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Diggin' History Through Music and Dance: A.M. "Toni" Tupponce


Many performers and women‭ ‬often recall a moment‭ ‬when they‭ ‬“found their voice.‭”‬ Where and when did you find your voice‭? ‬How has it impacted what you do both as a vocalist and an individual‭?

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.