I’ve been listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock since way back. I’ve got many of their albums and am swept away by their power and passion for justice as well as the sheer beauty of their singing. I’ve never seen Sweet Honey perform, but they are coming to the Detroit area on October 26th. I’ve got that date boldly circled on my calendar!
Sweet Honey in the Rock says it all in their mission statement: “Educate, Entertain and Empower.”
Sweet Honey is a African-American women’s ensemble that sings a cappella, accompanied only by their hand percussion and American Sign Language interpretation for the deaf and hearing impaired. Their music has roots in the spirituals and gospel music of the African-American Church processed through freedom movement of the 60s, and then developing with many contemporary influences and expressions. All-in-all Sweet Honey in the Rock has one of the richest sounds in all of music.
Bernice Johnson Reagon founded Sweet Honey in the Rock while leading a singing workshop in 1973. Reagon’s activism was honed in 1961when the civil rights movement came to her hometown of Albany, Georgia. She was arrested in the demonstations, and after her release joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s “Freedom Singers.” When Sweet Honey was founded they began as a quartet, but eventually added a fifth singer and then another member to incorporate American sign-language into their performances
Sweet Honey’s first public appearance was in 1973, and in 1976 they released their first recording. Many albums, awards, international tours, children’s books, and documentaries followed. There have been 23 different vocalists in the ensemble over the years. Reagon herself retired from the group in 2004. The current edition of Sweet Honey includes two of the founding members—Louise Robinson and Carol Lynn Maillard.
The group’s name comes from the Psalm 81:16. As Louise Robinson puts it, “Sweet Honey speaks of a land that is so rich when you break the rocks honey flows. And we thought it was something like us African-American women—strong like a rock, but inside (there’s) honey—sweet.”
The members of sweet honey have sung about many issues, but they have also taken their activism to the streets and protest lines. They have rallied for civil rights, environmentalism, and against nuclear power. They have had a special witness for deaf pride with their use of American Sign Language. Sweet Honey joined Free South Africa Movement, and some of the members were arrested protesting apartheid at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. The group toured with Nelson Mandella across the U.S. following his release from prison, singing at rallies where he spoke.
Sweet Honey in the Rock has received global recognition for their music and message. The Smithsonian Institute has frequently sponsored them to represent the U.S. artistic contribution in various global contexts. Some of their costumes are in a permanent folk music exhibit at the Smithsonian. Sweet Honey also sang at the U.N. International Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985, then again at the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, China.
“Wade in the Water” and “Are We a Nation?” About Immigration and Justice:
Ella’s Song “We Who Believe in Freedom”: