Tag Archives: Bernice Johnson Reagon

Women’s History Month 2014: Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon

14 Mar

Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to one of my personal heroes, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon.  In 1973, Reagon founded the  a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Johnson Reagon started her music/social work career before Sweet Honey in the Rock.  She was a type of community organizer and performed with The Freedom Singers in her hometown of Albany, Georgia. The Freedom Singers was, in part, formed by Johnson Reagon’s husband, Cordell Reagon. How amazing and lovely that Cordell and Bernice were friends with Pete Seeger, who helped to support the founding of The Freedom Singers.

I was first introduced to Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1991 at the Black Arts Festival at Piedmont Park, in Atlanta, Georgia. After hearing them perform Ella’s SongI went out and bought all of their albums and went to every concert when they came to Atlanta. Reagon earned her doctorate at Howard University and became a strong voice in the Civil Rights movement. Reagon has dedicated her life to issues of social justice and the intersections of oppression. Reagon, through her music, addresses issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and the intersections of oppression.  She reached many of us dedicated to civil rights through song:

I learned that if you bring black people together, you bring them together with a song. To this day, I don’t understand how people think they can bring anybody together without a song…I came out of the Civil Rights Movement, and I had a different kind of focus than most people who have just the academic background as their primary training experience.

I am fortunate enough to stand on the shoulders of greatness, including Dr. Johnson Reagon.  Her work and the music of Sweet Honey in the Rock inform how I live my life and how I teach.

For me, Dr. Johnson Reagon is a musical social worker: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

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One of the Voices of Social Justice: Singer, Peace Activist, Holly Near

21 Aug

Those of you that follow TSM already know what a huge fan I am of Holly Near, and what an inspiration she is to so many who work to make the world a better place for all.  I was fortunate enough to visit with Holly about her life and about the debut of her new album, Peace Becomes You, which is available today.

Your new album, Peace Becomes You, debuts on August 21, did you approach this album differently?  

I did inasmuch that I just took a two-year sabbatical. When I came back from that there was so much stored up in that, things I needed to write but also songs I wanted to use from other people. I set up four public rehearsals to hear the new material, so that I could feel their feedback, and what they were leaning into. Of course the band was a bit startled.  I wanted to allow people to feel the music.  Then I went straight into the studio.  While my voice is still so strong, I needed to do a double CD as one album.  It felt that this maybe the last time I do a project this big.

How did you decide on the title of the album?

I looked at all of the titles of the songs and Crazy just did not seem appropriate.  I have the song to John Fromer who is struggling with cancer right now and he wrote the melody for Peace Becomes You.  We made a bumper sticker reading “Peace Becomes You,” which you can only get at concerts.

How did you pick songs that might be considered canonical to go along with new, original songs?  

Over the last five years I did a lot of camping and listened to a lot of music. For example I listened to Johnny Mathis performing 99 Miles from LA, so it was that type of process, the music kind of found me.  In hindsight, one of the things I would have done differently, there was a song I worked so hard on but it did not make it to the CD and I am very sad about that.  I also wish I had spent more time writing to social activists and asking them to send me their material.  In the future I would like to highlight songs of social activism that are not getting the airplay they should be getting.

You work with another one of my absolute “sheroes” Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon.  How did you select a song from her catalogue? 

I have sung quite a few of her songs and I’ve known Dr. Reagon since 1979; we have been friends over thirty, forty years.  I always feel so grateful.  I listen to her writing a lot.  There are a lot of songs that I don’t feel have any right coming out of my mouth, which narrows it down quite a bit’ it is really personal what one sings.  My friend Bonnie Raitt  has to sing what is true to herself, which I love and appreciate.  We all have to understand our own history and cultural backgrounds. Nothing is just a song or just a dance, which I’m learning more and more as I take on the role of teacher.

I love how you are dedicated to issues of social justice and civil rights. Are there some areas in which you would encourage us all to focus our energies specifically? 

At one of the festivals I was just performing at, I saw this big burly man wearing a shirt that said no planet no party — I wanted that shirt.  I think one of the main focuses should be sustaining the planet, which is hard to do, but just because it is hard, does not mean we can’t do it.  We need some planet consciousness which is being modeled by poorer communities who are being dumped upon.

