Toshi Reagon photographed by  Frederick V. Nielsen .

Toshi Reagon photographed by Frederick V. Nielsen.

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.”

Freedom Singers, Cordell and Bernice Reagon; Baby Toshi and Mom Bernice; the legendary Flora Molton

Freedom Singers, Cordell and Bernice Reagon; Baby Toshi and Mom Bernice; the legendary Flora Molton

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 Toshi’s first instrument. She commandeered her brother’s drum set at age eleven or so and would repeatedly play along with the Labelle “Nightbirds” album. “I started playing on conga drums and stuff around the house–one of my uncles is a great conga player.” Then she picked up guitar. When a sports injury at thirteen sidelined her initial dream to play football and set the stage for lifelong hip issues she thought, Okay, I’ll be a musician. “It was years before I allowed myself to really feel sad about not being able to run and the epicness of how many surgeries I’ve had to have on my hip.” Songwriting began in junior high school: “I love you, you’re great I love you, it was really funny.  And you GOTTA have a band in high school. We played covers: Led Zeppellin, Neil Young, Beatles. It was who was around, could play, and just jam. I ended up learning how to play the bass because our bass player didn’t show up for a gig. Baptism by fire.”

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 ‘em to play something outside of what they know, they can’t do it, but if you tell them not to lie to you, they will break your heart with the funk and that’s–oh my god–I’ve always loved that since I was little.”

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 basketmaker from North Carolina and a sculptor from Atlanta. “Flora Molton had a section in there, different hairdressers, some chefs, it was unbelievable. And there was a porch, so Sweet Honey would be singing on the porch–it was amazing. She put food from Florida Avenue Grill on the Mall. If you’re from DC, you’re like WHAT! She was so badass, Ma you rock!”

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. Merble, who Toshi says “is awesome,” toured different schools with them. Ultimately Kwan elected to make the move, Toshi did not.

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 badass singing brother. I apparently have some of his more fiery traits.” He was not a very active participant in “the day-to-day of my life, he could be very destructive and I feel closer to him now than when he was alive,” she explains.

Toshi and her father, muses both. Toshi  drawn  by  Michael Arthur ; Cordell Reagon, from Charlotta Janssen’s series  “Freedom Riders.” 

Toshi and her father, muses both. Toshi drawn by Michael Arthur; Cordell Reagon, from Charlotta Janssen’s series “Freedom Riders.” 

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 gonna be friends, I can feel it,” referring to Lisa Bonet. Eventually she did meet Lisa (now a dear friend) and Lenny Kravitz and gave him a copy of the Justice record. He liked what he heard. Soon she was opening for him on his world tour. “I toured the states and Europe a couple of times that year. By the time I came out of Europe I had a little bidding war on the European side and US side,” she remembers. “I probably should have stayed in Europe, but I just couldn’t imagine moving to London, which is what I would have had to do. I ended up signing with Elektra. The record never came out, which happened a lot back then. People will release your records now,” she says. “It was a great experience. It was right before my Saturn return and I met Nona. I read my horoscope and it said you’re having a hard year and next year it’s going to be harder, but if you can get through that it's going to be amazing. Twenty-eight, twenty-nine sucked. I got dropped from Elektra; I think I broke up with somebody; I was lost, I had no money; but I just busted out of that like I had gone to college. I squeezed five, six years of musical information into two. By the time I came out I could produce a record. And that was it. I didn’t care if I was on a label or not I knew I was gonna be relentless about it and I was not gonna stop until I either sucked or I was dead.”

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 composing. ”I have three musical moms: Mom’s the first, the queen; then there’s Nona Hendryx and there’s June Millington.” Her mom involved her whenever she created music. “She took me everywhere, I saw everything and she respected all these situations as teaching situations. So if somebody cool came to the house, I could sit down.  If she was rehearsing Sweet Honey, I could sit down. When she was Musical Director of the DC Black Repertory Company, she took us to the theatre with her. That was my musical theatre training. I’ve done several plays, and that’s where I learned it. I could have been anything and she would have raised me the same way and given the same support, but once I started really going towards music, she treated me like everyone else she worked with. I had to show up. If I sucked, I wouldn’t be working with her. I love being observant, so that was a good space for me. I would take it in and I loved all parts of it.” It’s from her mom that she learned the importance of producing herself. “She also told me there are no failures. The only failure is not to do your art. Take good care of yourself, keep doing it for as long as you can ’cause if you hang around long enough, they have to admit you in the room.”

