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ANN ARBOR – For over three decades, Grammy Award-winning Sweet Honey in the Rock have raised their compelling voices to influence positive social change.
“We talk about the things that are happening contemporarily in this world today,” Sweet Honey vocalist Carol Maillard told NPR last year. “We may not understand what they mean to us in the world that we’re living in but we’re taking one step forward. We’re gonna keep moving forward and eventually it will all come together and with the Lord’s help and with God’s grace we will understand – we’ll understand it by and by.”
Besides body and hand percussion instruments, the Washington D.C.-based septet of African-American women vocalists sing a cappella and have a catalog that spans slavery, the foundations of the black church and the civil rights movement, according to Sweet Honey’s official Web site. When the struggle for LGBT rights began to emerge, Sweet Honey took on the oppression experienced by the homosexual community.
While only one member of Sweet Honey identified as a lesbian (Evelyn Maria Harris, who sang with the group for 18 years), the experience of working with and performing for politically-charged lesbians led founder Bernice Johnson Reagon to write songs about women loving women, according to http://www.glbtq.com.
Celebrating and integrating spirituals, hymns, gospel, blues, jazz, rap and traditional West African songs, Sweet Honey is rooted in storytelling and humor, which transcend race and ethnicity.
A Sweet Honey show is a theatrical experience that immerses audiences in harmonies with changing rhythms and leads and awe-inspiring music, according to All Music’s Web site. “We wanted to bring an understanding of the words,” Maillard said. “We’re not just up there just singing notes; it has to mean something. We want the audience to understand the story behind the music.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock derives from Psalm 81:16, where it’s promised people will be fed by honey, an ancient substance that’s sweet and nurturing, out of the rock, an essential strength enduring the wings of time. The metaphor captures the essence of these women who’ve stood the test of time – 33 years, in fact.
Over the years, 22 women have lent their voices to Sweet Honey. Reagon, though, has been a constant. Chronicling the ensemble’s growth and change, Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey as vocal director of the D.C. Black Repertory Theater, wrote “We Who Believe In Freedom – Sweet Honey In The Rock Still On The Journey” in 1993. Reagon stepped down in 2004 and wrote a personal message on the group’s Web site.
“I look back in wonder at the journey of this last year where as we celebrated three decades of creating wonderful powerful music, we also took up the challenging work of making a way for Sweet Honey to continue as I stepped down as leader and singer in this incredible community of African-American singers and extended family,” she wrote. Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Maillard and Aisha Kahlil, Arnae, Louise Robinson and Shirley Childress Saxton carry on Reagon’s traditions and lend their collective voices toward justice and truth in the world.