Toshi Reagon on Winning 2021 Herb Alpert Arts Award

Interview with Banning Eyre for Afropop Worldwide, May 19 2021

photo by: Frederick V. Nielson

The Herb Alpert Award in the Arts is an unrestricted prize of $75,000 given annually to risk-taking mid-career artists working in the fields of dance, film/video, music, theater and the visual arts. Every year, 10 artists are recognized, and in 2021, one of those is Toshi Reagon, composer, producer and singer/songwriter who spans folk, blues, gospel, rock and funk. Her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, founded the iconic women a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Her father, Cordell Hull Reagon, was a civil rights leader in Albany. So she comes from both roots music and engaged, positive activism from day one. Afropop’s Banning Eyre spoke with Reagon by Zoom about her work, the award and these crazy times we live in. Here’s their conversation.

Banning Eyre: Toshi, it’s great to talk with you. First of all, congratulations on this award. That must be a nice feeling.

Toshi Reagon: You know it's like: What does it all mean? It's great to be in a circle of artists with so many amazing people. But when it comes to awards, I'm always like, "Really? What did I do?" But I'm very grateful.

It's well deserved. I came up in the ‘70s and was a big fan of Sweet Honey in the Rock. I was just watching a number of your videos over the weekend, and they’re wonderful. I grew up in a household where my mother listened to Leadbelly, so I think that's where my whole interest in African-American and ultimately African music started. I hear a lot of tradition in what you do, but I'm curious about how you approach songwriting. How do you think of yourself as a songwriter? What are you trying to do when you write songs?

I just try to be true to what I'm sonically hearing in my head. I've never adhered to genres. I'm one of those lucky kids who grew up with a mom who thought it was good for kids to be around music. She took us with her everywhere when we were really little. And when we started to have our own lives, she respected that and we didn’t travel so much with her. But we got to be at lots of festivals. She worked at the Folklife Festival in 1976. It was the bicentennial year, so the festival was 12 weeks instead of the usual two. And she was in charge of an area called the African Diaspora. And I still think it's one of the greatest things that she ever did.

I think the original idea was that everything would go under a tent. And she was like, "Absolutely not." And so she had a church with no walls, and it had a wooden floor and it could have anything from dances to bands; anything could happen there. She had a front porch. And then she had a sidewalk with a cover that zigzagged and she would have cooks from different parts of the world. One day everybody would be making beans. And another day they would all be working with peanuts. She had hair practitioners from different countries, including the U.S. She had straw basket makers, sculptors, and then at one end, there would be a street singer from somewhere. So, like Flora Molton was there, and you could drop money in the basket. There was a local restaurant, fife and drum players from Mississippi, dance companies from all over Africa. So I just got a big hit of music from all over the world that one summer. It really changed me.

You were just 12 years old then.

Yeah. And already, I didn't believe in listening to just one radio station. I listened to all of them. I was just interested in every kind of music. One of my uncles played djembe and was in an African drum group in Atlanta. So I got a big dose of music with a very wide ranging landscape. So when I think about writing, I don't go, "This is a rock song. This is a folk song. This is a blues song." I just try to be really true to what's coming through. In the beginning of my career people would ask: what kind of music do you do? I just couldn't name one thing. And I just thought that had a lot to do with racism. White innovators could do whatever they want, and then black innovators: “Well what is it that you do?" And I'm like, "Come on, man, you already heard all this music. I'm singing with a guitar. It's not like I'm fooling people, doing something you never heard.” It was deep. It was deep. "What is it?" Come on, y'all know what it is. Stop playing.

I hear you. It seems like everybody is in rebellion against being pigeonholed into genres these days. There is always a lot of complaining about that at the Grammys. “Why did you put me in this category instead of that one?”

Well, we all come from so many different places. It's not like we don't have time to name them. What's the rush?

When you list your influences in interviews, you refer to a lot of rock bands, Led Zeppelin, Prince, a lot of things that are just singing with a guitar. And I hear all that in your delivery. It's so strong. I like that openness. We run into this genre thing quite a bit in African music. Artists don't want to be boxed in. It's music. If it's good, it's good.