I know your upcoming tour will be your first tour in quite some time with a full band; how did you make that decision? 

Every moment we are alive, we are making choices, and as humans we hold the potential to be either amazing or horrific.  I can’t get into a conversation of what issue is worst and needs the most attention. We need to be vigilant and look at our choices.  Some people will just scoop up what others have made for them and others will be brick layers making things possible and building the road on which we will walk.  I walk on roads that people have paved all the time — there is an invisibility of “women’s music,” of women that do not get heard. There is always an invisible corridor that creates necessary bridges.  A company like Lady Slipper is cellurlarly embedded in the next generation of music, even if they are just living it.

I know you are wrapping up a tour of Folk Festivals.  What has the energy been like this year as opposed to years past?

It has been awhile since I have done festivals. I was invited to many of these festivals because it was on the heels of the Occupy Movement and so there was some intent to raise awareness of activism.  I did overhear that people were surprised and saddened that there was so little political music performed.  Now I think people really do want to hear music about what is going on.  I think there is a real desire to connect while simultaneously trying to escape.  It is always hard to write about torture, gay teen suicide, women being tortured, but I work very hard at it and I reflect back and think I’ve gotten better at it.  There is room for music about smash the state and for songs for striking nurses and for anti-war songs.

You have become an Elder-States woman and steward of music of social protest.  How does it feel to wear that mantle? 

I used to joke that I was an elder in training and now I think that time is up.  I have moved into that generation of elders.  Odetta is gone and Belafonte is not doing concerts anymore.  When I travel I am being treated as an elder and it is very nice.  I learned as I was an elder in training that I can be at peace at not being the center of attention and just happy to be of use.   My generation took everything out of the box and named it; it did not all get solved, but it can be talked about.   The line in the song We’re Still Here — we are here and present and here to be of use.

What or how do you see the future of protest music?  What advice might you have for artists that look at life through a social justice lens as you do?

I think people need to get better. I think people need to practice activism, whether they are artists, teachers, religious people — the more we practice the better we get.  I encourage people to become good writers.  What do people need locally to help support them to do the hard work?  It is not just about picking up a guitar and playing three chords and now who will book me?  There is no shortage of ideas. What I see is that there is a shortage of skills to bring those ideas together. There is a lot of great hard work involved.  Invite us to make us become our better selves.  Bring a friend to a concert—expose people to music about social justice—open the circle.

You can purchase Holly’s new album through CDBaby or at Amazon.com; it should be available through iTunes shortly.

To my loyal TSM readers, I will confess that I truly did try to be objective during this interview, but it is exceedingly impossible not to just fall in love with Holly!  The new album is tremendous (as this review will attest), and she is such an inspiration.  Holly, thank you for taking the time to visit with me.

My Reaction to Troy Davis: Racist America

23 Sep

Ella Baker

When I heard that Georgia had executed Troy Davis, despite the heroic efforts of many, including President Jimmy Carter, I was in disbelief. My heart ached and all I could think of was now we have another black mother’s son dead. Of course, this made me reflect on the Civil Rights hero, Ella Baker.

Baker was one of the most influential players in the civil rights movement. Baker’s grandparents were slaves and she would hear stories from her grandmother about slave revolts. After finishing college and graduating valedictorian, she moved to New York and started her life’s path of social justice. Baker fought for civil rights alongside others such as, W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Dr. Martin Luther King. She was also a mentor to our Rosa Parks. Baker’s influence touched the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Baker and another hero of my mine, Howard Zinn, were two of the SNCC’s highly revered adult advisors. Baker remained an activist until her death in 1986.

We still have so far to go regarding full racial equality.  You have no further to look than the current Tea Bagger/Birther movement as evidence of that.  Somehow I expected more of my nation at this point in history.  I expected much more progress on issues on race, gender, and LGBT issues.

I leave you with the lyrics to Ella’s Song, written by one of my personal heros, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon and performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons

That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives

I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

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