Toshi Reagan – Singer, songwriter, producer, creative curator, and multi-instrumentalist
When I decided that I was going to be a professional musician, my mother gave me two pieces of advice. The first was “Don’t do drugs. If you do drugs, no matter how good you get, no matter how famous you get, you’re going to fall and something terrible is going to happen. The most important thing in your life will be getting your drugs. It’s never going to be about your art.” The second was “Learn to produce. If you become a producer, you never have to wait for someone to decide you’re good enough to take the space you want.”
Her advice and overall influence have been instrumental in my being able to carve out my own path in the music industry. I was already writing and recording by the time I was a teenager—I produced my own show at seventeen, and started touring. In my early twenties I moved to New York City, where I could be a working musician and take some night classes at Fordham. That lasted for about a semester, and then I was offered the opening slot for Lenny Kravitz’s first tour. I never looked back from there.
Growing up in an environment surrounded by artist-activists from all walks of life helped me under-stand the meaning and the purpose of art. It empow-ered me to push my creative boundaries and made me unafraid to be different. Musically and aestheti-cally, I never fit into any box. I never fit into anything that was established, but because I was already rooted in my identity as an artist and as a human being, I never felt pressured to conform.
Musically and aesthetically, I never fit into any box. I never fit into anything that was established, but because I was already rooted in my identity as an artist and as a human being, I never felt pressured to conform.
The music industry has had a tendency to box black artists into a very narrow space. For those few who do break through with an out-of-the-box style and sound, they end up becoming the only one who can have this sound or this look. Every era has the one black woman with a guitar who is allowed to be a star. In the sixties, it was Odetta; in the late seventies, it was Joan Armatrading; and in the late eighties it was Tracy Chapman. Then every other black woman doing anything remotely similar gets compared to whoever “that one” is. Today, the music industry and the overall cultural climate are a much more accepting environment for me—a butch, GNC, bald-headed lesbian who voices her activism and politics in her music.
I have always felt what I do is not about a genre; it is about speaking to the wholeness of my body. People break my music and songs down into multiple genres and use five or six words to describe my music, but when I’m asked what kind of music I do, I just say, “Good music. I do good music.” Sometimes it sounds like a heavy metal tune, sometimes it sounds like a blues song, and sometimes it sounds like folk, rock, or spiritual music. The thing that is always fluid and present in my sound is truth. It is impossible for me to lie from the position of using my voice to make sound. I often perform solo, but I am never alone, and as much as possible I curate events like my fes-tival Word, Rock & Sword: A Festival Exploration of Women’s Lives. All are welcome as a way to expand the voice of the community I am part of.
I was taught that we black people used our sonic vibrations as a system of communication in order to survive in a world that was literally trying to kill us. The line of survival for our people has always been connected to our freedom music. Our ancestors developed a keen sonic awareness, which we have clearly held on to today. When you look at our art, our music, and our poetry you see they all have a message. There is a vibration. Our Negro spirituals, our jazz, our blues, our protest music, our call and response—it all has a frequency that resonates with our spirit.
I was taught that we black people used our sonic vibrations as a system of communication in order to survive in a world that was literally trying to kill us. The line of survival for our people has always been connected to our freedom music.
As an artist, I try to channel the magic of our people’s sonic vibrations in my music. I draw upon the pain, the protest, the beauty, and the grit to express the rich tapestry of emotion that illustrates the shared experi-ence of black people. And that sound is not mono-tone. Just like our life experiences, it is multilayered and too dynamic to fit into one box.
*Part of this article contains an excerpt from the book ‘BLACK GIRLS ROCK! Owning our Magic Rocking our Truth‘