Toshi Reagon Wraps Up 5th Word-Rock-Sword Festival

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Naima Penninman, half of the spoken word/hip hop performance duo Climbing PoeTree, performs with singer Gina Breedlove.

Credit: Sam Dolgin-Gardner

Naima Penninman, half of the spoken word/hip hop performance duo Climbing PoeTree, performs with singer Gina Breedlove.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–If you ask Toshi Reagon, the lesbian folk-and-blues musician, what got her to start the Word*Rock*& Sword festival, which last month hit its fifth year here, she points you back the 2010 U.S.-midterm elections.

Republicans regained the majority in the House of Representatives with 63 seats and gained six more in the Senate. News outlets wrote about a "Coming War on Women," as legislators prepared to press against abortion funding and Planned Parenthood.

“There was this huge attack on women and I was waiting for somebody to call for the national march for women and nobody did,” Reagon said in a recent phone interview. “So usually if I want something to happen I think, ‘Well, what can you do yourself?'”

Reagon, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., launched the festival to provide a space for women to come together and “find their strength,” as Reagon puts it. She began on a shoestring $1,500 budget, pulled straight from her pocket.

Since then the festival has grown in terms of the range of collaborations, said Reagon.

This year the program ran from Sept. 13 through Sept. 20. Events split across Brooklyn and Manhattan included a screening of the documentary “Treasure,” about the murder of a 19-year-old trans woman in Detroit, and a talk on how marginalized communities are using technology and social media. This year’s events, bookmarked by an opening and closing service of song, poetry and storytelling, also featured two yoga workshops, which both came together by chance, Reagon said.

Tapping Connections

Reagon is the daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the Grammy-winning band Sweet Honey in the Rock, and civil rights leader Cordell Hull. She taps her connections in the music and arts world to recruit artists for the hallmark concert.

Fundraising efforts are all but eliminated and concert tickets are low, running about $20. Last year, though, Reagon enlisted the help of a public relations firm to shoulder some of the work. She also now receives support from the Ford Foundation.

Reagon said she hopes the festival inspires people to “pull that little depressed spot in the middle of their chests, to give it some comfort.”

“I want people to understand individually we have a voice and all great revolutions were started by individuals who were inspired to make some change in a little way, who wanted to impact people,” she said.

This year’s concert, which capped off the festival on Saturday, Sept. 19, was staged at the popular Manhattan venue Le Poisson Rouge.

Women of all ages and backgrounds dominated the basement and crowded the stage as female performers, personally selected by Reagon, took to the mic, one by one.

The crowd raved during the opening number, laid out by a full 11-person band. Four singers gathered together at the edge of the stage, with Reagon in the middle, exhaling a slow, steady beat that gradually picked up energy. “Hey, the air is fresh and clean,” sang the women, occasionally hugging one another, their voices melding.

Harry Frank was among the few men who turned up to the show. He said he came out for the music, specifically to hear Reagon and singer Nona Hendryx, and “couldn’t care less” if the show was geared specifically towards women. “In a lot of ways, I would support it. Why not?” he said with a shrug.

Soul to Pop

The concert veered from soul music to rock to blues to Latin to pop to spoken word and back to soul again over the course of several hours.

Singer Kimberly Nichole, known as the “rock ballerina” and also more recently for her spot on the reality show “The Voice,” sang a powerful cover of “The House of New Orleans.” The queer pop artist Be Steadwell dedicated a wistful, sweet song, “Rita,” to “the woman who broke your heart.” Her lyrics, “These colors kiss my eyes like lovers/I’ve gone just like you told me/but still somehow you hold me” hung in the air.

Talk of peace, feminism and coming together ran from one song to the next, though there were also some undercurrents of the frustration and anger that precipitated the event’s creation. Poet and actress Lenelle Moïse, for example, railed in a spoken word piece that women deserve films that “portray us as leaders, not as rape victims.”.

“It’s really empowering,” said Nichole Parcher, 47, as she looked towards the stage.

Odaymara Cuesta and Olivia Prendes, performers of the Austin, Texas-based Cuban hip-hop group Krudas Cubensi, reflected on the “powerful experience” playing with an all-woman set, for a mostly female audience, following their fast song that had nearly everyone moving and waving their hands.

“It’s wonderful, it’s really special. It’s just a lot of energy in the room and it means a lot to us personally. It has taken a lot for us to get where we are today,” said Cuesta.

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