Toshi Reagon loves a badass, as evidenced by her undeniable delight when she speaks of them in both awe and kinship. She revels in the stories of righteous badassery, including her own. At four years old, she declared, “I want some Hendrix records.” As a boarding student at Sandy Spring Friends School, angered by the administration “messing with one of my programs,” she in an act of rebellion and nascent activism, “closed the school down and had everybody playing music in one of the barns. Classes were done for the day. They were like Okay, what are we gonna do with this child?”
“This child” has used her clarion voice to speak truth since she as a toddler first parted her perfect lips in song. The purity of her voice commands our attention through praise song and protest; the clarity of her message demands our ascension to a higher vibration. After a magnificent Easter Sunday group dinner in her Brooklyn home, Hazel, she encouraged us to share personal notions of resurrection. After going around the communal table, it was her turn to share (with no self-deification implied, just respect for the resonance of individual action) “There was an actual person, Jesus, who lived and died, and no matter what your religious belief is, he existed in the world and the world was forever changed. I think of that and the impact we each have. One hundred years from now someone could say, there was a Toshi…”
Before there was a Toshi Reagon, there was a Toshi Seeger–married to Pete– who booked the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers founded by Cordell Reagon of Nashville. Bernice Johnson of Albany, Georgia lent her powerful voice and commitment to the civil rights cause to SNCC. ”They were the first group to actually take music of the civil rights movement, freedom songs, the music that was used in service that I like to call action music, and traveled,” Toshi says. “Somewhere in there I was born” (and named for her godmother.) Her parents separated when she was two and she, her mom and younger brother Kwan moved to a “huge” house on Atlanta’s Ashby Street. “I loved that house,” she says.”Vincent Harding who’s a genius revolutionary scholar and his wife and children lived upstairs and we lived downstairs. It felt like the center of the universe. There was so much activism happening. It was the edge of us–black people–starting to take up space. The Black Panthers would march down the street. We were near Morehouse and Spelman so there were marching bands. It was like a parade everyday. When MLK died his funeral procession came thru our street.” Her mother co-founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community School, the first Toshi attended. “We used to sell bread and make candles to raise money for the school. It was a great beginning.”
Then they moved to the nation’s capital, where her mother found work with the DC Black Repertory Company and sought her doctorate at Howard University. “We lived in Anacostia. That was crazy. Southeast DC was not like it is now. It was rough.” She and Kwan attended several public schools. “It was horrible,” she recalls. Eventually she went to Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Virginia. ”It was a great school. I went from the city to animals and a Dungeons and Dragons class.” She remains grateful for her mother’s sacrifice: ”My mother would have been one of them women who got arrested for sending her kids to school in a different neighborhood ’cause she would not let us go to the school in ours.”
The drum was
Music has been omnipresent. Singer Flora Molton, who played her “spiritual and truth music” on the streets of DC was an early, slide guitar-playing favorite. “I loved her when I was little,” Toshi remembers. “My mom had a group, the Harambee Singers in Atlanta. And I loved Motown and Sly and the Family Stone. My mom worked for the Smithsonian Institute so we were always around the American Folklife Festival and you would see people from all over the world. We’d go to see Elizabeth Cotten; it was amazing to me. I’ve always been attracted to good musicians with an authenticity to the relationship to their instrument. Some people are very, very brilliant experts and some people just tell the truth which makes it brilliant. If you ask ‘
She waxes rhapsodic about the Folklife Festival during the bicentennial year and the installation her mother spearheaded. “My mom made this African Diaspora–she had a church built, an open wooden structure with a pulpit and an open floor where different things could happen.” Performances included gospel singing and a Senegalese dance company. Another section held a marketplace, with a
Her father moved to New York, landing in the Westbeth artist colony. Her mom would put Toshi and Kwan on the bus two weekends a month to spend time with Cordell and his new wife, Merble. Eventually they offered the children an opportunity to come live in New York for a year.
