Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Toshi Reagon’s truths

Postmodern blues, US primaries and the search for goodness


If Toshi Reagon were going to live anywhere besides New York, she’d pick Vancouver. “I love Vancouver. There’s lots of beautiful women,” she says in a recent phone interview.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1964, raised in Washington DC and now a resident of Brooklyn, Reagon has been described as “a postmodern rhythm and blues singer who’s got something special.”

An openly lesbian performer, she doesn’t define as butch or trans, but you certainly wouldn’t call her feminine and there’s no doubt she’s a strong woman with a big voice, a big heart and big dreams for our world and the people in it.

Reagon has been singing professionally since she dropped out of college after Lenny Kravitz asked her to open for him on his first world tour. She has since earned the respect of both her audience and fellow performers, sharing the stage with artists ranging from Ani Difranco to Elvis Costello.

She’s played in venues as diverse as the Railway Club in Vancouver and Carnegie Hall in New York. She’s produced eight CDs, collaborated on 16 recordings and has served as musical director on various productions and music festivals. She performs original music and sings her own unique interpretation of various cover tunes.

Her rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” is breathtaking. She slows it way, way, way down and, in a voice overflowing with raw emotion, she infuses all the pain every brokenhearted lover has ever felt at that two-in-the-morning-moment when they realize the breakup is for real and they are truly alone.

As for Presley, she has this to say: “Elvis gets so much credit for being the king of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s offensive to me, because black musicians were doing this music long before him. At the end of the 20th century, Rolling Stone magazine did a history of rock ‘n’ roll and gave him credit for being the father. There’s no way in hell. It was racism —people wouldn’t acknowledge black musicians at the time. At the end of the 20th century you should be able to say the truth.”

Reagon comes by her music and her activism naturally. The daughter of “Freedom Singers” Cordell Reagon and Bernice Johnson (who went on to found the 1970s feminist a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock), Toshi Reagon’s music defies definitions. Her musical style has been called everything from folk to rock to hip-hop to gospel to post-modern rhythm and blues. And she can play and sing in all of these traditions.

When she was a kid, Reagon was more into sports than music. But an injury affecting her ability to run ended all hope of someday being a sports star, so in junior high she learned how to play the guitar. At the time, her best friend lived in Virginia and she lived in Washington DC. Together, they painstakingly taught each other how to play over the phone.

Now, Reagon and her partner of six years live in New York with their 13-year-old daughter.

Reagon believes that as a performer her audience should be able to look at her work and see the time and place she lives in, the things she cares about and the community she is a part of. “I write what’s in front of me. Relationships, living in Brooklyn, being part of an active community.”

And she’s not afraid to speak her mind. Even in post-9/11 America when many Americans were “very afraid to be anti-war, anti-Bush,” Reagon has never shied away from the truth.

Her music reflects what she sees in the world. “Until people in leadership figure out how to be true leaders and distribute wealth to a lot of people, we’re always going to be in trouble. We will eventually lose the planet because of it.”

Right now, Reagon is concerned about America’s focus on the presidential election campaign, because as long as the people in government are campaigning, “they’re not doing their job. They’re manipulating all the air time,” she says.

While in this election the hot-potato topic is immigration, during the last election it was gay marriage.

“We were shocked as a gay community. We didn’t bring this up. Of course, there’s lots of gay people who want to be married, but it wasn’t the first thing on our plate. We were worried about housing and health insurance,” she says.

Would she consider marriage if it was available for queers in the US? “The laws should be the same for everybody but I never put all my energy into gay marriage. My girlfriend wouldn’t marry me even if it was legal. We’re planning to have a big party after we’ve been together 10 years.”

For all her activism, Toshi Reagon is also funny. “Everything I know about fun,” she says, “comes from revolutionaries.”

Check out her video on YouTube called “This is Toshi Reagon” in which she tells a story about Harriet Tubman, an African-American slave born in 1820, who escaped to freedom, then returned 13 times, rescued 300 fellow slaves and led them to safety through the network of the Underground Railroad.

In the video, Reagon tells her live audience that “once you find your goodness, you are not supposed to stop. You are supposed to go back to it. Again and again and again. Until you die.”

By “goodness” she means the good work each person is supposed to do in the world. Not necessarily the job you are paid for, but your passion, your gift to the world.

Reagon recently collaborated with American novelist Toni Morrison (Jazz, Beloved), who wrote the lyrics for some of her music then joined her in the recording studio in New York. She has also worked with her mother, Bernice Johnson-Reagon, who retired from Sweet Honey in the Rock in 2004 after 30 years in the group.

And last year, Reagon made her L-Word debut for the show’s season four finale.

Though she usually plays with her band BIGLovely (whose name was inspired by a love letter Reagon received from her girlfriend addressed to “my BIGLovely”), she will be in BC this month travelling solo. On Valentine’s Day she’ll be at the Railway Club, then it’s on to Victoria, followed by the Sunshine Coast.

Known for her energetic performances and her gift for writing engaging songs that make people think and have fun at the same time, it’s difficult to see her show and not be inspired to “find your goodness.”