I agree. You've been around, so you’ve seen how the industry has transformed things. It's very hard to monetize recorded music now, whereas in the ‘40s, ‘50s, up to the ‘90s, I think that genre-making was created to monetize the sale of records. It was so you could put people in a streamlined path and then just run a production line. Now in the U.S., radio stations are so segregated. It's easy to make something popular and then say, "O.K., now we are done with this. Now it's going to be that. And then we’re done with that. So…”

Tell me about your band, BIGLovely.

BIGLovely is a group of a lot of amazing musicians that I've played with over the years. Everybody is like an independent agent, and a genius at what they do. And each one of them really affects the sound. Now, that's where some of my writing gets influenced. There are two main drummers that play, and they’re both really different. One of them is Allison Miller who is a very well-known jazz drummer, and Allison was subbing for Bobby Burke, or “Chicken” as we call him. I was at a gig where Allison was playing with Ani DiFranco and I saw on the table one of her records. I bought it and in the car I listened to it. And I was like, "Wait, is this the right record? This is a jazz record." And all of a sudden I started writing for her very differently. I got interested in how she plays and what she can do as a jazz drummer inside the context of my music and what I want to say. That was really exciting, so I get very influenced by the people in the band because they are all particularly incredible at something, and I always want to have that motivating the sound. They are a great band. We didn't get to play together much this year obviously, but I am not one of those artists who is like, "Can I get out for 100 dates a year?" I do a lot of different projects. But when we play together, it's amazing. You never know who's going to be in the band. There's an all-women’s version. There's an integrated version of the band. Sometimes it's me with a guy. It just ends up being, "Who can do this gig?"

It sounds like a family. How many people in the whole bunch?

I don't know. I think it's about 20 people that could end up being there. There are like three drummers, two or three bass players. Various guitar players. Four horn players. A couple of violins. And then four or five different vocalists who show up. It’s beautiful. I feel very lucky.

Let's talk about your opera based on Octavia Butler's 1993 novel Parable of the Sower. It's kind of a post-apocalyptic survival story set in the mid-2020s.

That's something my mother and I worked on for awhile. My mom retired in 2014 and she said, "Here, you go on with this." We are both big Octavia Butler fans, and we had an opportunity to be part of a class that Toni Morrison asked my mother to teach at Princeton. It was a semester-long workshop. You had to have a text, and my mom picked Parable of the Sower. She couldn't do all the classes so she said, “Maybe Toshi could do half of them.” I was in my early 20s and I was like, “O.K., here we go to teach with Toni Morrison. This is going to be fun.”

It was awesome, really amazing. And after we got through that class, we thought, "Wow, we could really sing this book." So we started investigating where the rights were. That was in the late ‘90s, and it actually took till 2008 for us to make the first attempt of getting it up. We had done an opera with Robert Wilson, the director, The Temptation of St. Anthony. And one of the people involved in that, Gerard Mortier, was supposed to take over the New York City Opera. We had worked together on this opera at the Paris Opera House, where he was in charge before coming to New York City Opera. But then New York City Opera fell apart, and he left, and Parable never happened. So it took until 2015 for us to do our first real workshop.

I think the way we were just independent has been very exciting. I'm a producer. I had to hire another producer to do the administrative stuff. It's kind of a thing where it's so giant for me that I can't even believe it every time we get into a theater. We've been on four continents; thousands and thousands of people have seen the show. Like everybody else, we got shut down last year, but we will hopefully be back in the game next spring in several cities.

We take this work really seriously. Octavia Butler researched plausible conditions in the 21st century, and she hasn't been wrong. Her clock in the book is so accurate it's scary. Because where she sees us in the year 2024 is horrific, and not something that any of us can tolerate. I don’t care what your belief system is. It's too bad for us to be, "Oh, that's O.K. if it happens." So the way I think about this work is it's an opportunity to get into cities and work with people who are activating in a multitude of ways around humans getting in the right relationship with each other and with the planet.

