afropunk interview: toshi reagon

September 21, 2018

When I first discovered the magical mashup of rock, folk and blues that Toshi Reagon has been alchemizing for decades, she’d already released four albums. The year was 1999, and Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid organized a live concert celebration for the canonical Prince album of the same name at Brooklyn’s BAMCafé, pre-gentrification. Her acoustic finale, a performance of the title track, hinted there had to be arresting music on Reagon’s own albums—Justice, The Rejected Stone, Kindness and The Righteous Ones—and that turned out to be an understatement.

For eight years now, Word*Rock*& Sword [W*R*S], an eight-day community festival that Reagon organizes, has commandeered a plethora of locations in New York City in the name of celebrating women’s lives and encouraging conversations for female liberation on all fronts. Reagon discussed W*R*S with AFROPUNK, following rehearsals for a final trio of events this weekend.

Explain the purpose of the Word*Rock*& Sword festival.

The festival’s long-ass full title is Word*Rock*& Sword: A Festival Exploration of Women’s Lives—All Are Welcome. In 2008 when Obama was elected, I felt maybe citizens as a collective were understanding their power and mission to take over from a righteous position of focusing on justice, equality and the end of violence, as a way of life. I thought we finally got that, when we show up, we can make more positive things happen for ourselves and for the entire earth. When we don’t show up, we allow very few folks to make choices for the entire world. We have a powerful legacy of freedom fighters in the country, particularly from women, black and indigenous people. To see us make this choice and elect this family brought me joy in us. I didn’t know what would happen during Obama presidency, but I felt happy for us.

Then this vile 2010 congress came out and started to attack women, legislating decisions we make about our bodies and lives as criminal acts. Abortion came up again as if men have nothing to do with making children, criminalizing women if they have drug issues and get pregnant. Several women were arrested for sending their children to better schools in other districts. They were charged with stealing money from the state. It was one thing after the other, and since the dawn of time, the system has been protecting men over women and children when it comes to violence, in particular sexual assault. I was waiting to be asked to go sing at a giant march somewhere.

What I was really missing was a tangible experience with my community and a focus on what we have to offer each in this life. First I was gonna do a concert. Then I was like, we need to talk, and maybe teach each other. So I made [Word*Rock*Sword] eight days with an open service on a Sunday and a closing service the next Sunday.

We have collaborated with so many people and venues over the years: the Schomburg, Ford Foundation, Le Poisson Rouge, the Astraea Lesbian Foundation, Sacred Brooklyn, Correctional Association of New York, JACK and hundreds of artists, health practitioners, great people. All kinds of humans have come forward. It runs on a very small budget unless I have a lot of money for some reason. It was started with $1,500. It depends on word of mouth. I ask if folks have something to offer and facilitate it happening. People can create their own events and decide if it is free or if costs money. They keep the money. It is based in generosity. Some years an event happens almost every night, and sometimes there are three or four. In 2018 we have five.

How did past women’s festivals like Lilith Fair and Black Lily fall short and/or inspire Word*Rock*Sword?

I have been to so many women’s festivals. They are usually created by women who have a need to see more of their themselves and their agenda represented in a big way. I wish Black Lily still happened. It was amazing. I never went to Lilith Fair. Word*Rock*Sword is not just a music festival.  Literally anything can happen that anyone is willing create.

We have a concert at Le Poison Rouge every Saturday and that is the biggest musical event [with]Nona Hendryx, Tamar-Kali, Joan As Police Woman, Climbing PoeTree, Roya Marsh, Be Steadwell and many more. This concert is three hours long; 25 to 30 artists come together and every year magic happens. It is a liberating force for good. I put it together but I am always surprised by what happens. W*R*S is about collaborative work. Community generosity. Looking around enough to see that we have among us what we need to get through these times and we should use it well.

When did you decided to stand up for the legacy of women in music of all genres, and what led you down that path?

I have always been an independent artist. When I decided to be a full-time musician at 13, my mom told me to stay away from drugs and learn to be a producer. I have participated in producing almost everything I have done in my career. Concerts, events, recording, and now theater with Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.  I think as humans, we have made an industry all over the planet of systemically abusing women and water, and it is intolerable and infuriating. A focus on these issues would allow humans to realign their position on Earth.

Tamar-Kali and Joi appeared on Luke Cage; Meshell Ndegeocello runs Queen Sugar’s music. Do you think there’s a slow but steady infiltration of so-called alternative black music into the mainstream?

I am so happy to see and hear these folks’ work everywhere. I know the work of the women you mention and I know they have never waited for anyone to justify their voices. The mainstream always wants a profit and it acts like it does not make zillions of dollars every day off the work of black women. It just takes its time featuring us forward. [laughs] We need more time to talk about the capitalism and exploitation. But their clock is not our clock. But yes: take up as much space as you can doing your work.

From Sophia’s Toy to Shelley Nicole’s blaKbüshe, the history of black women rocking out runs deep. Beyoncé playing with an all-female band is great, but what else can be done to encourage women to exercise full agency in the space of rock music?

The genre of rock is limiting to black people. I might get in trouble for saying that. But you are talking about a system and it is not just music, it is the entire business. The economy of it is set in slavery and racism. Black people created America’s musical legacy. Racism and exploitation create the walls and categories. We already have full agency in our voices and bodies. What we need is for people to stop telling us no. Stop telling us what you think we should look and sound like. Pay us for our work and stop violating our bodies. All those things would help a lot.

Please say a few words on the soulful legacy of the late, great, recently departed Aretha Franklin.

Aretha Franklin is one of my favorite artists of all time. She was a virtuoso singer and pianist. It is incredible how deep her mastery was/is. I loved how individual she was. The older she got, the more you saw that she was springing forward her own direction. I love her work with Curtis Mayfield so much. I love her stand for justice. I love that she made Amazing Grace. I am so grateful for her existence. Some folks you wish they would carry on forever.

Word*Rock*& Sword VIII concludes with three events around New York City on September 21st-23rd, 2018. More details on the Word*Rock*& Sword site.