The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday January 21st

Musician Toshi Reagon will discuss artist uncertainty and perseverance in UNC lecture

Toshi Reagon performs during Octavia E. Butler's "Parable of the Sower" US debut at Carolina Performing Arts. Photo by Waleed Shah.
Buy Photos Toshi Reagon performs during Octavia E. Butler's "Parable of the Sower" US debut at Carolina Performing Arts. Photo by Waleed Shah.

Independent artist Toshi Reagon will be speaking and performing as a guest lecturer in "I Don’t Know Where I’m Going but I’ll Get There Right On Time," an evening of mixed forms of expression and conversation inspired by Octavia E. Butler’s "Parable of the Sower."

The lecture will be held at the CURRENT ArtSpace and Studio this Monday from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and is sponsored by Honors Carolina in partnership with Carolina Performing Arts. The event is free and open to the public.

Reagon was selected as a Hilliard Gold ‘39 Lecturer at UNC, which is part of a lecture series established by graduates James and Jonathan Gold to honor their father, Hilliard Gold, who was a member of the UNC graduating class of 1939.

Staff writer Jessica Hardison spoke with Reagon to discuss her various forms of work, as well as the broad themes of her upcoming lecture.

The Daily Tar Heel: As a singer, composer, musician, curator, producer and activist, how do you find time to utilize and pursue all of these talents?

Toshi Reagon: I just do it. I think most people do multiple things. The difference with me is that I’ve always been an independent artist, and it’s been very rare that I’ve had any institutional support or been inside of a structure where somebody else is dictating my schedule or what my limitations are in terms of the amount that I work. When I break down all of the things I end up doing, it does seem like a lot. But I do think most people do many things. So, I don’t consider myself special for that at all.

DTH: How did you get your start with music?

TR: My mother gave me really good advice. When I announced that I was going to be a musician, I was about 13 years old, and my mother told me to just stay away from drugs, which is what every parent tells their kids, but she had a really good reason. She told me to stay away from drugs because no matter how good I got at anything, drugs would always be more important. Then she told me to become a producer and learn how to produce both sonically what I did, as well as concerts.

When I was a teenager, I interned at a production company, and that was it. When I was 17 years old, I produced my first concert. 

DTH: What themes run throughout all of your styles of work?

TR: It varies, but what’s important to me is that my music is accessible to a lot of different kinds of people. I say that I work in congregation, so what that means is even if you see me on stage by myself, my feeling when I’m singing is that I’m singing with everybody. To be able to have a space and have people come into it — and those people don’t know each other, and they have a common experience — is a very powerful thing. It’s congregational — and I think that when people do that, they have an opportunity to care for something at the same time. 

DTH: How did you feel about being selected as a Hilliard Gold Lecturer for UNC?

TR: It felt good. They were really nice, and they really wanted me to do it. It’s always an honor when people want you to have a particular kind of conversation, and I love the ritual of traditions. Some traditions really need to end, and some are quite good and powerful. I don’t know a lot about this one, but certainly something with students is really important to me. 

I didn’t go to college, but I love college campuses. I’m so glad I’m at a point in my career where I actually get to be on them quite a bit. This is my third semester of being able to come to UNC, so that’s amazing to me. I’m really enjoying that, so I was quite happy to be chosen.

DTH: Can you offer some insight into what your lecture, "I Don’t Know Where I’m Going but I’ll Get There Right On Time," will include or cover?

TR: I’m sticking with the themes that come up in this work by Octavia E. Butler in "Parable of the Sower." "Parable of the Sower" is about the leadership of a young person, and in the conversation I will have, it’s looking at the question of when it is time to go. Sometimes, you’re in situations, and they’re not great for you, but they hold you and you’re afraid to leave them even though somewhere inside you, you know it’s time to go.

When you have intentionality and you have skill and you’ve prepared yourself to step out into an unknown space, then you have the opportunity to arrive where you need to be. You have the opportunity to meet people who are also aligned with you. It’s a line from a song in the show, and the whole line is: "I know if you call me, I will be right on time. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’ll get there right on time." It’s that kind of assurance of your life that doesn’t necessarily feel good because you don’t want anybody to say that they’ll be there, but they don’t know how they’re going to get there. 

DTH: What advice would you give to aspiring performing artists in the UNC community?

TR: Do your work. Just do it. A lot of times, people think there’s a very specific way to do things and in my career, I have always tried to take my steps forward. I tell people to do something at a small level and just keep growing. Look for your opportunities in different ways. 

Study and learn. Like I said, I didn’t go to school, but I studied so many people. I sat at their feet and I studied them, and I learned work ethic. Don’t spend too much time critiquing yourself and editing yourself. A lot of times, you can’t find your great work if you’re constantly interrupting your flow. I can’t tell you how many songs I’ve written that nobody will ever hear, but I had to write them to get to something else. You have to learn the practice of letting yourself release what you want to say. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t be so judgy. It’s not helpful.


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