I come from a family of civil rights activists, says singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon, speaking by phone from her home in Brooklyn, just a few days before her recent gig at LunaPark. My grandfather was a preacher, and my grandmother worked all the time. They raised eight kids on very little money, built their own home and just did whatever had to be done. When I compare my struggles to what my grandparents did or to what my mother [singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founding member of Sweet Honey in the Rock and, in her own youth, part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] does, I feel like I dont have a choice but to carry on trying to find something good to live for -- and to work as hard as I can at making it happen.
For over 15 years, the 35-year-old Reagon has been engaged in the little-changing struggles of the underground musician: busking on street corners with her guitar; ignoring pop trends while keeping a careful eye on the downward-shifting levels of commercially viable artistry; honing her craft for an ever-growing, devoted core of critics and fans, whove made her first three albums -- 1990s Justice, 1994s The Rejected Stone, 1997s Kindness -- cult items. Shes sort of a darker-hued Ani DiFranco: Both make social consciousness a core element of their music. Both have gotten flak for being too P.C. even as their left-of-center ideals are precisely what have kept them out of the corporate trenches. And both have a way of seeing the shady dealings of the music industry as a metaphor for the ills of society at large -- without themselves ever playing the martyr. The recent merger of Warner Bros. and EMI, for instance, was especially troubling for Reagon, though she jokes about it.
Right after that merger was announced, she says, I went to see if my label [Razor & Tie] was part of it, and I was really happy to know that they arent -- theyre in somebody elses pocket. She laughs. Its just more and more about one person owning a lot of everything, and I think thats a dangerous place to be. Its important for people to get out of the house and make things happen in their own communities. Were in this weird moment where so much of what you do on your basic, everyday level is monopolized by a central force, and its all just a way to mass-market their products. But thats the challenge weve presented for ourselves, because nothing happens without our consent.
While politics are at the forefront of Reagons previous three albums, her latest, The Righteous Ones, taps deeper into the sexy, playful side of her persona -- the side that has made Toshi Reagon concerts (where shes backed by her largely female band, the Big Lovely) a welcome pilgrimage for the faithful. The disc opens with the sultry Real Love, which slinks and purrs before climaxing in a burst of rock energy; tracks like Happy and Satisfied and Like It That Way lay bare their folk roots, even veering off into country territory. Throughout, Reagons voice is lovely and pure, the songwriting simple and direct. It all comes together on the sublime Darling, a duet with Reagons friend and sometime backup singer Catherine Russell. While the rest of the album would do Reagons idols proud -- they range from Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley to the Flamingos and Joni Mitchell -- Darling evokes some long-lost, early-60s R&B 45. Russell brings to mind Mavis Staples, in her phrasing, in the grit and integrity of her singing. Most impressive, though, is the straightforwardness of the two singers approach.
Catherine has one of those voices that just takes you there, chuckles Reagon. The tone and the edge of it takes you back to an era of soul singers that you dont hear anymore. R&B was structured around the arrangement and the singer, and the message in the song was very simple. You rarely heard somebody who couldnt sing, because people who couldnt sing didnt get signed. Today, you hear people who cant sing all the time, on the radio and selling millions of records. The pitch is bad, their tone is really bad. But Im not going to hate anybody because they got a record deal, even if its all about the producer theyre working with and not if they actually have any talent.
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Recently, she says, we did a show of all cover songs as a benefit for my nieces school, the Nile Day Care Center [Reagon is her legal guardian], and we did a Fleetwood Mac song, a Hole song, a couple of Zeppelin songs and I Only Have Eyes for You by the Flamingos. Preparing for the show, we would sit and listen to that old Flamingos record and just die. A beautiful melody, buttery lyrics -- and everybody in the group could sing! Thank God that stuff was recorded and we can go back and listen to it. Today, music is just a different beast. Even gospel singers dont sing anymore. They come out and just start screaming from the beginning. She laughs. And you know, thats pretty funny to me.