Vp Issue 2: “Toshi Reagon: Firestarter”

[Originally published in Vp issue 2 by Kent Martin & Shelly Waldheim and photos by Matteo Trisolini (2002)]

[Originally published in Vp issue 2 by Kent Martin & Shelly Waldheim and photos by Matteo Trisolini (2002)]

“I hate having my picture taken,” declared the 38 year old musician as she walked into The Rising Cafe in Brooklyn, NY where Velvetpark was preparing to photograph and interview her. Bracing ourselves for turbulence, we went about our jobs. Our worries proved groundless, however, when moments later we sat beside her; as she tinkered on her guitar. We discovered that Toshi loves to laugh, and amidst her joking, she also has some serious opinions about this world we live in.

Underneath the fire of social consciousness that was instilled in her by her mother, is a kindness, a passion and a love for being alive. Reagon is the daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon, the founding member of the Grammy Award-winning singing ensemble Sweet Honey in teh Rock that originated in the peak of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 60s and continues to perform today! Following in her mother’s footsteps, Toshi has embarked on her own music career, making herself known as an electrifying performer and song-writer, and taking her place among the best of up-and-coming female rock artists out there today.

We chatted amiably about life, her upcoming tours and how she worked at overcoming her fear of flying after last year’s tragedy on September 11th. “I realized it was all about my need for control,” she admitted, “so I helped myself by learning everything I could about the technicalities of flying, so I could understand what’s happening at any given moment.” It was easy to imagine the powerful singer taking over a pilot’s seat and manning a plane herself! When it comes to recording her music, though, the singer is becoming more comfortable sharing a little control. Case-in-point: while her previous four albums were self-produced (Kindness, The Rejected Stone, The Righteous Ones, and Justice), her recent release Toshi (Razor & Tie) was done collaboratively with producer Craig Street.

The partnership allowed her to focus more on her music writing process. “When you enter a scenario of trust,” she said in a recent Billboard write-up, “the boundaries disappear; you’re more free to enjoy the ride.” And what a ride it is. Brilliantly blending rock, blues, gospel, and reggae, the resulting album is so polished that its radio-ready songs are poised to light up the mainstream [charts], without alienating her loyal cult following.

Let’s talk about your roots. What was it like having a famous mom like yours? How has she influenced you? What have you learned from her?

A million things. She’s a great mom, and I think she really provided me with a great atmosphere. Because of the way her life has been, I’ve had access to many different cultures and experiences. I think when you’re a kid you want to explore different opportunities. My mother was more open than other parents might have been, because she came out of the Civil Rights Movement. She wasn’t narrow-minded in terms of what I could do or reach for, so my raod was wide open. She’s been so innovative in terms of how she’s lived her life. She has really shown me that I can do anything. I said to myself, “Oh, I guess I could spend a long time waiting for someone to discover me as a musician. But why? I could just get out there and start doing it.” So many young musicians come up to me and say, “What am I supposed to do?” and I say “Do your work, get out there!” They say, “Where?” and I say, “I don’t care! Just go! Git!” My mom really infused that in me…. Next year my band and Sweet Honey (celebraing 30 years now) are going to tour together. It’s going to be very interesting because people will be seeing this group which they know as an acapella grou, with my band which is a rock band. We’re going to be fusing a relationship live on stage. It’s going to be a spectacle!

When did you think that you might go into music?

Music has always been around my family. We were just very musical. My mom always had singing groups around. When I was about 9 or 10, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, even though I was always singing and playing music. But when I was 14 I realized that music was what I wanted to do, and by the time I was 17 I was playing shows.

What’s striking about you Toshi is how you go from from style of music to the next. I listen to one CD and think, “Oh, this is the kind of music Toshi plays,” and then I listen to another and it’s completely different. How did you incorporate so many styles?

I went to a billion folk festivals when I was a kid, and in our house, there was music from all over the world. I went to an elementary school in an urban setting, and I was really grounded in the black urban radio of the seventies. When I went to a more integrated junior high and high school I got really into pop and rock. I was into Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Kiss. I still have Kiss army tags in my car. It was funny because all of the white boys at my high school were into old time blues! When she heard me jamming on Zeppelin and stuff, my mother brought me a bunch of Big Mamma Thornton and Big Bill Brunsy records and she said, “Here are the roots, this is where what you’re listening to comes from.” I’ve just always loved a variety of music and my own music reflects that.

Can you tell us a little bit about your song-writing process?

It’s very spontaneous, and the music happens so many different ways. Sometimes, I just get some ideas about a topic. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I run and record something. I try to have a tape recorder with me all the time, or at least my cell phone, so I can call my home machine when I get ideas. When I’m working with the band, I’ll start playing something or Chicken, my drummer, might start playing a beast and then I’ll jame to it, then the bass player might come in and I’ll start something….

You’re leaving for teh Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival tomorrow. There has been some controversy over the fact that transgender musicians who were not born female have not been allowed to attend. Where do  you stand on that?

I’ve been going to Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival since I was sixteen. I’ve seen it change in many different way. It’s an interesting and complicated time. I’ve gotten letters by people saying they love my music and also assuming that I don’t think that transgender/transsexual women deserve to be there. That is not my position at all.

What obstacles do you face as a black artist and a woman?

I think I face the same obstacles that every black woman in this country faces. It’s not an easy place for us. This is a very racist country.

In the press, you’ve always been pretty open about your sexuality….

People just started asking me bout it a couple years ago.