She speaks of her late father in the present tense. “He’s a brilliant singer, he has a beautiful voice. I realized just recently that the line of how I program my sets is from him. I don’t write set lists, the band never really knows what’s happening. It’s based on what’s going on in the room.” Her dad programmed the Freedom Singers that way and in turn, her mom programmed Sweet Honey in the Rock similarly. “That would be his contribution besides giving me life and being a
After saving up for studio time–”I was always self-funded”– her mom took her in the studio to record a cassette of songs called Demonstrations. Next was a recording called Justice, which was picked up by Flying Fish Records. In a prescient moment while watching the Cosby Show with BIGLovely member Judith Casselberry, Toshi said “she and I are
Of her musical influences she says “there are too many to name. I am influenced by everything and I am grateful that I got great training to know that I always need to be
“June Millington is an amazing woman. I saw her play when I was 13 or 14 and she was the first woman I saw play guitar with a wah-wah and distortion pedal. I met her backstage and she began to send me cassettes of projects she was doing. ‘Here’s the 8-track demo we did, here’s this song without strings, here’s the song with strings, here’s the mix, here’s the record.’ I learned from her different ways of doing things. I’m an instrumentalist and for my mom, the voice is the main instrument. June helped bridge those worlds for me. I feel like I was her first student and now she runs an amazing rock-n-roll girls camp. They have a huge barn, a studio, everything. She and her sister Jean were in a band called Fanny, the first all-women’s band signed to a major label.” Toshi is happy about her mentor’s resurgence. The two shared the stage for conversation and performance at 651 Arts last year.
“When I saw
Her most recent record, There and Back Again, made over the course of a year with her friend Chicken, drummer for BIGLovely, is a favorite among her recordings. “We’d drink some wine and talk about women; I’d start
She works with her mother frequently. They recently joined forces once again with Robert Wilson on Zinnias, The Life of Clementine Hunter. We started being collaborators about twenty years ago. She is definitely one of my favorites. I think the beauty of our relationship is that we are mom and daughter, but we are musical comrades. This wouldn’t happen if we didn’t actually meet each other somewhere. We have always each had our own skills, and we just use each other really well. That’s how good partnerships are, you work well together and you are very accepting of
In this era of heightened networking via social media Toshi cautions against the giveaway. “We are very fast to give away our music, give away our art with this idea well if people see me, I’ll get more opportunities. I don’t think that’s true,” she says. Music is a community source–it is necessary, and before anyone thought to make it part of a commercial product, we were all doing it. Now that we know it and other art forms are viable as a product; that artists can own and reproduce their own products and that there is an audience for this work, now is not the time to revert to a past that had ownership of folks' creations in the hands of entities other than the artists themselves. No one expects Apple or Verizon to give them the gifts of their creations for free. But those voices, sounds, visuals you see and hear as you get through your long and tedious day are expected to come with the device you choose.”
She recalls the many contracts she’s revised against this ownership in perpetuity notion. “I don’t think there is a show that I play where somebody doesn’t stick I can audio record you, video record you and own it till the end of time and I scratch it out every time. But I am usually one of the few people. They tell me ‘You’re the only person who makes us go through this trouble with these releases, everybody else just signs this.’ But it’s a database and it will be for sale for some use at some point.”
“I really don’t want to be doing a Kickstarter every time I release a recording, I’d much rather have folks that love the music purchase it. We need to value our work more and we need to keep being creative about being paid for it. Keep creating systems of survival. My system is very small. I don’t know if I’ll ever sell millions of records. I don’t need to. I need to sell enough to make the next record and hopefully I’ll save enough to take care of myself if I can’t do this anymore. I
She speaks with pride of her vibrant daughter and the unexpected, divinely ordained journey to motherhood. “I love little babies, I love '
“She’s so brilliant and so smart and so bossy and a really funny person. It was shocking because I didn’t know it was going to happen. It gave me so much perspective about time and endurance and the things I thought I didn’t have space and energy for, but did find space and energy for because she needed me to. Now she’s at Skidmore College. It’s bananas.
