Queer Voices

Meshell Ndegeocello And Toshi Reagon Discuss Civil Rights, A Modern Day Civil War, And More

Our Voice To Voice conversation series began in January with a collection of interviews between LGBT authors discussing their work, queer life and some of the challenges of writing.

In February, celebrating Black History Month, we've asked some prominent and inspiring individuals to join the Voice To Voice series so we can get an window into some of the issues that define and challenge people who are both African-American and gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Last week we featured Laverne Cox and her twin brother M. Lamar and on Monday we offered a conversation between two Charlotte, North Carolina lesbian activists, LaWana Mayfield and Rhonda Watlington.

Today we bring you musicians and singers Meshell Ndegeocello and Toshi Reagon.

Ndegeocello is a Grammy-nominated artist who has been in the music industry for over 20 years. The nine records she has released, including her latest, "Weather," offer lyrical ruminations on race, love, sex, betrayal, God, and power. A bass player above all else, she has also appeared alongside the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Alanis Morissette, Chaka Khan, and John Mellencamp, with whom she covered Van Morrison's "Wild Night," taking the song to #3 on the Billboard charts. She remains one of the few women who lead the band and write the music.

Reagon first took the stage at the age of 17 and over the last 30 years she's moved audiences with her big-hearted, hold-nothing-back approach to rock, blues, R&B, country, folk, spirituals, and funk. She has released 11 albums, including her latest, "There and Back Again," and has worked with some of the biggest names in music. In addition to scoring music for dance performances, having her work featured on the big and small screen, and producing other musicians' music, she has also received numerous awards including a 2012 Womensphere Creative Vision Award, a 2011 Stonewall Honors, and a 2009 Out Music Award.

Here Ndegeocello and Reagon talk about the Civil Rights movement, fight songs, what they would do if there were a modern-day Civil War, and more.

Toshi Reagon: Hey, there you are.

Meshell Ndegeocello: Hi. So, the topic we are supposed to discuss is being black and gay so if you have a statement you would like to make about that here we go... What's your position on the comparisons made between the Civil Rights movement and the LGBT movement?

TR: Whose question is this?

MN: Mine. Do you hate it?

TR: [Laughs]

MN: I don't personally think they are similar but, if you don't mind, your view would mean a lot.

TR: Well, I think the issues of human rights and equality come from a foundational same place. I don't always think humans are the best judges of equality on the planet.

MN: At this moment what issue are you confronted with most often?

TR: Wait, I am still answering your first question. Even though over time we see that we are participating in the destruction of the world, we can't stop. The question for me isn't "Are gay rights movements the same as the civil rights movements for black people." It is "Do you give a fuck about human equality and the world and will you stand up for someone else's rights because ultimately it will have an effect on all of us if any culture of people are treated like shit."

MN: That's a long question. So, you're saying there will continue to be movement after movement slowly toward the ultimate understanding of...? What fills the blank? Whatever the answer is will be what makes me feel that the question, and for that matter the topic, irrelevant... I mean segmenting people by color or sexuality trait isn't fostering what's common among us all.

TR: Some black people get mad when they see white gay/queer people use the Civil Rights movement to defend their positions on gay/queer rights because they wonder -- where have you been? Many people of color experience a lot racism in the gay/queer communities so they don't want the Civil Rights movement "used" if we are not going to look at ourselves and what we are doing.

MN: I have seen this too. I also have found much homophobia in the black community. Any ideas of "other" are complicated, and otherness is relative to personal ideas of "normal." How do you think education can play a role to that end -- can we re-educate citizens or does that seem lofty?

TR: I think things take time. People are slow. I think it takes multiple generations. The NAACP was founded in 1909.

MN: So what movement do you feel you can stand behind right now?

TR: No, my point about NAACP is people think of civil rights as something that happened in the '60s but this is an organization that started at the turn of the century -- it was started by white liberals. It was a response to lynching and the level of unending violence against black people post Civil War. 60 people signed the first call, seven were black. W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B Wells -- two incredible people who were activists in the fight already. Over the years the struggle for civil rights continued and evolved and included many, many activist individuals and organizations. We think something cool happened in the '60s but it was decades of organizing that brought us those victories. look at the turn of the 21st century and you have a lot of progressive movements attacking issues: economic inequality, immigration issues, and an incredible number of black people in the jails of America. We reveal at the turn of the century the militarization of the police forces across the country. We are starting a new movement. What will we look like in 60 years?

MN: You believe time will eventually bring a solution to this?

TR: I believe hard work for justice will bring the solution. And that it will take time.

MN: Or will there have to be a bloody revolution to wake up minds from wealth, consumption, influence of being American/black/gay etc.?

TR: I think for a lot of folks we are in the bloody revolution.

MN: Globally, like in Egypt or are you speaking of, here, like the Occupy Movement?

TR: Funny, yesterday I was thinking what if the Civil War happened now...

MN: And?

TR: I was thinking about the amount of violence that is acceptable in our culture. I think a civil war would be the end.

MN: Yes, violence begets more violence, but historically this has been the way of the world. What is the alternative?

TR: Kindness. Unbelievable amounts of kindness.

MN: But even Obama has chosen to take a stance of strength. I think leaders are incabable of the strength that passive resistance entails.

TR: We are so sensitive but we are bad listeners and we don't always communicate with good intentions. I think if you look at the election process you see great examples of this. We are not nonviolent. I have gotten angry and punched someone in the face before. It was not cool, but I did it and I enjoyed it. But I felt bad later.

MN: You are a gifted musician and singer -- like an angel -- would you consider military service for the North if the Civil War were now? I think I would just lay down and die. Because we [all people] seem to tolerate unacceptable levels of violence and that pains me greatly. So, last question: Wanna make some fight songs?!

TR: I would not fight in the war but yes, I will make any kind of songs with you.

MN: Thank you. I don't want to take more of your time. I love you and I am thankful for your presence on the planet.

TR: Always a pleasure. I am grateful to know you... Wait, wait, I am still wondering about us in the old Civil War. I'll have to think on that more later.

MN: It's pretty hard to contemplate.

TR: You gotta remember we would be in slavery.

MN: Of course. I joke that a person of color would never make a movie like "Midnight in Paris." Nostalgia isn't so enticing.

TR: [Laughs] OK, on that note -- see you real soon. Peace and love.

For more from Meshell Ndegeocello, visit her official website. To purchase her most recent album, "Weather," visit your local record shop or iTunes.

For more from Toshi Reagon, visit her official website. To purchase her most recent album, "There and Back Again," visit your local record store or iTunes, www.goldenrod.com, or www.toshireagon.com.