Roots and Reason Concert/Carter Lecture: Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon

Mitzi Dorbu
February 5, 2010
Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon
Photo provided by Sharon Farmer

Berklee’s Africana Studies program's Roots and Reason Series and the Warrick L. Carter Lecture Series present Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon in a special collaborative performance, Thursday, February 18, at the Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, MA.  Call 617 747-2261 or visit for more information.

In a cross-generational concert performance, mother Bernice Johnson Reagon and daughter Toshi Reagon will perform and speak about their music and work, guided by the concept of the series, Roots and Reason. The program will include roots music traditions—songs/vocal and instrumental stylings—and the reasons for the foundation and myriad evolutionary paths evolving from these groundings.

Bernice Johnson Reagon is the recipient of the 2003 Heinz Award of the Arts and Humanities for her work as a scholar and artist in African American cultural history and music, as well as curator emeritus at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and distinguished professor emeritus from American University. She continues to do pioneering intellectual work in the field, recently creating the cultural resources structure for the first online African American Lectionary.

Her early commitment to social and political activism is reflected in the determined way she has crossed categories to do her work, including forming and leading the internationally renowned a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, and finding her voice as a songwriter and composer. Her cultural roots lie in southwest Georgia—church and rural—and were cauterized by her joining others who created the Albany Movement during the 1960s. This period in Reagon's life resurfaced the older traditions into which she was born, and she found within this 19th century grounding the singing and lyric structures that provided voice for the mass actions in the struggle against racism. With a catalog of original compositions based in her journey of social and political consciousness journey, the elder Reagon’s songs provide a contemporary window extending from that transformative period forward. 

Of Toshi Reagon, The New Yorker said, "...her live shows shower retro funk, urban blues, and folk on the audience with evangelical fervor. To hear her is to believe." Not surprisingly, Toshi Reagon integrates a commitment to social justice into her own spirited blend of sounds, expressed through her fierce guitar playing and voice. Reagon—an accomplished guitarist, vocalist, and producer—is an extraordinary songwriter with an impressive catalog of her own compositions.

She is fearless and has a range which allowed her to create a Delta blues performance for 651 Arts in Brooklyn, and then bring to the Jessye Norman Carnegie Hall Anthology Concert a contemporary blues-tinged rendering that provided an essential evening from roots to more evolved forms. Reagon does this with a rare scholarship and passion, understanding her unique place and talent. She transfers to a new century musical experiences that are rare for live performance audiences.

In addition to these performance commissions, Toshi Reagon has performed with a wide variety of artists from Chaka Khan, Nona Hendryx, Pete Seeger, Ani DiFranco, Lenny Kravitz, and Lizz Wright, with whom she has worked as a songwriting collaborator.

This evening is possible because one of Toshi Reagon’s most consistent collaborators is her mother, serving as music director as well as creating the orchestral instrumentation for the 1993 opera Temptations of Saint Anthony (Robert Wilson, direction and staging; Bernice Johnson Reagon, composer). The two also joined forces in creating the music score for the Peabody Award-winning WGBH PBS film series Africans In America: Slavery in America. Much of the score is choral and mother Bernice accounts that Toshi lent her voice to create some of the more complex sounds of the score. In addition, Toshi moved for the first time, her prowess with the guitar, bass, and percussion to the older root forms needed for the series.

The Roots and Reason program is produced by Africana Studies Professor William Banfield. This series celebrates the richness of blues, gospel, and bluegrass and their influence on American popular music, while also exploring the stylistic relationship with global folk. Guest artists featured this year include Regina Carter, Lionel Loueke, Donald Harrison, and music from the Caribbean, the Mississippi Delta, Ireland, and more.

Warrick L. Carter served as dean of faculty and later as provost/vice president for academic affairs from 1984-1996. With the participation and support of his wife, Laurel, he made many enduring contributions to the college. In appreciation and recognition, the board of trustees established the annual Warrick L. Carter Lecture Series as part of Berklee's annual Black History Month Celebration.