Toshi Reagon, the daughter of Freedom Singers Bernice Johnson and Cordell Reagon, once described herself as a "postmodern rhythm & blues woman who's got something special." Given her long-standing political awareness, that definition isn't that far off the mark. Her mom has gone on to widespread mainstream success with Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Toshi appeared poised to follow in her footsteps. She possesses a big, booming, earthy voice and isn't bashful about speaking her mind or showing off her ability to bend strings on her guitar.
Born in Atlanta, Reagon was raised in Washington, D.C., the daughter of socially conscious, musically hip parents who had a vast record collection that included blues, old Negro work songs, and other forms of traditional folk music. She began leading her own bands in high school, and her 1990s live shows went all over the musical map to include reggae, folk, blues, and rock & roll songs.
Interestingly, her influences — aside from her parents — include Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Kiss, a combination of the most memorable 1970s rock & roll bands, and, thanks to her mother, the classic blues of people like Big Mama Thornton, Howlin' Wolf, and Big Bill Broonzy. Her mother bought her tickets to see Kiss when she was in her early teens, and she then got hooked on strapping on her guitar and singing her own songs.
Unlike so many other singer/songwriters with roots in the 1960s folk movement, Reagon doesn't concentrate solely on her left-leaning politics at shows; she'll gracefully move from a semi-autobiographical tune about a relationship to an in-your-face social protest song. She's not known as a protest singer per se, though she'll certainly argue — very articulately — that there's still too much injustice in the world. No matter what genre she chooses for self-expression, blues and traditional African-American folk songs are at the base of all that she does. Like her mother, she's one part musicologist/scholar, one part singer/songwriter, one part performer, and one part political activist. Her concerts are filled with stories, lively dialogue with the audience, and humor.
Reagon recorded and released Justice (1990) for the Chicago-based Flying Fish label (now part of Rounder Records), and she's released several other independent projects since then, notably Kindness, a 1997 album for Smithsonian Folkways Records. Righteous Ones followed in 1999, with a tour not far behind. She didn't begin writing songs again until August of 2001, and the events of September 11th weighed heavily on her personal experiences during the tragedy. Returning to the studio the following spring, she released the lean and rock-oriented Toshi the next year. In 2004 Reagon issued limited copies of I Be Your Water, and after signing to the Ani DiFranco-headed Righteous Babe Records, Have You Heard, which featured work from her live band BigLovely, came out in 2006. ~ Richard Skelly