“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 Nona Hendryx’s name (on her Nightbirds album) I was like she’s my favorite songwriter ever, I love her! And I was maybe nine.” Even as a small child, Toshi instinctively knew that the songwriting credit was important. One of my favorite groups when I was little was The Jackson Five and it always said under the credit for songwriting, ‘The Corporation.’ What’s the corporation? That’s no person.  Every once in a while you’d see maybe Stevie Wonder’s actual name. I met Nona, much later, in New York. It was like seeing God. I’d gotten signed to Elektra and the record was in trouble.”  The label asked who I’d like to work with, so I said Nona Hendryx." Nona broke it down for her, the unvarnished view of the industry “these people are not your friends, it's up to you to take everything, put it in a bender and make what you need to happen and don’t put in stuff you don’t need.”

Toshi with her musical moms: her mother, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon; June Millington (photo:  Julieta Cervantes ) and Nona Hendryx (photo:  Desdemona Burgin )

Toshi with her musical moms: her mother, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon; June Millington (photo: Julieta Cervantes) and Nona Hendryx (photo: Desdemona Burgin)

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 noodling on the guitar and he’d say 'that sounds like it might be a song' and he’d turn on the machine and start going. By the end of the year he was like ‘I think we have a record, let’s mix it and put it out,’ and that’s what we did. I like working with other people, I like collaborating. Some of my favorite artists are technicians, so I really value their work and input.”

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 process. We did the music for Africans in America, which is one of the most amazing projects I ever worked on with her, and I had no idea what we were gonna do. I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I started so young and my mom’s been doing it since she was 18 or 19, so you’re looking at a powerful team. You can stop introducing me as daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon. I’m approaching the midpoint of my life and I don’t need that introduction anymore. But that’s a nitpicking thing. She is awesome.”

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 told Tashawn, ‘if Mommy starts to lose it, pull her ass off the stage. Do not let me play some scraggly gigs as an old lady. Take mommy off the stage; mommy’s had a good life.’”

She speaks with pride of her vibrant daughter and the unexpected, divinely ordained journey to motherhood. “I love little babies, I love 'em when they can’t really say nothing and they are expressing a lot of energy and vibe– that’s some of my favorite time with kids. They are so close to the unknown beginning and that’s such a special place.  I thought somehow a kid or kids would come into my life, but I wasn’t sure how that was gonna happen and then Tashawn came. I am very grateful that my brother gave me his child, ” she explains. “It was a difficult thing for him to do, to say this is gonna be hard for me. At first she was gonna visit for two weeks, then my brother was like, can you keep her longer? and I was like, well how long?  As long as you canTashawn is an amazing person. She was amazing when I met her, she was really a happy baby. ” The infant Tashawn needed steam inhalation drugs to help with her lung development. “She had a great sense of humor as a baby. She would get it (the treatment) and have fun with it.” She commends her brother for getting Tashawn through those medically precarious early years.

“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.

Toshi, Tashawn, the “Warrior Princess” and Bob. Photo:  Erica Beckman

Toshi, Tashawn, the “Warrior Princess” and Bob. Photo: Erica Beckman

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 badass,” Toshi brags. "It’s huge to come into an organization that’s been helmed by the same person for like 3 decades–thank you so much, Katherine Acey. I told her (Bob) she’s like Obama. Sometimes people don’t love you when you come in and try to move things around. She’s so great at working with people, she’s very innovative, a brilliant thinker, which is what organizations need. It was very sharp of them to pick her.”

