Unless you got reasonably close to the Women’s March on Washington stage—or were watching at home on TV—you might have missed longtime D.C. music icon Toshi Reagon. An all-female incarnation of Reagon’s band, BIGLovely, opened the event and served as the “house” band for the momentous day.
For Reagon, who moved to Brooklyn in the early ‘90s, it all must have seemed like a special kind of homecoming.
Well, yes and no.
“It didn’t really feel like a homecoming to me because we’re living in such an unprecedented time, with this horrible man as a president of the United States of America, who right away started undoing so many programs… that really speak to the diversity of this country,” she says. “The Republican Party has lost their minds and become the party of white supremacy, the party of male domination over all people, and the party of homophobia and racism.”
Actually, Reagon was more than just a performer at the march. She was tapped as its musical director by Ginny Suss, who serves as producer of the Women’s March National Committee. “Toshi comes from a legacy of real grassroots activism and music,” says Suss. “It reminds me of this Fela Kuti quote, ‘music is the weapon.’ She’s not new to the spirit of activism and the idea that we need to come together and raise of our voices for what truly matters.”
Reagon grew up steeped in both music and political consciousness. She is the daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Reagon, civil rights activists who performed with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers. An eminent scholar, activist and singer, Bernice formed the D.C.-based heritage ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973, leading the a capella group until her retirement in 2004. Toshi’s godfather was Pete Seeger, and she describes June Millington and Nona Hendryx as her “other musical moms.”
But Toshi shrugs off the notion that her extraordinary upbringing elevates her insights or abilities. “Activism is an everyday experience for many black people in America,” she says, citing the myriad ways African-Americans have been systematically and legally attacked. “So activism and how you dealt with that was a part of your life—you couldn’t not deal with it and you couldn’t not come up with your own ways of negotiating the hostile territory you lived in. That’s the tradition of activism in my family.”
Toshi, who was raised by her mother, moved to D.C. from Atlanta at age 7. They lived in Anacostia’s Stanton Hill neighborhood before settling in Northwest, not far from the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. She attended Sandy Springs High School, a Quaker school near Olney.
In a career that spans three decades, Reagon has toured extensively, written original music for film, theater, and dance productions, and won a slew of awards, including a 2009 Out Music Award. She has performed with Sweet Honey and produced or co-produced four of its albums. She also performed with her mother and the other surviving Freedom Singers (her father died in 1996) at the White House for an audience that included President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.
Toshi describes BIGLovely, which takes its name after her partner’s nickname for her, as “Grateful Dead-ish” in its sprawling assortment of regular and occasional players. She culled the Women’s March band from its members and generously took the march’s opening spot because sound–wise, she says, it’s “the shakiest.”
After that, they played behind a slew of artists, including Nona Hendryx, Alicia Keyes, Janelle Monáe, and, yeah, Madonna.
“Once Madonna shows up, she’s gonna pull the narrative in a certain way because of how iconic and famous she is,” says Reagon. “But really, everybody was one big swoop of energy, the speakers and the musicians working together.”
It was thrilling for Reagon to perform with Monáe—“I’m a huge fan”—and with Angelique Kidjo, the Beninese superstar who performed last fall at the opening celebration for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Angelique Kidjo is a spectacular artist, and she just shows up for everything,” Reagon notes. “One of the things we wanted is to have musicians who are also rooted in activism in their lives, and Angelique is really amazing in that.”
The day’s performances closed with Toshi Reagon & BIGLovely’s rendition of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Ella’s Song,” written in honor of civil rights leader Ella Baker and perhaps best known by its lyrics, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” (Bernice did not attend the Women’s March, but watched all day on TV. “She was emailing me the whole time,” says Toshi. “She was very happy and excited and very proud of everybody.”)
As the march’s musical director, Reagon helped curate the artists who performed, and one of her goals was to include local performers. “I consider myself a D.C. native, but I wanted to make sure there was representation of two working D.C. artists,” she says. She chose singer-songwriter Be Steadwell and Grammy-nominated jazz and soul singer Carolyn Malachi.
For Malachi, the day proved to be a transformative experience. “It was incredibly empowering,” Malachi says. “I just felt like we were all of this one energy, this singular energy. It was all positive, and it was all love, and it was all progressive. I was very proud of that.”
Steadwell posted her impressions of the day on her Facebook page, writing: “Toshi, who is fly A.F. on her own-has a gift for bringing brilliant women together and this band is one fine, fine example of that… They brought life and energy to every song they played and remained deeply respectful of every artist as they blessed the mic.”
A few hours after the stage closed down, Reagon, who had been there since just before dawn, went to bed exhausted. As she fell asleep, she could still hear people marching and chanting in the streets.
“My feeling was that the rally was like kind of a great center for a huge thing to happen around,” she says. “The thing I’m warmed by and humbled by is that so many people participated who had no access to that rally stage. They could not hear anything, they couldn’t see anything, and they all had their own experiences.”
And for anyone wondering what’s next, Reagon has an answer: “The rally holds a central place, but it was not the thing. The thing is the people and the intentionality of the people. A good rally holds space for people to gather around, and then turns the movement over to the people,” she says.
“That this was the largest protest in history speaks volumes,” she adds. “I really think that we had a global homecoming.”