When a musical group carries the torch for justice and love over decades, it goes without saying that they have seen and persevered through life challenges that would have stopped the less hopeful and determined along the way. That Sweet Honey in the Rock has existed for that long as a performance ensemble rooted in African American history and culture makes their work especially appropriate to showcase through the Saturday Soundtrack on the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend here in the U.S.
Many of us came to know and be inspired by the group in the 1970s, but they are still active and singing to contemporary audiences in 2022. Check out their song IDK, But I’m LOL!
I was talking with a friend who mentioned that the group’s founder, Dr. Bernice Johnson-Reagon, lived near her in D.C., and she saw her on occasion. Dr. Johnson-Reagon dates her work as an organizer from her time as a student leader in her hometown of Albany, Georgia, in the early 1960s, where she was one of the Freedom Singers and a field secretary for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Sweet Honey in the Rock was formed by Dr. Johnson-Reagon in 1973 in Washington, and it has been making music and changing lives ever since. Johnson-Reagon led and performed with the group for more than 30 years, retiring in 2004 to pursue other work. Old Ship of Zion was the last tune she performed with the group on February 1, 2004. *
Sweet Honey in the Rock has carried on with some of the early traditions while also exploring new, contemporary music. “They have created positive, loving, and socially conscious message music that matters as it pertains to spiritual fortification, and consistently taken an activist stance toward making this planet a better place for all in which to live.” Their music remains grounded in African American history and culture, as heard in the spirituals Wade in the Water and In the Morning When I Rise.
The group also honors the elders, people like Ella Baker (the “Ella” of Ella’s Song). Baker was a very powerful activist/organizer/orator among young people working for racial justice. The lyrics are taken from a speech she gave.
One of the group’s most recent albums, #LoveInEvolution is their most contemporary to date. Many of the songs are taken from today’s headlines.
The album’s stark second single, “Second Line Blues”, with its cryptic snare drum cadence, roll calls the names of innocent people such as Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School that have fallen victim to murder at the hands of anyone from deranged civilians to police abusing their license to kill. Carol Maillard (a founding member, along with Louise Robinson) states, “Since we started writing this piece, we’ve had to keep adding names…and sadly, we’ll be adding more before things change.” The group released a music video to accompany this haunting in your face reminder of why reforms are necessary for people’s rights to bear arms and the need for more stringent screenings for people placed in positions to police communities.
Fredara Mareva Hadley, Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology, Oberlin College, has written an insightful and timely piece calling it past time to recognize Sweet Honey in the Rock for their essential contributions to American music.
The first and most essential instrument is the voice. While this instrument is something humans carry inside, it also reaches and resonates beyond our own bodies and beyond our individual lives. This is an important reminder when discussing the impact of the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Their music speaks to our soul, and — as Dr. Hadley notes — this “isn’t just music of resistance — it’s music of insistence.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock is no calcified relic. While they provide glimpses of what the contemplative heterophony of Negro Spirituals such as “Wade in the Water” and “Come by Hear” sounded like on American plantations, Sweet Honey in the Rock still surveys the present moment and responds to contemporary calls for love and justice.
As part of their mission statement, Sweet Honey in the Rock puts their belief right up front:
In prayer we trust/
By hope we live/
On truth we stand/
From our hearts we give/
Sweet Honey in the Rock plays the Birchmere in Alexandria on January 26th.
Fans of the group, Bernice Johnson-Reagon and her daughter Toshi Reagon will also be interested in Parable of the Sower, scheduled for April 28-29 at Strathmore. Here’s the write-up from the Strathmore site:
Parable of the Sower is a triumphant, mesmerizing work of rare power and beauty that illuminates deep insights on gender, race, and the future of human civilization.
This fully-staged opera brings together over 30 original anthems drawn from 200 years of black music to recreate (Octavia) Butler’s sci-fi, Afrofuturist masterpiece live on stage.
With music and lyrics by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, this compelling work gives life to Butler’s acclaimed science fiction novel of the same name.
More to come…
NOTE: As the country celebrates the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the posts over that period focus on various aspects of understanding, justice, tolerance, love, and reconciliation with the hope they may be useful as we each take our own journeys to create the beloved community.
*You can watch a video of the live concert at Dr. Johnson-Reagon’s website.
Image: Celebrating the Holy Days album cover from Sweet Honey in the Rock