Although marriage is now a legal possibility, the couple has no plans to wed. “Tashawn asked us once when are we gonna get married. Bob saw clearly what she was asking, Are you guys gonna break up and leave me? Bob told her, ‘I cannot guarantee my relationship with Toshi, but if there is one person on the planet that I can guarantee I will not leave, it is you.’ I told Tashawn that only death would take me away, and that would be a body turned to dust, the rest of me would stay with her as long as she wanted." Toshi recalls. "I feel like there are a lot of other things on my political list to tackle. Marriage equality was not at the top. I do not like the state-by-state victories. I guess they are steps, but I think marriage needs a remix for everyone and the idea of how the federal government treats families who are working and living together in so many creative ways needs to be looked at. So that every household is getting the benefit of any support that is available, but even more, they are not being held up to one standard of family that is not reflective of the people in living and loving in this country. The US has always had problems with freedom- says the word all the dang time, but gives it away in teeny, tiny expensive bites. Bob and I are not getting married. Bob and I have ritual in our lives as much as possible. I love ritual. It’s definitely a way to name ourselves and the life that we have, the community we are in, the changing complexities of our lives and the world we live in. It’s not marriage, but we’ve done things that just let us know we’re still here.”

“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.”

Toshi, Bob and single malt scotch.  Photo:  Sara Seinberg

Toshi, Bob and single malt scotch.  Photo: Sara Seinberg

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, Warren Haynes and Pete Seeger perform in the Clearwater Benefit Concert. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images.

Toshi, Warren Haynes and Pete Seeger perform in the Clearwater Benefit Concert. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images.

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 gonna do a festival. I knew I had this show at Le Poisson Rouge with Tamar-Kali.Then we were like let’s invite a few more women to come sing with us ’cause we need to raise up the sisters.  Then I was like, the day before we need to have a conversation. What if we had a film? And what if we had… I just started calling up people and asking.” That first multi-venue festival, in 2011 was incredible, with a fierce line up of singing sisters, a conversation at the Brecht Forum, a screening of model/activist Christy Turlington’s documentary on global women’s reproductive health at Bed Stuy’s Restoration Plaza and a Kundalini rising closing feast by Chef Stefanie Kelly. 2012 brought an equally exciting program and an unfortunate knee collapse for Toshi. But she, as she does with the solid support of a devoted network, soldiered on.  Plans are underway for the all-are-welcome 2013 festival slated for September 15-22. “This is a community festival. I don’t need to rent a big hall for any of the events.  Look Pillow Cafe is right here on Myrtle Avenue. Restoration Plaza is there, it's always serving; its always doing its work.  Brecht Forum was like, do you want to barter?  This event will never be sponsored by a corporation, ever. It just won’t. This is a people’s community event and if I can’t get it done, I hope that it just means we’re having so many parties that we just don’t need it anymore.”

Love at Hazel: Michelle Obama holds court in the dining room, sweet Baci chills in the backyard and Toshi’s fig jam

Love at Hazel: Michelle Obama holds court in the dining room, sweet Baci chills in the backyard and Toshi’s fig jam

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 community than it is about the stylistic parts of it.  There should be some decent food and some good booze and you should be able to get a great cup of tea, and it should be clean. That’s it.”

Toshi chills at home. Photo by  Frederick V. Nielsen.

Toshi chills at home. Photo by Frederick V. Nielsen.

She continues a legacy of civic responsibility and engagement. She marvels over the compassion of the world’s disenfranchised, “People facing horrible, horrible, horrible life and death situations and still finding that tiny inch of generosity.  It will definitely make you not squander your political position as a citizen of this country. She’s been an Obama supporter (and I am ever grateful that she rocked our Baracklyn tee in performance at the White House) but she hopes that the public will become more forward thinking, visionary. “What happens when he’s gone? I don’t understand us getting too locked in on this one particular person, as much as I want us to get locked in on a movement and hold a huge amount of space, forever, till the end of time–that’s the contract I wanna sign.”

Water to wine, Toshi’s faves:

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.

4. Nikky Finney. Toshi included The National Book Award winner for poetry in her curated women’s month series at  The Schomburg Center in March. Of the winning volume, Head Cut and Split, Toshi says, “I carried that book in my bag for months. She is like a filmmaker with poems. It’s astonishing to me that someone can take that little bit of space and say so much because of their mastery. That’s good medicine. I’m like why would I walk out the house without a book of poems.”

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 filmi music and dance in Hindi cinema reeled her in as she recovered from surgery.

7. Wine from Brown Estate.  It’s not happening at Hazel without a bottle of Brown on the table.

8. Heavenly Crumbs Biscuits. ”Ooooh, that woman should be slapped for her biscuit! It’s the best biscuit ever. She is not playing. One of Bob’s parties, we ordered like fifty 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 kinda in line with people around the world."

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.”

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