Finding “my voice” has been a journey that I am still on…with no arrival date or end place in sight. From the time that I first started singing as a solo or lead vocalist in college….my instructors and mentors called me a “torch singer”. I was only interested in singing songs that evoked some kind of emotion in the listener…I wanted to touch them somewhere. Whether I was singing R&B, Blues, Jazz or Gospel…if I did not connect with the lyric and the melody, truthfully, I did not care to sing it. I was subsequently convinced that if I wanted to “work” I had to broaden my repertoire and skill set to sing songs to get people “dancing”! I also believed, but not for long, that my voice and range needed to be higher! So I tried to force this natural contralto of mine into a stronger soprano. That only led to frustration and could have led to injury. As I got older and listened more to the truly great vocalists ….Carmen McCrae, Billie Holiday, Nancy Wilson, Dinah Washington, the late Eva Cassidy and Phyllis Hyman as well as Donny Hathaway and of course Sarah Vaughn (whose range is off the charts)…and so many others …I learned that I only need to sound like the best Toni that I possibly can. So now, while getting people on their feet has its place for me…. when I sing I go for the emotional jugular and make no apologies for it…whether the song touches you to tears or crazy laughter….I just want to feel what I sing and to share a conversation with the other musicians and the listener that says we “get” each other! The impact has been that I am probably more vulnerable much of the time. And, I hope, I am more authentic. My goal is to always perform as if I may never get the chance to do it again. I do not always meet that mark….and I am disappointed in myself when I don’t because I think I’ve cheated my audience and myself
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, what women –famous or not—have influenced you? How? What do you hope your example is for young women today?
My first influence was my Mom….she was a real “youngster” when I was coming up. She’d finished college and worked a little by the time she had me….but she had the heart of a child and a tremendous “Mom psychology” that defied her youth. She gave me the grounding even in the mid 1950’s to embrace myself as a black girl and to see it as beautiful. I was placed in the position of desegregating a small Catholic parochial school in my hometown in Virginia when I was 5 years old. Without that grounding, I would have come out of that experience a very different young woman. Second was my Aunt Emma….who taught me that loving someone does not guarantee you that they will love you back and you have to live on…still whole and loving yourself. I admired icons like Fanny Lou Hammer, Myrlie Evers, Josephine Baker, Angela Davis, Lena Horne, and my Speech and English instructor in college, Miss Mary Bohannon…she took no prisoners and expected excellence in written and oratory expression. She cared nothing about embarrassing you when you were wrong and when you did well, it was no more than she expected of you. Most people dropped her course as soon as they drew the short straw with her name at registration! (she’d love hearing that as scared as I was of her!)
A Sign of the Times is finishing this year’s Diggin’ History Through Music and Dance series on Wednesday. What has this program meant for you and the band? What has stuck with you about how audiences have responded?
This is our third season of “Diggin History…” at the Levine Museum of the New South! In terms of what it’s meant…I can only speak for myself…its been wonderful. I am so proud of my husband’s tenacity in putting this series together and pulling it off. It only gets better each year, I think. Because we’ve focused on the history of Black people from throughout the African Diaspora this year…it has drawn me closer to the shared history with sisters and brothers who are Hispanic…whether from Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, Mexico or Puerto Rico….we are related through our ancestral lineage, our enslaved history, our tenacity and our music! Is that not awesome? That connection should bring us together in this community….and I pray we will stop letting the media or the powers that be keep us apart. We can get beyond the spoken language…every time, as Tyrone says, that we say: “1, 2,…1, 2, 3, 4…..” and the rhythm kicks off into something fierce! The audience response has been tremendous. The numbers keep growing. And best of all, people want to know MORE! This year they are requesting bibliographies and young people are asking for recommended reading to begin their journey of knowledge…it doesn’t get any better than that.
In your experience, where do art and activism meet?
Art and activism meet everywhere that we are. Art is a reflection of society at any given time. It is reflected in everything from rap music and hip-hop to the messages that we are tolerating on television and in the movies. The greater the actual numbers of “minorities” the more negative the media message. I do not think this is accidental. So art has to challenge that…speak truth to the masses in ways that it can be heard, envisioned, shared and embraced. Our ancestors hid their messages in the drums, lyrics of spirituals, carvings….so nothing is new! I used to want art to be pretty and make me feel good….and I still do. But I think that art should also make me a little uncomfortable at times…shake me up and make me reconsider my position and question what I know. That’s why I love that we are having our dialogues at the Levine! The museum has stepped out into some uncomfortable territory at times….and I thank you for it.