Toshi Reagon is the recipient of the 2021 Religion and the Arts Award. Reagon is a world-renowned composer, singer, musician, producer, and curator who has engaged with themes of collaborative living intersecting with politics, religion, and social change throughout her career. The AAR is proud to recognize Reagon’s consistently inspirational body of work.
A recording artist since the age of 17, Reagon was shaped by the music she heard as a child. Her parents, Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Reagon, were founding members of the original SNCC Freedom Singers. Her own music, however, is highly distinctive and reflects the wide range of her sonic education at home: her parents’ rehearsals and artists such as Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and the Jackson 5. Synthesizing rock, reggae, soul, folk, and sacred music, Reagon’s music reflects her capacious understanding of African diasporic musical traditions and Americana. Since her early recordings Justice and Kindness, she has received considerable critical acclaim for her fusion of traditional music, contemporary protest anthems, rock, and love songs into a broader social vision of inclusivity and justice.
Reagon’s music has contributed substantially to public understanding of the revolutionary potential of what she calls “the sacredness of our everyday living” and the “divine part of our existence.” Building from relationships—to the past, to God, to “that which is unseen”—Reagon understands her music as a steady vessel in an uncertain world, one that also has the capacity to transform through emotional and social change. Across her career—from collaborative projects like Wade in the Water or Africans in America to recent albums like Spiritland—Reagon has consistently cultivated and contributed to African-American religious and musical history.
Reagon has also consistently been intentional in cultivating communities committed to liberation and justice. Her unceasing work with youth artists, women’s groups, climate change awareness groups, and community organizers embodies and enacts her broad conviction that music can be transformative in consciousness and action. Indeed, Reagon understands all of her work—from her various bands to her cultivation of events focused on women in the arts—as the curation of thematic artist circles in what she calls “a large multigenerational community of artists and institutions.” In this, she considers performance to be “a gathering space” empowering her collaborators to respond to the challenges of the time.
Toshi Reagon’s recordings, performances, and compositions for stage and screen have won numerous awards and accolades over a period of many years. Her awards include the Black Lily Award, the 2021 APAP Award of Merit for Achievement in the Performing Arts, and the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. She has been the recipient of the 2015 Ford Foundation’s Art of Change Fellowship, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Civic Practice Partnership, the United States Artists Fellowship, the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Fellowship and Creative Futures Fellowship at Carolina Performing Arts, and the Doris Duke Foundation Building Demand for the Arts Fellowship at ArtsEmerson. The latter residency focused on Reagon’s opera Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, based on Butler’s novels Parables of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.
Following the presentation of the award, expert discussants Jason Bivins (North Carolina State University) and Elizabeth McAlister (Wesleyan University) will invite Reagon to reflect on the role of the artist in framing the public understanding of religion. Please join us in honoring Reagon for her courageous explorations and joyful community-making.