But you never had any hesitation as far as I could tell, to say, “This is who I am.” I guess the typical question is, did you always know?

This guy who interviewed me once asked me when I came out and I said, “I never did.” I didn’t. I just am. I didn’t have some moment where I thought, “Oh my god, let me tell everyone.” I just was. I just am.

Did that extend to your family? What was the experience like when you told your parents?

I didn’t. When I started to have sex, my mom asked me, “Who are you fooling around with?” “Oh, this girl…” and my mom said, “Ok.” She didn’t say, “A girl!?!” It was just, “Oh, Ok.”

That is so cool.

Yeah, [laughing] but then when I asked, “Can she spend the night?” “Nooooo!”

Would she have been ok if the girl was white?

She was.

[Laughing] Yes and yes!

I think you have to fall in love with whom you fall in love with. There are a bazillion people on the planet. I don’t know what my daughter is going to do but whatever she wants to do, as long as it is healthy for her, is fine with me. We’re not going to be telling her who to be with. Our worst thought is that she falls in love with a disgusting person. We don’t care what sex or color the person is.

How is it being a mom to Tashawn?

It’s great; she’s a cool person.

She’s seven?

Yes. Seven and a half she’ll tell you.

If she decided to go into music that would be cool with you?

She can do what she wants. I’m not going to tell her what to do with her life. We went to the bank and opened up a bank account for her. She said, “What’s this bank account for?” and I said, “It’s money that you can have when you’re 18.” And she said, “What am I going to do with it?” I said, “I don’t know. When you’re 18, you’ll decided. Maybe you’ll want to go to college, maybe you’ll want to travel, maybe you’ll have a business and you’ll need start up money, maybe you’ll blow it on a car. But whatever you do, when you’re 18, this is yours.” I don’t feel the need to tell her what to do.  But in terms of being  musician she’ll know all about it.

What would you most like to pass on to your daughter?

To love and take care of herself and her community.

So what are your spiritual orientation or beliefs?

I don’t know, I don’t lock it down. I think I’m very human, very human with all the flaws and wonderfulness that can be. I don’t have a particular religion that I belong to. I do have a sense of God but my sense of God is vast, and the images change all the time. I feel such a strong feeling to participate here, and to be here; I treat this planet like it’s heaven, like this is it. I don’t know where that concept came from that we’re going to be going someplace better than this. We have air, water, places to feed yourself, places to work and be together. There are all kinds of people, different shapes, sizes. There are animals, bugs, trees, and all this stuff! I’m so committed to this place and being here with everybody and trying to be good. I feel like that’s the best I can do. And when I die, then whatever. I don’t know what’s going to happen anyway and I don’t care what other people say, nobody does. I’m thinking about it now.

Do you belive you’re here for a purpose?

Yep. I make music. That’s my job. Make music and then die. [Laughing] And I wanna be with all the cool people I know.

One of the first recordings I heard from Sweet Honey was “Songs for Freedom.” It was one song after another about freedom.

All for freedom. It was a children’s record.

There is a song where Sweet Honey says, “Freedom means being who you are, any time, any place, any space.” Then in an interview you did there was this quote that moved me and reminded me of that Sweet Honey line, “From where you are and who you are in your everyday life, that’s where you make change. Whatever your gig is, make change through your strength.” Could you say a little more about that?

Sometimes people get overwhelmed with this idea about how they can participate in things, and I wa just saying that you can have a voice and a focus from within. Sometimes making change is doing something very good in a small way. Or having better communication with your neighbors. Sometimes little steps are the hardest things and when we sometimes focus too much on the big picture, it’s overwhelming. For example, in terms of our elections, we hardly focus on our community judges that we get to elect, the school people that we can elect, and we focus only on the bigger campaigns. I’m guilty of this too. But from within our small places we have so many opportunities to affect things. Just investing a little time from within where you are in your everyday life. For me, my kid didn’t have a music teacher. So I volunteered to be a music teacher at her school. I did it as much as I could before I started touring, just went and sang with the kids. Small things can influence you and your community in a positive way.

Who are your heroes?

My heroes are my daughter, my godmother, Toshi Seeger, my goddaughter Toshi Georgiana (the third Toshi in my life), and my friends. People who figure out how to wake up and continue every day in the face of tragedy, I think they are really heroic. Like that lady who had that baby in the tree, in those floods in Africa! This lady climbed up a tree with another of her children to escape the floods, and she had a baby. They showed it on the news, I thought, “That’s my hero!” I don’t know who she is, but she is the fiercest woman on the planet right now! Could I do that? No!

If there were anything in the world you could change right now, what would it be?

I’d get rid of all this freakin’ violence. It’s atrocious. And I think I’d probably try to do something with the economic structure of the planet, which is a lot harder, and I think I’d probaby fuck it up [laughing]. Money’s a bitch, but I would try.

What’s coming up next for you?

Tour, tour, tour. I just did a Sweet Honey in the Rock record; I’m hoping to do a live record…. Touring in the fall, opening for Ani DiFranco. In October and NOver, I’ll be touring with Sweet Honey in the Rock, that’s going to be great! And I’ll do my own thing and have some fun! Have a lot of fun. That’s number one on the agenda.

Your name means “Beginning of a brand new era.”

Yes, Toshi is a Japanese and Chinese name. I’m named after the Chinese name.

So for the beginning of a brand new era, what’s your message?

I don’t know. Everyday is the beginning of a brand new era for me!

Thank you so much for today.

Thank you.


Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 2 (Sept/Oct 2002), 18-27.