“When I step on the stage, it’s not me anymore,” explains spoken word artist and vocalist Toni Hill, who blends slam poetry, rhythm, and song into moving verse that draws the listener in close. You find yourself with her, in whichever place she is singing about – whether in the waters flooding the Lower Ninth Ward, on the streets of Puerto Rico surrounded by stray dogs, or under a bridge with people struggling with drug addiction.
It was a high school literature teacher who first recognized Toni’s gift for verse and submitted a collection of her stories and poems for her school’s Zora Neale Hurston literary award, which she won. “That really was the catalyst,” Toni says. “It was validation from powerful African-American women that I could relate to. If they could do it, I can do it,” she remembers thinking.
Toni was also powerfully influenced by her late grandmother, Evelyn Monroe Buchanan, who moved to Portland in the 1940s and worked in the shipyards of Vanport. Having grown up in poverty on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation, Ms. Buchanan had empathy for the socioeconomic disparity she encountered among Oregon’s poor.
“Her mission was to do her part to help, knowing that if everybody does a little, you can do a lot. I just grew up knowing that that’s what you do,” she explains.
Toni and her friends from high school founded a group called TRIBE – or True Righteous Intellectual Brothers and Sisters for Equality – as a vehicle for collective action. And at St. Andrews Church on NE Alberta Street, she served as a tutor. Meanwhile, her grandmother took her and her siblings to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day marches and introduced them to Jesse Jackson at a Rainbow Coalition event.
After studying social science and psychology at Portland State University and graduating in 2001, Toni traveled throughout the United States and had powerful experiences that gave her a new perspective.
“I hadn’t seen the kind of poverty I saw during my travels,” she reflects. “The ‘bad neighborhood’ here in Portland looks like Disneyland compared to some places where stray dogs and hungry little kids are wandering the streets together.”
In Atlanta, after Hurricane Katrina, refugee children were living with drug addicts under bridges. “I had never seen so many black people homeless,” she adds of her time in the southern city.
Though Toni remembers watching her parents struggle to make ends meet, seeing others in even worse conditions helped her embrace her grandmother’s admonition not to take her privileges for granted. “What I’ve seen, smelled, and tasted in the places I’ve traveled, it was only temporary for me,” she acknowledges. “So helping people help themselves inspires me.”
When news that we had issued a call for women performers for the 2012 Justice within Reach party, Hill explains, “I was excited because I knew the caliber of people who were applying. It must have been a tough decision for the panel,” she says.
It was a tough decision, and we’re proud to be presenting Toni Hill’s wonderful voice and lyrics at the party on April 21. You can get your tickets here on our website. We’ll see you there!
Artist profile by Brandon Sprague.