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Members include Ysaye MariaBarnwell, vocalist, percussionist; Nitanju BoladeCasel, vocalist, percussionist; AishaKahlil, vocalist, percussionist; Carol Maillard, vocalist, percussionist; BerniceJohnson Reagon, vocalist, percussionist; ShirleyChildress Saxton,sign language interpreter. Former members include Helena Coleman, vocalist; IngridEllis, vocalist; Geraldine Hardin, vocalist; AyodeleHarrington, vocalist; Evelyn MariaHarris vocalist ; Rosie LeeHooks, vocalist; PatriciaJohnson, vocalist; Tulani Jordan Kinard, vocalist; AkuaOpokuwaa, vocalist; LouiseRobinson, vocalist; Laura Sharp, vocalist; Tia JuanaStarks, vocalist; DianarutheWharton, vocalist; Yasmeen Williams, vocalist. Addresses: Office--P.O. Box 77442, Washington, D.C. 20013-8442.

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.

Sweet as Honey

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 Inquirer the group inspired "droves of all-women a cappella groups" such as Philadelphia's NaNiKha and Belgium's Zap Mama.

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, was released.

Strong as a Rock

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.

Just the Beginning

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 Marley'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 order to 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-fivewas 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."

by Evelyn Hauser

Sweet Honey In The Rock's Career

Formed in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon; first public appearance at Howard University in Washington D.C., November 1973; 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 Rally for Disarmament in New York City, June 12 1982; 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 best-of album Breaths released, 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 I Got Shoes, 1994; International Women's Conference, Bejing, China, 1995; released 25th anniversary album twenty-five, 1998; award-winning children's book-CD package No Mirrors in My Nana's House, by Ysaye M. Barnwell, 1998; international tours and performances in Australia, Brazil, Cuba, Europe, Haiti, Japan, and Russia; contributions to numerous films and television documentaries.

Sweet Honey In The Rock's Awards

Best Women's Album of 1979; Best Gospel Album of 1985; Washington Area Music Best Ethnic Group 1987; Best Gospel 1987, 1988, 1989; Grammy Award in Traditional Folk Category for "A Vision Shared," 1988; Washington D.C. Mayor's Arts Awards for Excellence for Artistic Discipline, 1989; Best Gospel Music in the Mid-Atlantic, 1993; Top awards from The Contemporary A Cappella Society of America, 1993, 1994.

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over 16 years ago

freedom song