There are very few groups who can say they possess all of the rich historical elements of African American music. But, Sweet Honey in the Rock is one group who can live up to that statement. For over 30 thirty years, this diverse female ensemble has provided the soundtrack of the African American experience by incorporating blues, spirituals, gospel, folk, reggae, jazz, African traditional music, and even hip hop into their sound. Through song, they celebrate their heritage and bring a sense of freedom and pride to diverse cultures.
The group was founded in 1973 by singer, scholar, and social activist Bernice Reagon Johnson, who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and was a member of the Freedom Singers, which was formed by her husband Cordell Reagon. The Freedom Singers were members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and would perform at various social and protest events during the 1960s to gather support for the movement.
Johnson’s involvement in that group combined her love for music and social activism, and inspired what would become Sweet Honey in the Rock. The group members originally consisted of Johnson, Mie, Carol Maillard, and Louise Robinson and over the course of three decades, over 20 singers have performed with Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Their name symbolizes strength and encouragement, and comes from the Biblical scripture, Psalms 81:16 as well as the gospel tune “Honey in the Rock.” While spiritual hymns remain one of their trademarks, Sweet Honey in the Rock are also well known for their socially conscience music.
They have tackled issues such as racism, war, injustice, and most recently immigration, which was the main topic of their 2010 album Are We A Nation? They released the album as a response to Arizona’s strict illegal immigration law, law SB-1070, which the group says “encourages and creates opportunities for hatred, ignorance and prejudice to prevail.”
Sweet Honey has received numerous awards for their work, including a Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1988.
Their crisp, soulful harmonies and rich timbre is unparalleled and by simply singing a capella, they create music that speaks to the young and older generation.
Even if you have never heard of Sweet Honey in the Rock, you have more than likely heard their strong voices. For a number of years, they lent their voices to many animation segments on Sesame Street, and have made many children’s records.
I may have been a child when I first heard the group, but I was more recently introduced to their music in college while taking a course called Black Women in Literature, Film and Music. My professor Dr. Deborah Smith Pollard, who is a noted gospel scholar, spoke very highly of the group and discussed their importance within African American music and culture. They are continuing the legacy of socially conscience African American female folk musicians such as Elizabeth Cotton, Odetta, and Joan Armatrading, while remaining true to their gospel roots.
The group is based in Washington, D.C., but have performed all over the world and continue to spread their message to this day. They recently performed in Ann Arbor, MI as part of their 38th anniversary concert season. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to see their performance, but just witnessing their music via Youtube or on records is a divine experience in itself.
Check out their rendition of the spiritual classic, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.”
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