Toshi Reagon: The new segregation

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Toshi Reagon: The new segregation

by Rachel Terrell-Perica on Monday, January 3, 2011 - 5:21am
Toshi Reagon Photo by Bernie DeChant

Toshi Reagon Photo by Bernie DeChant

An accomplished musical artist, Toshi Reagon brings a rich background to her music – as an African-American, as well as queer-identified woman. Reagon performed recently with her band, BIGLovely, at Stanford Lively Arts. Described as a “one-woman celebration of all that is dynamic, progressive, and uplifting in American music,” Reagon is a musician and a musical activist.

Professionally, Reagon garnered much recognition, including the 2010 OutMusic’s Heritage Award, the 2007 Black Lily Award for Outstanding Performance, and the 2004 New York Foundation for the Arts award for musical composition. In addition to winning critical acclaim, Reagon has wowed fans for over three decades. This strong foundation with fans and critics provides a platform for Reagon to articulate messages through her music and her performances.

“I just say what I want to say and make it feel the way I feel,” said Reagon in an interview before her performance. “Even my fun songs have substance. I try not to go on rants, but it’s good to say things in your songs that people can carry around with them and use.”

Using this framework, Reagon makes a point to challenge gendered norms through her music as well as her performances.

After three decades of being immersed in the music business, Reagon has seen and experienced the dynamics of race and gender. In her interview Reagon stated that diversity in the music industry has improved over the years; however, it remains an area in which further progress is needed. She described this current state of the industry in the terms of “The New Segregation,” pointing to the subtleties of these battles. Often these inequalities go unnoticed until change is made, as seen in the historical instance of “blind” auditions.

Goldin and Rouse published an article in The American Economic Review titled, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of 'Blind' Auditions on Female Musicians.” The article describes the 1970s hiring procedure of orchestral musicians as one in which institutionalized prejudices dictated the process. As a result, female musicians comprised fewer than 5% of all players. A new system was implemented where the judging panel was “blinded” to the identity and physical appearance of the individual auditioning; the decision was therefore based purely on talent. After this reform took place, the number of women hired increase by 55%.

Reagon considers this need for gender equality as she chooses members for her band, BIGLovely. At her recent performance at Stanford, the women musicians were visually presented as the dominating voice of the group, with the three male musicians standing behind them on stage. Reagon also has an all-female version of her band. The all-female performers make a powerful statement with their skill and energy.

One of Reagon’s key messages throughout her performance was that it is not enough to simply be aware of the inequality in the world around us. We need to speak out and do something – and support others who are working towards change. During her final song, Reagon took a moment to emphasize that “we stand together.” In the people we encounter and the lives we live, we are continually being shaped by those around us. She emphasized that it is of the utmost importance that we reach out to one another and give back to those around us. As her closing statement, Reagon challenged each and every person present to be active citizens of our world.


Rachel Terrell-PericaRachel Terrell-Perica is a Stanford student, set to graduate in 2013. Inspired by the performance, Rachel created her own challenge: Go, and confront the inequalities and injustices you see around you with the resources that you have, however great or small they may be.