for me, is all about signal-to-noise. I’m not (just) talking sound quality here. Music is a carrier wave between souls. And Toshi Reagon (daughter of Sweet Honey In The Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon) opened a channel – locked and loaded – as soon as she sang her first bluesy, folksy note… Bright as the sun, but so so controlled. Agile and clean. Capable of anything – apparently – except strain… Purity’s not quite the right word. Above all, Toshi Reagon’s is the voice of experience. Love and loss… the awful daring of a moment’s surrender. Hell, this self-proclaimed lesbian sang a love song she penned that very day for a bloke named AJ! (She also sang “Heartbreak Hotel” and let fly with the opening acoustic guitar riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away”… nothing if not eclectic!)
Image and The L Word
A large woman with a shaved head and a fondness for fedoras, Reagon is famous for presenting herself with casual self-confidence. In the Jonas interview, she said,
I’ve always been comfortable with who I am. I enjoy my sexuality… I’ve never had a conversation with my [recording] label about my size or who I’m sleeping with. I cut off my dreads and have no hair, and they just roll with it. They’re like [for the album art], “Let’s get her a leather jacket and a car! Can we get some women to stand by her?” And these are just white straight guys!
Reagon was featured on the fourth season of the television drama The L Word, a show known for showcasing Lesbian musicians amidst its portrayal of the hip Los Angeles women’s scene. As if to underscore her own relatively unsung status in the music industry, Toshi appeared as a performer at a street fair, casually singing one of her own songs amidst the bustle.
BIGLovely and Other Projects
Reagon released her first album Justice in 1990 and has since made eight additional albums, including The Rejected Stone (1994), Kindness (1997), The Righteous Ones (1999), Toshi (2002), I Be Your Water (2004), Have You Heard (2004), and Until We’re Done (2008). She has performed with her band BIGLovely since 1996. “We were doing a residency at The Fez in NYC,” she recounted. “My girlfriend wrote me a love letter and addressed it ‘To My BIGLovely.’ That’s how we came up with the name.”
Reagon has also made a name for herself as a composer, having worked on two film projects: Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery (1998), and Raise Your Voice (2005), a documentary on her mother’s music group, Sweet Honey in the Rock. She has also worked as a music director on a number of dance and theater projects including Bones and Ash, Underground River, Asphalt, and The Temptation of St. Anthony, a project she was working on with Robert Wilson and her mother.
Boyd, Chris. “The wings we have… Toshi Regon and BIGLovely.” The Morning After: Performing Arts in Australia. Monday, October 15, 2007. http://chrisboyd.blogspot.com/2007/10/wings-we-have-toshi-reagon-and.html
Jonas, Liana. “Toshi Gets Ready to Rock.” The Advocate. April 30, 2002, p. 60.
Reagon, Toshi. “Freedom Songs, Love Songs.” Kelly, Karen and Evelyn McDonnell, Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. New York: New York University, 1999.
Richardson, Derk. “Player Spotlight: Songcraft: Toshi Reagon.” Acoustic Guitar, May 1, 2006.