Sweet Honey In The Rock
Sweet Honey In The Rock
A cappella group
Sweet Honey In The Rock, the all-female Grammy Award-winning a cappella quintet, has uplifted and energized audiences from Australia to Zimbabwe with its creatively interpreted and perfectly intoned mix of traditional black spirituals and freedom songs, as well as a wealth of their own compositions. Sweet Honey’s artistic style was best described in “A Tribute,” a song celebrating the first 20-years of the group’s history: ‘ “Great Black Music’ is what we sing/A cappella style with a political ring/Using work songs, spirituals, /Gospel and blues/The styles of African, jazz/And love songs, too/There are no limits/To the sounds we produce/In a social commentary/To express our views.” According to Sweet Honey’s Web site, the five African American women see themselves as “artists and cultural activists [who] compose, arrange and perform songs with strong messages about the world we live in and the ever expanding range of issues” concerning them. The five vocalists enhance their sound with hand-held percussion instruments. Since 1980, they have integrated a sign-language interpreter so the deaf community could also enjoy their performances. Sweet Honey In The Rock has recorded two albums for children. In 1998, the group celebrated its 25th anniversary with the release of their 15th album simply titled twenty-five.
Bernice Johnson Reagon, vocal director for the D.C. Black Repertory Theater and civil rights activist, founded the gospel ensemble in 1973. She created a workshop in a cappella gospel singing envisioning a mixed group of singers. The first rehearsal was attended by just four women, but the full sound they created together was so stirring that a new concept was born. Reagon provided the group with a wealth of traditional songs, which she knew from her childhood in Southwest Georgia singing in her father’s community’s Baptist church, a church that didn’t have a piano until she was eleven. Reagon was also the driving force behind the group’s social and political agenda. Before she moved to Washington D.C. to pursue a doctorate at Howard University, Reagon actively participated in the civil rights movement while studying at Albany State College. There she was a founding member of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and the Freedom Singers, a group that traveled across the country.
The first song the new group learned was “Sweet Honey In The Rock.” As Jim Bessman wrote in the liner notes to the group’s album twenty-five, the song was based on a religious parable that “told of a land so rich that when rocks were cracked open, honey flowed from them.” The symbolism seemed to incorporate perfectly the main characteristics of African-American women—to be sweet as honey but strong as a rock. Sweet Honey In The Rock made its first public appearance at Howard University in Washington D.C. in November of 1973.
Right from the beginning, the group devoted much of its work to specific goals, mainly striving for peace, justice, and freedom. It was Reagon’s philosophy—later explained by her daughter Toshi in twenty-five’s liner notes—that “music is first a means of communicating to and about one’s community, then a method of historical documentation, and only lastly a mode of entertainment.” This philosophy formed the basis of the typical Sweet Honey style which is soothing and agitating at the same time. In numerous performances the vocal group supported disarmament, the liberation of the African peoples, the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s organization PUSH, and especially the women’s movement. For example, Sweet Honey performed at the June 12 Rally for Disarmament in New York City in 1982, at the United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985, at Nelson and Winnie Mandela Welcome Rallies in New York City, Washington, DC, and Oakland, California, in 1990, and the International Women’s Conference in Bejing, China, in 1995. Sweet Honey has traveled extensively abroad and performed at numerous national and international festivals and community events as well as on various college campuses in the United States. According to Dan DeLuca of the Philadelphia
For the Record…
Members include Ysaye Maria Barnwell vocals, percussion; Nitanju Bolade Casel , vocals, percussion; Aisha Kahlil , vocals, percussion; Carol Mail-lard , vocals, percussion; Bernice Johnson Reagon , vocals, percussion; Shirley Childress Saxton , sign language interpreter. Former members include Helena Coleman , vocals; Ingrid Ellis , vocals; Geraldine Hardin , vocals; Ayodele Harrington , vocals; Evelyn Maria Harris vocals; Rosie Lee Hooks , vocals; Patricia Johnson , vocals; Tulani Jordan Kinard , vocals; Akua Opokuwaa , vocals; Louise Robinson , vocals; Laura Sharp , vocals; Tia Juana Starks , vocals; Dianaruthe Wharton , vocals; Yasmeen Williams , vocals.
