Some music engages the mind, asking questions and making you think. Some music strokes your head and heart, soothing and stimulating and making you feel. And some music occupies you completely, requiring your complete and utter participation.
That’s the kind of music you get with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely.
Toshi herself is “a one-woman celebration of all that’s dynamic, progressive and uplifting in American music”. The phrase comes direct from her own website, but it’s accurate. Her musical background obviously lies in the black American traditions of gospel and soul; her political positions on women and colour are obvious, explicit and necessary; her musicianship, songwriting and stagecraft are extraordinary, and her collaborations with choreographers, directors and authors have almost always been lauded – “dynamic” rather downplays it. The tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance refers to Reagon, her musical collaborator in The Blues Project a couple of years ago, as “a revolutionary, but simultaneously an artist who honours and embodies tradition”.
An exemplary gift for writing engaging songs that provoke listeners to think and have fun at the same time …
You could also describe Toshi Reagon as versatile singer-songwriter-guitarist with a big-hearted, hold-nothing-back approach to rock, blues, R&B, country, folk, spirituals and funk. The New York Times talked about a vocal style that “ranges from a dirty blues moan to a gospel shout to an ethereal croon”, and she delivers big-time in live performance.
Born in Atlanta in 1964 and currently living in New York City, Toshi has been performing ever since Lenny Kravitz plucked her out of college to open for him in the 1990s. Since then she’s worked with a raft of big names (from Elvis Costello and Ani DiFranco to Nona Hendryx and Pete Seeger – who happens to be her godfather), been musical director and/or collaborator for many dance projects, scored films and TV shows (like The Secret Life of Bees and HBO’s award-winning Beah: A Black Woman Speaks), participated as conductor, musician and instrumental composer/arranger on Robert Wilson’s Flaubert-inspired opera The Temptation of St Anthony (2003), and produced several albums for others – among them Sweet Honey in the Rock, the a cappella group founded by her mother, civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon.
On top of that Toshi Reagon is not scared of displaying her commitment and acting as a lighting rod for others. As well as many musical honours, she has been included in the National Women’s History Project list of honourees – the citation talks about “an exemplary gift for writing engaging songs that provoke listeners to think and have fun at the same time … With incredible ease, she can take any style, update it, and make it her own. Despite (or because of) her genre-bending, Reagon fits comfortably on a stage at Carnegie Hall, or in a dirty rock club”.
She also founded and curates Word*Rock*& Sword, a community festival in NYC described as an “exploration of women’s lives”. Toshi Reagon started the festival with the intention of, “responding creatively, showing our lives, our work, our activism and our talent. We struggle in a political climate that still tolerates and actively encourages systemic discrimination against women – from the workplace to the doctor’s office … We will come together to share our gifts and focus our intentions for the 21 Century”.
The seventh edition of Word*Rock*& Sword ran for eight days in September. It seems to have become a New York fixture.
Toshi’s shows with her band BIGLovely have become legendary, though. It helps that all the members are excellent musicians in their own right, that they’ve played together for years, and that they obviously buy into Toshi Reagon’s 110 percent attitude to performance. Many have their own albums (Toshi seems to have produced most of those) and side projects including teaching. The band’s sets range from soft, reflective, personal ballads to irresistible gospel, from high-octane rock’n’roll to blues and reggae-like rhythms. You can expect to hear about slavery, sexism, prison reform, the black experience in modern America, and what Toshi once called “tangible righteousness”.
Sometimes music provides an aural whitewash, filling the space that might otherwise require your involvement: this isn’t like that. Non-involvement isn’t an option.
Toshi Reagon returns to The Arts Center at NYUAD with BIGLovely and Friends for one night only, under the stars on the East Plaza on Thursday 2 November. Tickets (AED 100) are sure to go quickly; run, don’t walk.
If you can’t get tickets, or even if you can, it will be worth signing up for Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Based on Butler’s acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel, Parable of the Sower is a genre-defying work of political theatre that harnesses three hundred years of black music to blend science fiction, African American spiritualism and deep insights on gender, race and the future of human civilization.
Written by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, and performed by Reagon with a full cast of singers and musicians, Parable was presented a work-in-progress concert in The Arts Center’s first season in 2015. This update is a fully staged version of the opera and it’s not to be missed. There are performances at 8pm on 9, 10 and 11 November; click here for more info.