Sharing the same humanist world view is her partner of eleven years, filmmaker J. Bob Alotta. Bob recently celebrated her second anniversary as Executive Director of the Astrea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. “She’s
Although marriage is now a legal possibility, the couple has no plans to wed. “
“My grandfather Jessie Johnson was a Baptist preacher down in Albany, Georgia. When I was a kid, folks would just drive into the yard to get married. I loved it. They were so happy, and I always thought my grandfather was the coolest person ever for making people so happy. I certainly understand and bless everyone who wants to get married –it is a joy to be in love, and proclaim that you will show up and stand with someone for as long as you can. I became an officiant with the hope that one day marriage will be super awesome and all kinds of folks will drive in my yard and ask to be married.”
She admires the marriage and advocacy of her godparents, Pete and Toshi Seeger. “I don’t know if we’ll see people like that again, who are so committed and such a team. So much brilliance. Toshi (Seeger) kept things running for so many people for such a long time. She is responsible for so much we appreciate: the Clearwater Festival, booking the Freedom Singers, getting Pete around the world. They both understood something about money that I don’t know if the rest of us can hang with. They bought land in the forties in Beacon, New York and they built a house on it and that’s where they still are. Pete is an extraordinary, generous man. He has written these brilliant songs that’s generated probably millions of dollars and the money moves through him and out. He got a Lillian Gish award–a huge amount of money–it didn’t even touch Pete. He donated it to an organization up in the Bronx that is cleaning up the river. They cut trees on Pete’s land and teach the kids how to make canoes. They restored the river.”
Toshi recalls playing the Clearwater Benefit Concert in Madison Square Garden with him on his ninetieth birthday in May 2009, celebrating his long life and significant career. “When the press asked him what his greatest accomplishment was, what was he most proud of, he said that he had the good sense to meet Toshi and stay with her his whole life.”
A couple of years back, on the occasion of Bob’s birthday, Hazel was filled to overflowing with well wishers, many of whom offered up their talents in song, but the most moving moment was perhaps, when Toshi sat in a chair, strumming her guitar as she sang to her beloved, Prince’s “Take Me With You.”
They both fully, passionately embrace community building. ”It’s really important to Bob for people to sit around a table and eat together–that’s her revolutionary work. We’ll have 25 people over and she’s like 'I want everybody around the table.' Honey, the table seats fifteen. We’ve always seen the value in bringing people together regularly, like when I started WORD*ROCK*&SWORD: A Festival Celebration of Women’s Lives. With no money and two months, I was like I’m
We reminisce and lament the closing of Carmen Grau and Marc Chung’s Grand 275. “Grand Cafe, that was a loss, that community. For me that is essential, I’ll spend three to four days a week wherever that place is for me. Usually Pillow Cafe now. It really is more about
She continues a legacy of civic responsibility and engagement. She
Water to wine, Toshi’s
1. Water. “Being near water, looking at water, sticking my feet in the water, drinking water. The power of just turning on your faucet and having water come out is a miracle; it’s huge. I thank God for it every day.”
2. KISS. “They are really hysterical now, old men just making their money, but when I was thirteen, they were everything. They were my first big Rock concert at the old Capital Centre in DC.”
3. Flashlights. She has a collection of them, from penlights and key rings to mini Kliegs on tripods. An apt visual metaphor for someone whose life’s work enlightens and informs.
5. Great Composers. Three of her favorites from contemporary popular music are from left: Chocolate Genius; her friend from the age of sixteen, Meshell Ndegeocello and Joan Wasser of Joan as PoliceWoman. “I love technicians in the fields of pretty much anything, especially the arts.”
6. Korean Dramas and Bollywood Films. She stumbled on the K-drama craze on Hulu. Now they are a favorite pastime. ”They’re totally crazy, like man, did y’all have a budget at all? Unlike soap operas here, there’s a beginning and an end. They are exciting and a huge part of Korean popular culture.” She’s become “a huge Bollywood fan” after the spontaneous bursts of
7. Wine from Brown Estate. It’s not happening at Hazel without a bottle of Brown on the table.
8. Heavenly Crumbs Biscuits. ”
9. Her Fig Tree. “I love this tree. I pick the figs and make jam every year. I’d never done that before; I did it ’cause the tree was there. That really made me very excited about life. It was so exciting to know you can grow your food. Life survival skills, so you’re
10. Bob’s Cooking. ”It’s extraordinary. And she is always serving more than food. It is a nutrient-based nurturing of the mind, body and spirit.”