Originally from Washington, D.C., Toshi Reagon is the daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon, of the groundbreaking group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The blues, folk and rock musician's most recent album, Until We're Done, was issued last year on Goldenrod Music.
Reagon performs and speaks Sat., March 7, at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, as part of the SUNSTAR Festival, a celebration of women in music. First, at 1 p.m., she takes part in the panel discussion "Making It Work: Strategies For Success" along with Maori Karmael Holmes, Da Button Pusha and Heather Kropf. At 8 p.m., she performs along with Abafasi, Vanessa German and Sonji Saturday. Other performers at the event include Bahamadia, Joy Ike, Soma Mestizo, Boca Chica and Ethel Cee; workshops and panels occur throughout the festival, including two with author LaShonda K. Barnett.
Your mother is a musician and you've worked with her and presumably were inspired by her as a young musician. When you started out in music, were there other women artists you looked up to?
My mom was inspirational to me as a mother -- she's not necessarily the reason I'm a musician, but she was an excellent mom. She exposed me to a lot of things, was very open-minded. It's one of my wishes that every child gets that sort of support. Like when I came home and said "KISS is the greatest band in the world!" She said, "Well, OK ..." And when I wanted to go to their concert, she got me the tickets.
Then when I was a teen-ager there was something called the Women's Music Network, and women started their own labels, started having their own music festivals. It was kind of like, if we can't go through this door, we'll create our own. And that all influenced me as a teen.
With more high-profile lesbians in the entertainment industry today, do you think it's become easier to be an "out" lesbian in music?
People ask me that all the time, but really, nobody was interested in me being gay when I came out. The "industry" is a bizarre thing. There's a certain thing about writing songs and making records that make money, and people call that the "industry," but I was so outside that, it was always pretty easy being a lesbian performer. I may have lost gigs for being black and big, but never for being a lesbian, I don't think.
I never have cared about an industry -- it's about life in general. And is it easier to be a lesbian in the 21st century than it was in the '50s? Hell yeah! But still, we're human, and human beings are weird. They find something about people that's different and when they do, they want to kill them. And as long as we've got that, it's not going to be easy. There's always the risk of becoming the "other."
Your political views are clearly a significant part of your life, but you might not be considered an overtly political musician. How does politics influence your art?
I don't really like to classify artists like that. I think it's hard to say that you're this or that kind of musician. My politics inform me -- they're just a big part of my world, and I write out of my world.
I just want us to fucking exist here for a long time -- I don't want to be strutting around and looking in the mirror all the time. If things are going great, maybe you can spend some time looking in the mirror. But when things are falling to shit like they are, there's no time for that.
You're participating in one of the panel discussions at the SUNSTAR Festival, about strategies for success in music -- what will you be talking about?
Well, my strategy for success is, get off your ass and make it happen. Connect the steps, don't skip any; they're all important. The world needs innovation. And as you grow older, give up space to younger people. Let them know something about what you did. Grow older and die, and those younger people who you've talked to will carry on, and that's how you'll live on.
SUNSTAR Women in Music Festival. Thu., March 5-Sat., March 7. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $40 festival pass ($30 for artists with RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org; individual event tickets $5-25). For complete performance and panel schedule, call 412-363-3000 x107 or visit www.kelly-strayhorn.org