In Toshi's Words...

 

 

I am so grateful that I came to this life as a musician.
I love to be alive on earth in the right now and in all the “right now’s” I have ever experienced.
They are not all good.

In fact, my testimonial imagining is… What else more would I be doing?

How deep could I go into our relationship on this extraordinarily balanced breathing planet if I didn’t come from a line of humans whose last few centuries of life work is to be in a constant state of trying to not just justify their right to live free from brutality, exploitation and torture but somehow house and expand the free spirit that insists on its earthbound collaboration with everything that can breathe. Everything.

We come here to live.


Music is all around me always. When I was born my mama was singing. I don’t remember a time of no music.

Water. Air. Earth. Music.

It was so everywhere. That might be why I decided to be a football player at 7. Music was a given so play football. I was on this journey fiercely until I was badly injured at 12 playing baseball. A year later I was told I would never run again and that is when I told my mom I would be a musician. She gave me the best advice: stay away from drugs and learn to be a producer so you don’t have to wait for other folk to decide you are worthy of being seen and heard.


The music business I participate in was created out of the sonic cry of Black people and the entrepreneurship of post- slavery Black innovation in a wicked, wicked world. There are so many incredible artists, yet the industry is shaped by racism and segregation. Add to that some of the violent creations of humans living together on earth.

The white supremacist eco system of violence and oppression.

The viciousness of war.

Systemic oppression of all women all over the world.

The disposability of children.

The abuse by those in power trusted to lead with care, concern, and righteous innovation.

The never-ending exploitation of people on earth who are not in that tiny fraction of folks who dare to run the entire world.

I am so grateful to live among the people of earth who live their truth, claim their freedom, and name themselves. These people who align with everything else breathing on the earth.


After years as a teenager interning at Roadwork, an all women’s production and booking agency, and later releasing my first record on the indie flying fish label, imagine my shock in 1990 when record companies started inviting me in (thanks to a very sneaky opening slot on Lenny Kravitz’s first tour). I met cool and interested white person after white person. I wondered what they saw and heard. I was shocked at how bad recording contracts were and that everyone was telling me, “Hey your contract is pretty good.” I also remember when Whitney Houston’s first record sold 6 million and her second sold 2 million and people said she failed. I was like, if Whitney Houston is failing, what does that say about the rest of us? Because I was not an R&B singer. I hadn’t worn a dress since I was three years old, and the music business has a hard time accepting Black women in the full range of available genres. Every 10 years or so a Black woman singing her soul, usually accompanying herself on an instrument she played very well, broke through beyond the containers set up for them. Nina, Odetta, Everyone in Labelle, Joan Armatrading, Tracey Chapman, Queen Latifah.

So not surprisingly, I got: What kind of music do you do? I got: Toshi is a blues singer. Finally, from the few willing to make an effort, I got: She is a singer songwriter, blues folk, jazz, funk, rock, soul. Gospel artist.


One time, I asked a music critic whose work I liked, What is it about me that is so complicated? Nobody is asking Beck, what is that music called that you are singing?” She said I didn’t fit into any of the boxes they have. That rested me from those conversations. I stopped spending any time collaborating with the idea that I was a mysterious unknown force of sound because folks couldn’t make room for the body the sound came from. White bodies exploring sound could do anything and context was not necessary. I landed on “Good.” What kind of music do you do?  I would say the music is good. I am so glad I am alive right now and I have such good company. My relative Meshell Ndegeocello and I have been together since we were in our late teens. She was someone I could balance with. If I can hear her. I am also being heard. The best thing you can do when folk looking at you like you don’t belong is join a band and make your sound even louder and wider and reflective of more incredible artist. Everyone doesn’t have to be a musician, Y’all just have to be a band. That is how I moved from explaining to declaring. I am so glad I am alive right now. I see so many people doing and not explaining shit. They come from everywhere and they are all sonically different and spectacular. I am deliciously inside of incredible light shinning through. Never alone.

One of my soul mates Bob said:

You are in the first generation post integration who takes your music history seriously and the responsibility of being that generation sitting at the intersection of all of the worlds genres and movements to which you have had access and been apart. So of course, there’s has not been language. Your challenge is to create that language yours is the first generation of that lexicon.

My major label record was never released. Just recently I listened to it, and it is wonderfully all over the place. I think about all the little steps of making it, how often I would take any money I had and go into the studio and record. Try things, learn things, and lose my fear. I gained a desire to be a working musician and learn all the parts of making that happen.

So now, partly from that experience, I branched into producing, presenting, composing, being in a packed space and sonically transforming everyone in the room including myself. It led to collaborating with dance companies, singers, filmmakers, all kinds of artist and practitioners. Being a music director and performer at some of the greatest venues on the earth—the Paris Opera House, the Acropolis, Teatro Greco di Siracusa, Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall. I took a no limits YES approach to my journey. Collaborative and congregational work is at the center my career, even as I have been somewhat of a one person, from-the-ground-up grassroots institution.


My favorite collaborator is my mother Bernice Johnson Reagon. We been singing together since I was born. She supported my football dreams and when they ended it was like she knew I landed where I was supposed to be. She understood my being alive. She respected me as an artist and by the time I was 15 she treated me like anyone else she worked with. I was her daughter, and I was Toshi. Watching and being inside of my mom’s path making seeded my own path that is different but can function and intersect with hers. We have done so much together, and it is our individuality that carried our collaborations forward. My mom is an a Capella singer and I am bands, bands, bands. My mom’s music comes out of 19th century sacred sing from southwest Georgia. Mine from Motown and Hendrix, voices of the civil rights movement. I had to go back and learn my roots. My other favorite collaborators are all the musicians, dancers, actors, filmmakers, producers, presenters, technicians, and designers I get to collaborate with. There have been some rough situations but most of them have been incredibly powerful.

I am always being taught something new.


Music is the best version of myself showing up. I cannot be alone in this big world because of it. It has centered me in a wide family of incredible voices no matter where we live on the spectrum of creating sound. Some of these people build the infrastructure and don’t consider themselves to be musicians but they sing anyway to house themselves in their bodies and declare their home on earth. I think that is the first song, or sound, or vibration. In this world you come to what is your home when it can be so hard to simply say your name without being harmed. It is you.

Home is the sound you make within your body. Home is the song, sound, vibration you make within yourself.


Toshi Reagon
photo by Desdemona Burgin

 

Freedom Music Video

 
"I go higher, higher, higher, higher...and I won't bow down."

-Toshi Reagon


 

 
Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely and Friends
photo by Wahleed Shah
 
Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely vocalists Judith Casselberry, Stephanie McKay, Marcelle Davies-Lashley
photo by Desdemona Burgin
 
Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower
photo by Reed Hutchinson
 
Toshi Reagon and Berenice Johnson Reagon at Joes Pub
photo by Bernie DeChant

 

Toshi Reagon and Michelle Dorrance
 
Celebrate the Great Women of Blues and Jazz
photo by Tokako Suzuki Harkness
 
Toshi Reagon
photo by Kevin Yatarola
 
 

 

Toshi Reagon and Word*Rock*Sword- A Musical Celebration of Women's Lives
photo by Desdemona Burgin