The Root of It: Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon

Berklee Office of Communications
June 4, 2010
Bernice Johnson Reagon talked about the healing power of spirituals: "And the people said, 'We call these songs spirituals because that’s where they come from, the spirit.'" She likened the tradition of singing in the face of pain and discrimination to a first aid cream: "We're not talking about a permanent fix. We’re talking about getting through to the next moment."
"Now we were fighting racism," Bernice Johnson Reagon said of songs during the Civil Rights Movement. "Someone looks at you and ranks you, and you know that’s not who you are. This song just says, 'No, no, I’m moving ahead.'"
Said Toshi Reagon: "Thank you for letting us see what you’re building here. My drummer [Robert] 'Chicken' [Burke] went here. Judith Casselberry [vocalist, acoustic guitarist] came here. Judith had me up here in a session. She wanted me to play guitar for an engineering class. A lot of good things in my life have passed through this school. I really [applaud] all of your efforts to keep this school rich, and [encourage you] to keep digging for the foundations and leading to the future. I’m really happy for you all."
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Representing two generations of musicians, Bernice Johnson Reagon and her daughter, Toshi Reagon, connect to America's roots music traditions. They performed a repertoire of songs including spirituals and ballads as part of Berklee's Roots and Reason concert series and alluded to the stories those songs tell, offering a window into the cultural context that shaped them.

Johnson Reagon, a singer, composer, scholar, and social activist, founded the all-female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973. Her roles in the NPR/Smithsonian Institution series Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions (principal scolar, conceptual producer, and host) and PBS's documentary film series Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery (score composer)—both Peabody Award winners—illustrate her connection to her roots and her experience as a woman who lived through the racial struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.

Singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon has shared the stage with such artists as Lenny Kravitz, Ani DiFranco, Elvis Costello, and Meshell Ndegeocello.

The mother/daughter duo's performance was also part of the Warrick L. Carter Lecture series, for which they received distinguished artist plaques.