Formed in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon; released first album Sweet Honey In The Rock, Flying Fish, 1976; released second album B’Lieve I’ll Run On…See What the End’s Gonna, Be, Redwood Records, 1978; album named “Best Women’s Album” by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors, 1979; performed at the United Nations Decade for Women conference in Nairobi, Kenya, 1985; performed at a concert to observe the first national holiday celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 60th birthday broadcast by PBS, 1989; released first children’s album All for Freedom, Music for Little People, 1989; performed at Nelson and Winnie Mandela Welcome Rallies in New York City, Washington DC and Oakland, CA, 1990; released 20th anniversary album Still On the Journey, 1993; published book by and about the group We Who Believe in Freedom, 1993; released second children’s album Got Shoes, 1994; International Women’s Conference, Bejing, China, 1995; released 25th anniversary album twenty-five, 1998; international tours and performances in Australia, Brazil, Cuba, Europe, Haiti, Japan, and Russia; contributions to numerous films and television documentaries.
Awards: Best Gospel Album of 1985; Washington Area Music Awards, Best Ethnic Group, 1987; Best Gospel 1987, 1988, 1989; Grammy Award, Traditional Folk, for “A Vision Shared,” 1988; Best Gospel Music in the Mid-Atlantic, 1993; Top awards from The Contemporary A Cappella Society of America, 1993, 1994.
Addresses: Office— P.O. Box 77442, Washington, D.C. 20013-8442; Website —http://www.sweethoney.com.
As recording artists, Sweet Honey In The Rock proved to be successful as well as productive. The group’s first album Sweet Honey In The Rock was released on the Flying Fish label in 1976. B’Lieve I’ll Run On…See What the End’s Gonna Be, the group’s second album released by Redwood Records in 1978, was named “Best Women’s Album” by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors in 1979. During the 1980s the group produced six albums, five of which contained a mix of traditional material and their own compositions. Feel Something Drawing Me On of 1985 was the exception. It contained exclusively sacred music—nineteenth century congregational and traditional songs. In 1989, their first best-of album, Breaths, was released.
In 1991, Sweet Honey received a Grammy Award in the Traditional Folk Category for their interpretations of Leadbelly songs “Sylvie” and “Gray Goose” on the 1988 Smithsonian Folkways album A Vision Shared: A Tribute To Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly Two years later they celebrated twenty successful years as a group and released their anniversary album Still On the Journey. “When the women of Sweet Honey do let loose their impassioned voices of protest on the righteous shout’In the Morning When I Rise’ and Len Chandler’s determined vow ’I’m Going to Get My Baby Out of Jail, ’ they come on with the riveting intensity of five earthshaking earth mothers, beautiful and proud, still struggling but unbowed,” commented Dan DeLuca in the Philadelphia Inquirer on two of the album’s songs. In addition to socially critical songs and African American traditional songs, the album also contained a love song, “Stay,” by group member Carol Maillard, and a history in rap style, “Tribute,” by Sweet Honey member Nitanju Bolade Casel describing the group’s purpose and history in a rhyming narrative. The lyrics also play around the group’s name and mention all the twenty women who were part of Sweet Honey during its first twenty years. In the twentieth year of Sweet Honey’s existence, the group received an award for “Best Gospel Music in the Mid-Atlantic” and awards from the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America.
A collection of 28 essays was published in a book entitled We Who Believe in Freedom by Anchor Books in 1993. In addition to a chronicle of the group written by its founder and pieces written by current and former group members who reflected on their personal Sweet Honey In The Rock experience, the book also included essays by Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and Toshi Reagon, the daughter of Bernice Johnson Reagon who co-produced many of the group’s albums together with her mother.
Sweet Honey’s endurance may be due to the fact that every group member, in addition to their collective musical work, leads a full life and their various individual experiences enrich the group. Founder and group leader Bernice Johnson Reagon, a divorced mother of two adult children, has worked as a music consultant, composer, performer, producer and actress. In 1989, Reagon received a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” for her life work. With the money, she was able to finance the award-winning 26-part series on NPR, Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, which aired in 1994. She organized a traveling exhibition with the same name while she was a curator for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Reagon has also authored and edited books as well as CD-collections of African-American sacred music and freedom songs.
Ysaye M. Barnwell worked as an actress and a commissioned composer for dance, choral, film, and video projects, and conducted “Singing in the African American Tradition” - workshops in the United States, Great Britain and Australia. Nitanju Bolade Casel studied, performed, and organized cultural events in Dakar, Senegal before joining Sweet Honey In The Rock. A professional dancer, she has taught dance classes in schools and had her own performance art production company together with Aisha Kahlil, another Sweet Honey member. Kahlil, an experienced professional singer with excellent credentials, in particular in blues singing, also specialized in teaching the integration of traditional and contemporary forms of music, dance, and theater. Founding member Carol Maillard who re-joined the group in 1989 has also been an active theater actress, vocal coach, and revue producer.
