In some ways, singer Toshi Reagon is a throwback to classic R & B artists, like Stevie Wonder or Prince, or old school rock group like Led Zeppelin; she can take any style, update it, and make it her own with incredible ease. Despite (or because of) her genre-bending, Toshi fits comfortably on a stage at Carnegie Hall, or in a dirty rock club. Toshi is an artist who’s known for energetic performances and a exemplary gift for writing engaging songs that provoke listeners to think and have fun at the same time.
A seasoned live performer, Toshi jumped into the spotlight when she dropped out of college after Lenny Kravitz tapped her to open for him on his first world tour. And Toshi hasn’t stopped earning the respect of musicians, the praise of critics and the love of fans since then. Just ask Elvis Costello, who was hooked after one high-energy evening in NYC—he even invited Toshi and her band, BIGLovely, to back him up on a ”Late Show with David Letterman” appearance.
Most people would just tell you that to truly understand how Toshi can seamlessly transcend all of these genres, you have to check her out live. She has earned countless rave reviews in the years that she has been performing. The New Yorker said ”...her live shows shower retro funk, urban blues, and folk on the audience with evangelical fervor. To hear her is to believe.”
Toshi can (and will) show up anywhere with anyone, whether a Central Park Summerstage benefit/Joni Mitchell tribute with artists like Vernon Reid and Chaka Kahn, a tribute to Prince (in which she tore up the stage with her smokin’ verison of the classic 1999), the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Blood On The Tracks Concert in NYC celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Bob Dylan album “Blood On The Tracks”. She has also shared the stage with numerous musicians including Nona Hendryx, Pete Seeger, Chocolate Genius, Dar Williams and Ani Difranco. Whether playing solo or with her band, her fusion of styles and forms draws listeners in, embraces them and sets them off in a rapturous, hand-raising, foot-stomping delight. Toshi often leaves the stage with the audience clapping and screaming for more.
Born in Atlanta and raised in Washington DC, Reagon cites her musical abilities from her family. Both parents belonged to SNCC’s (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) The Freedom Singers, a folk group that sprung from the Civil Rights movement and toured the country to teach people about civil rights through song. Bernice Johnson Reagon is not only Toshi’s mom but the founder of the world renowned à capella ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock (she retired in 2004 after 30 years with the group). Toshi and her mom have collaborated on many projects together including co-producing many of Sweet Honey’s recordings. Their latest project is ”The Temptation of St. Anthony” (read more about it here) a musical-theater work based on a tale by Gustave Flaubert. The piece is directed by Robert Wilson with music and libretto by Bernice Johnson Reagon. Toshi wrote the instrumental arrangements and currently serves as the production’s musical director. Toshi and BIGLovely have been touring with the show since 2003.Toshi and her mom, surrounded by band members during performance of ”The Temptation of St. Anthony”
Her rich musical heritage led her to become saturated in many traditional styles of music, feeding her desire to explore a range of music that was not as accessible, from blues to Kiss. Admittedly, Toshi says that she attempts to: “take whatever I’m really into and try to learn it and put it into music.” This trait results in a musical style that not only transcends classification, but also expresses a political consciousness that is as ingrained in her music as the multiple genres she embraces. Believing music is the way she deals with her political energy, Toshi once told Curve magazine, “From where you are, from who you are in your everyday life, that’s where you make change...Whatever your gig is, make change through your strength.”