That's a short way of saying all the stuff we do. I show up a few months before, way before, and I just ask the question, “Who would like to work with me on a path that is related to this book?” Every issue is in this book, and so there is always someone teaching it. There are always artists innovating off it. There are always people in communities, even if they've never heard of the book, that are working on issues like water and climate crisis issues, issues of irresponsible governing, things like that. So there's always lots to do. And then we have the show, which I actually call The Belly Button. We’re just going to meet at the show and look at each other and I’m going to tell you a story, and then we’ll to continue doing our work across the borders. That I think is the purpose of our work.

Photo by Desdemona Burgin
Photo by Desdemona Burgin
I read that you did the show at NYU Abu Dhabi.

That's the first place we started. Yes. The debut was there, and then the U.S. debut was in North Carolina at U.N.C. Chapel Hill.

I'm not that familiar with the book, but you have certainly made me curious. I see in writings about this show, this term Afrofuturism comes up. It's a term that keeps winding in and out of our discussions these days. What does it mean to you?

I think it is simply that we exist in the future. Black people exist in the future. I think it comes out of an idea where there's so much that was imagined for us that never included black people. It didn't include much diversity at all. Almost all the stories involved white people getting someplace and making decisions and doing whatever they want. Even the visioning across the board was so focused on white men, so you can see how we’re trying to catch up now, to tell a story or create narratives, even when it's time to talk about some of our serious problems. We have to reach to really understand that inclusive and diverse messaging, and look at things that we have to do in order for everybody to be healed and feel they have access to something better than what they have now.

Afrofuturism, especially through the lens of artists, is just a big way to transport yourself and declare yourself in the future. Black people really understand that your physical body might not make it to the future, but you will make it to the future. We have to hold that understanding to be taken from the great continent and being pulled across the water and to deal with the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and all of the enslavement in the Caribbean and in America, and then to be constantly in a state of declaring, "Hey, no, you can't do this. No, we want this." That’s terrible. So Afrofuturism is a very freeing and wonderful thing, to imagine yourself in the future, and then to declare yourself in the future, and then to be in the present and look to look at the past and say, "We arrived at the future." It's amazing to be able to do that. And it gives voice, it gives a name to a multitude of practices that are important across scholarship and across independent innovation.

It’s the same way that Adrienne Maree Brown started to bring up emergent strategy as a way of naming a possibility of ways to create together that's based on Octavia Butler's parables, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. We can actually see this as a tool to be able to name things that used to be so complicated to name, but now you can say, “You need to have an emergent strategy on these particular issues, and we are going to invite artists that are illuminating Afrofuturism so that we can actually have a great conversation about the future.”

That's fascinating. It's a very provocative and fascinating movement. I've just been reading a book called A Fistful of Shells by Toby Green. It’s essentially an account of the whole era of the Atlantic slave trade but from the African perspective. It fills in so many things, bringing in the oral histories of the griots. It makes the point constantly that historical literature has so rarely given real consideration to the cultures, lives, civilizations and histories within Africa that preceded Europeans, and that continue to unfold to this day. Great book. In one of your videos I was watching you made a comment about how we should be talking about race. You said something like, “Race is the only thing we should be talking about.” This is a moment when it seems like a new conversation is happening on race. Or is it? How do you feel about that?

It shouldn't be moments. What we need to do is evolve past this moment. It's not a moment. It's been hundreds and hundreds of years. Racism is a strategy of control and violence. That's all it is. The same with any sort of bigotry that you allow to become systemic. You allow it to run your government. You allow it to exploit a specific kind of person for your own benefit. Humans are the most dangerous species on the planet. We are the most destructive species on the planet. We’re so stuck in this particular kind of battle, and it's so infuriating and frustrating. And this is the year we can just decide that there's no limit to how bad things can get. Things getting bad is not going to change people's minds. So we can forget about that and we can just stop having the conversation about, "If we say things in a nice way… Or if we tried to do things in a gentler way… If we invite people in…"