The year 1998 earmarked Sweet Honey’s 25th anniversary. WGBS-TV for PBS produced the series “The African Americans” about American slavery, with the sound score by Bernice Joynson Reagon featuring Sweet Honey In the Rock. Members of the group also appeared in the movie Beloved and on its score. The 13 tracks on their fifteenth album simply titled twenty-five captures the essence of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s work over a quarter of a century. It is a mix of traditional African American spirituals such as a contemporary arrangment by Carol Maillard of the old spiritual “Motherless Chil,” the wordless “Chant” of a Central African rain forest tribe, classic freedom songs such as Bob Mar-ley’s “Redemption Song,” arranged by Aisha Kahlil, and a broad array of their own compositions addressing social issues as well as the ups and downs of human— especially women’s—existence. In Michelle Lancaster’s “Battered Earth” the five singers draw a picture of our planet running away in orderto survive; “Run” by Nitanju Bolade Casel tells the story of a female victim of domestic violence fleeing her home; “Greed” attempts to address one of the biggest issues of our time, one which songwriter Reagon called “a poison rising in this land;” “Forever Love” is a doo-wop jazz love ballad; and the 1928 classic “I was Standing By The Bedside Of A Neighbor” by gospel composer Thomas Andrew Dorsey is a reminder that all human beings will face death one day.
twenty-five was the first album produced by group member Ysaye M. Barnwell. The album was also an enhanced CD which simultaneously functions as a CD-ROM, providing extensive information about Sweet Honey In The Rock, including biographies of each member, digital images of the group, book excerpts, lyrics, background information about the songs and links to the Internet about the issues each song addressed. Barnwell also wrote the last track called “Hope,” a chant stating the group’s philosophy and future outlook: “If we want hope to survive in this world today/then every day we’ve got to pray on/work on/teach on/fight on/sing on.”
Sweet Honey In The Rock, Flying Fish, 1976.
B’Lieve HI Run On…See What the End’s Gonna Be, Redwood Records, 1978.
Good News, Flying Fish, 1981.
We ALL ... Everyone, Flying Fish, 1983.
The Other Side, Flying Fish, 1985.
Feel Something Drawing Me On, Flying Fish, 1985.
Live at Carnegie Hall, Flying Fish, 1988.
All for Freedom, Music for Little People, 1989.
Breaths-Best of Sweet Honey In The Rock, Cooking Vinyl, 1989.
In This Land, EarthBeat! Music, 1992.
Still on the Journey, EarthBeat! Music, 1993.
I Got Shoes, Music for Little People, 1994.
Sacred Ground, EarthBeat! Music, 1995.
Selections 1976-1988(twoCD-set), Rounder Records, 1997.
twenty-five (enhanced CD) (includes “Battered Earth,” “Run,” “Greed,” “Hope,” “Forever Love”), Rykodisc, 1998.
We Who Believe in Freedom, Anchor Books, 1993.
Continuum, Third World Press, 1998.
Barnwell, Ysaye M., No Mirrors in My Nana’s House, Har-court Brace, 1998.
Contemporary Musicians, Vol. 1, Gale Research, 1989.
Billboard, October 10, 1998; October 31, 1998, p. 39.
Democrat, February 25, 1999.
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 8, 1994, p 14.
Publishers Weekly, August 24, 1998, p. 28.
Additional information for this profile was provided by publicity materials of Sweet Honey In The Rock and from the liner notes of the albums Still on the Journey and …twenty-five.
"Sweet Honey In The Rock." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sweet-honey-rock
"Sweet Honey In The Rock." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sweet-honey-rock
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Sweet Honey in the Rock
Sweet Honey in the Rock
“Part community sing, part singing community,” as Jon Pareles described them in the New York Times, Sweet Honey in the Rock has become one of the most popular vocal groups in concert and on recordings. Five women integrating their voices into soaring harmonies with exhilerating rhythms, Sweet Honey in the Rock is a “girl’s group” as reinterpreted for the politically aware, feminist 1980s. The quintet was formed by Bernice Johnson Reagon in 1973. A long-time civil rights activist from Albany, Georgia, she was serving as vocal director for the highly acclaimed D.C. Black Repertory Theater in Washington. A workshop that she led for unaccompanied voices developed into the present group when only four women appeared at the first rehearsal. As Reagon said in an article in Scholastic Scope, “the sound fell into place.”
