The audience at a Toshi Reagon concert is a multi-culti melting pot, a fender-bender between Lollapalooza, the Michigan Women’s Music Festival and a deep South, old-time tent revival. On a recent Saturday evening in Brooklyn, one of those hot, still nights cooled by the sunset, lesbian couples with toddlers in tow picnicked on the grass next to older black folk swathed in African fabric from head to toe ring. A posse of giggling teens snapped off their iPods once the show got started and swayed to the beat alongside a group who could’ve been their parents.
Reagon can pull a crowd. Over 1,000 people packed into Prospect Park that evening, with little marketing and low-key fanfare. And this eclectic mish-mash of fans love her. They sing along, repeating her lyrics faithfully. Some follow her from gig to gig like Grateful Dead groupies. After her shows, long lines form to buy signed copies of her latest CD, Have You Heard, as well as her previous seven releases.
On the tenth anniversary year of her band, Big Lovely, and with over 20 years making music, Toshi Reagon is a long-term survivor in a harsh, unforgiving business. Performers are as disposable as Kleenex as a panicked music industry tries desperately to staunch a six-year decline in global sales. In this era of iTunes and MySpace, the market for old-fashioned CDs has plummeted 25 percent in the last 5 years. Concert ticket sales are also free-falling as fans click through music videos of their favorite performers rather than leave the couch.
Reagon has managed to carve out a niche and make a decent living, albeit in thousands and sometimes only hundreds of dollars and “units” rather than billions, by inhabiting a world outside of the mainstream music mess. She’s a real person who just happens to be a rock star. A parent to her 11-year-old niece, Tashawn, she lives in the ungentrified part of Brooklyn, not far from J Bob Alotta, a filmmaker and media activist, her lover of four years. Her CDs are released on Righteous Babe Records, Ani DiFranco’s label, without the luxury of starmaker machinery.
She carts her instruments from gig to gig in the back of her black Subaru wagon. She plays the music she loves–a funky-quirky mix of folk, rock, blues, R&B and gospel–rather than being pigeoned holed into a genre determined by corporate-owned radio stations. As fast as a fingersnap, her voice can rise from rough and bluesy to a sweet and almost girlish vibrato. She’s big and lovely and out and butch–no booty-shaking, blonde weave or raunchy lyrics. She can write what she wants, sing what she pleases and call out the Christian right from the stage if she feels like. And she often feels like it. She lives and works and thrives on her own terms.
“To be independent and functioning is a tremendous political statement,” says Reagon, tucked into a booth at Maggie Brown, her favorite breakfast spot not far from her home. “If I had millions of dollars to put out only one CD, God should slap me for using it that way. With that kind of money, I better be producing 20 albums, myself and others.”