Dude, it's over. It's a worldwide pandemic. The success of it depended on generosity and care. Generosity and care. That's how you could end Covid. People who have a lot of resources share them. Every individual that is able has a way of behaving that would cover other groups of people that have been so deprived of resources and might not be able to exist up to the line. After a year, that group didn't exist anymore. After year, we should have covered enough to be able to extend, no matter how horrific and racist, we should be able to cover it. And it hasn't happened because the planet is run by really exploitive people who no matter how wealthy they get, they never have enough. They use all of the things, the racism, the religion things, the hierarchical things, women can't do this, we can't have queer people or trans people… All of this. The bottom line is, humans are just out of alignment with the planet, and that needs to be our goal. We can't get there by just fighting over these things. We now have a record of how that doesn't work. Your oppression is not going to work. It's not going to make you happy, and it's not going to help humanity or the planet. We are literally deteriorating ourselves. We are made of water, like almost everything on earth. And we are suffocating. We’re suffocating in the ocean.

So, it's like we ain’t got no sense! Whenever people ask me about racism I say, "Think bigger." Because to have this conversation about race, and the reason I zero in on it is just that I want to get it really cracked open, and really expose the many ways that we are just trying to have a fight. We're just trying to be violent. We're just trying to be destructive, and somewhere in that fight and that violence and that destruction are some pieces of joy from some few people who clearly have something wrong with them. That's why we go in on it, but the bottom line is: to have a true evolution, we have to break that down. We have to be the species that we are on earth, like every other species, and we can have our disagreements, and we don't have to love each other, and we can even go at it sometimes, but we can't go at it to the extent that we’re actually causing the destruction of the planet.

Powerful stuff. You know, I told you that I grew up in a household where my mother played Leadbelly, but she also played Herb Alpert. I was actually a huge fan when I was six and seven years old. In the last few years I've connected with Herb partly because of these awards and some other work that he's done. But I'm curious to know. Was Herb Alpert ever part of your consciousness coming up? Or was this coming from out of the blue?

I knew about Herb Alpert. He had some hits on the radio. He made crossover hits.

He sure did. In fact he was top of the hit parade when you were born in 1964.

That’s right. Also, a lot of my friends have won this award. Michelle Dorrance, who is one of my collaborators, a tap dancer. She won it a few years back. And Meshell Ndegeocello, who is like family. What a beautiful thing. It's lovely to see artists holding the space. There's the Lillian Gish Prize. When Pete Seeger won that Lillian Gish Prize, I sang at the ceremony. Of course, he gave it away. I think we were in the Bronx, and the Hudson River was almost dead. There was a big cleaning of the river. And then there was a group that makes canoes and teach kids how to make these canoes and then they can be in the water with the canoes. It was something like Rock the Boat. So we sang, and he gave it all to that organization. I think it was about $195,000. It was during the recession, so it was actually smaller that year. Anyway I sang with Pete, and now I get to vote every year. I get to nominate someone for that award.

And it's amazing. These two sisters said we’re going to make a fund to support artists. And it's huge. They be given people amounts like $300,000 every year. So Herb is a brilliant and amazing person, not just because of the artistry, but because of his forward thinking. It's miraculous and beautiful and genius and wonderful. I try to give artists money all the time. I don't have money like that. But I'll send my friends like $500 they'll say, “What's this for?” And I’ll say, “Artist grant.” “Are you kidding?” “No. Artist grant.”

We do a festival called Word-Rock-Sword, and it's been so beautiful. Somebody asked me what is the point and I said so we can be like a giant bird-artist with huge wings and none of us should ever be hungry, and none of us should be without a home, and none of us should be without a gig. We should be able to take care of each other. And I think that's the epitome of what Herb is doing.

Amen. So let's look ahead. We’re coming out of this pandemic. You've got new wind in your sails from this award. What do you see ahead for you?

I'm just going to do what I do, put a group of people together, get in a congregational vibe and make music and transform the era that we're in. I'm going to release a lot of records and hopefully get Parable on the road when it’s safe for everybody to be in buildings together. I have a bunch of residencies, and I've made my residencies all collaborations with other artists, so that I can support these genius people. So I’ll continue to do all that. Fight the good fight.

Good for you. And congratulations once again. I look forward to seeing you on a stage before too long.

Thank you. It's a pleasure to speak with you.