Over twenty women have appeared with Sweet Honey in the Rock over the last fifteen years. Currently, the members are Reagon, Evelyn Harris (who joined in 1974), health care profession Ysaye Maria Barnwell (bass line maintainer since 1979), choreographer Aisha Kahlil (since 1981) and Nitanju Bolade, trained in African-based folklore. Sweet Honey in the Rock performs with a non-singing signer for deaf members of the audience, Shirley Childres Johnson. The vocalists provide their own percussion accompaniment on tambourines, rattles and hand-held drums. The audience’s rhythmic clapping adds to the pulsating beat.
Sweet Honey in the Rock continues to perform a capella. The group’s ability to create a full sound without backup instrumentalists—a choice that has become more popular with a variety of musical groups over the past decade—still astonishes audiences and critics alike. Although a London reviewer for The Observer titled his article “Disturbing discords,” American critics, more used to the harmonies of Gospel, West African music, and minimalists, defend the sound as “luminous, virtuosic, ingenious and luxuriant.” As Doris Worsham described them in the Oakland Tribune in 1985, “Sweet Honey pours forth harmonies of the world.”
The political activism and Black-conciousness of Reagon’s past is very much present in the Sweet Honey in the Rock concerts and recordings. Reagon’s own lyrics are influenced by the writings of black novelists and poets June Jordan, Alice Walder, and Ralph Ellison, whose philsophy “The choice is to live with music or to die with noise,” she cited in the Scholastic Scope article. The group was chosen to perform at the 1985 United Nations Decade for Women conference in Nairobi, Kenya, and has presented its stirring music at concerts and rallies dedicated to disarmament, African liberation, safe energy, and PUSH.
The range of music performed in each concert and recording has given Sweet Honey in the Rock a unique feel. The group derives its title, and part of its repertory, from the Southern gospel songs that Reagon learned as a child. They have championed the authored hymns of Reverend Charles Albert Tindley and William Herbert Brewster, as well as American protest music of the 1930s, by Woodie Guthrie and Leadbelly. Their annual Carnegie Hall concert in 1988, for example, included Leadbelly.’s “Sylvie,” a Georgia White blues lament from the 1930s, the ageless hymn “Let Your Little Light Shine,” a reggae number, “Rivers of Babylon,” and a new song by Reagon, “Ode to the International Debt.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock has also toured extensively in the United States and Canada, with appearences on college campuses, folk clubs, Baptist and AME churches and festivals, and folk and women’s music. Their performances have been cheered at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folk Life on the Mall in their native District of Columbia, at the 1984 Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors in New York City, and at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. A Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) profile of the group has brought their music and message to millions more who have not seen them in person.
Formed as a capella gospel quintet in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon; current members include Reagon, Evelyn Harris (1974—), Ysaye Maria Barnwell (1979—), Aisha Kahlil (1981—), and Nitanju Bolade (1985—); group performs with non-singing signer for deaf members of the audience, Shirley Childres Johnson .
Awards: B’lieuel’llRun On… See WhattheEnd’sGonnaBe named best women’s album, 1979, by National Association of Independent Record Distributors.
Addresses: Office –Roadwork, Inc. 1475 Harvard St. NW, Washington, DC 20009. Record company —Flying Fish Records, 1304 West Schubert, Chicago, IL 60614.
Recordings for the Flying Fish and Redwood labels also display the diversity of the group in live performance and in studios. The 1985 Feel Something Drawing Me On included only sacred music—from Southern gospel to “Meyango,” a West African funeral song. Their other six albums, however, include a full range of Sweet Honey songs. B’lieve I’ll Run On … See What the End’s Gonna Be (1978) was named best women’s album by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors for 1979. Among the cuts that have received individual praise are the group’s version of “[Ain’t Gonna] Study War No More,” Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees,” and “Mandiacapella,” improvised from West African drum rhythms.
Sweet Honey in the Rock, Flying Fish, 1976.
B’lieve I’ll Run On … See What the End’s Gonna Be, Redwood Records, 1978.
Good News, Flying Fish, 1982.
We All… Everyone of Us, Flying Fish, 1983.
Feel Something Drawing Me On, Flying Fish, 1985.
The Other Side, Flying Fish, 1985.
Sweet Honey in the Rock at Carnegie Hall, Flying Fish, 1988.
Breaths (anthology), Flying Fish, 1988 [released only on compact disc].
New York Times, October 26, 1988.
Oakland Tribune, October 18, 1985.
The Observer (London), March 27, 1983.
Scholastic Scope, Media Focus section, March 21, 1985.
Washington Post Weekend, November 15, 1985.
"Sweet Honey in the Rock." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sweet-honey-rock-0
"Sweet Honey in the Rock." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sweet-honey-rock-0