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Sweet Honey in the Rock
by Chris Flisher © 1994 /
(first published May 1994 Worcester Phoenix)

Sweet Honey in the Rock
There is power in the collected voices of Sweet Honey In The Rock. It is a force that rises from deep within the singers, resounding with authority, spirit, and undeniable dignity. It is vocal thunder, booming, demanding attention while portraying the African American experience through songs rooted in tradition and delivered with crisp, a cappella perfection.

Sweet Honey In The Rock is a group, but the collective identity is more than a simple gathering of people. Rather, it is the embodiment of a symbolic woman who stands for all people seeking the truth. The sum of Sweet Honey In The Rock is far greater than the any of her parts and, yet it is the individuals who bring this "woman" her voice, her conscience, her charter.

They call themselves vocal warriors, fighting oppression by exercising a social conscience and singing songs that are equally glorious and sorrowful. The group's agenda is established democratically by the members who contribute songs and ideas ranging from topical issues to those of personal revelations. AIDS, political instability, racial prejudice, poverty, illiteracy, crime, corruption, the equitable treatment of women and all humans are topics that continually rotate in their repertoire.

With no more accompaniment than primitive hand-held percussion, the women deliver their messages wrapped in vocal interplay. Soloists are backed by the percussive chants and scat-like vocals of other group members who use their voices like musical instruments—whooping, chirping, chanting, bellowing, calling—each with a carefully rehearsed role, each supporting the central figure of the song. Their repertoire ranges from hymns and doo-wop scat, to field chants and rhythmic poetry, rap, hip-hop and jazz.

Although the group is fluent in many styles, their greatest strength is found in gospel music and the blues. The swelling voices, calling and responding, pull from the roots of African American history. It is a deceptively complex style, requiring specific techniques.

Speaking in a recent interview from the group's base in Washington D.C., founder Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon explains, "In black African American singing you have to do more than sing a note. You have to spread the note with feeling and, if you do it well, it triggers the same feeling in people who are listening. There are certain lines in the music that you cannot sing unless you can do that vocal technique."

The technique is learned from experience and the ability to channel that comes from within the singer. "It is one thing to learn the process, but it is another to have lived it," reflects Reagon. "Any human who has lived, has places of struggle, pain, joy and sorrow that they can use to execute this aspect of the black vocal tradition. You have to have some courage to tap your own range of experience," she continues. "It is really the way you sound the note. As a singer you have to be able to go to a certain place within yourself and treat the note; alter the note so that it conveys an emotional low. It requires a kind of willingness to be emotionally intimate with yourself and the song." Sweet Honey In The Rock is the direct product of that devotion.

Formed 20 years ago, Sweet Honey In The Rock is the "child" of Reagon. Raised the daughter of a Baptist minister in southern Georgia, Reagon came of age during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It was then, while incarcerated for participating in a rally, that she found herself with other African American women who shared, not only similar origins, but a common bond with music and the church.

Realizing the unifying strength of music, Reagon began to incorporate the spiritual music of the church by bringing it forward and placing it within the context of the Civil Rights Movement as a member of the Freedom Singers. "We Shall Overcome," "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" and other traditional songs took on new meaning, providing an effective voice for the cause.

In 1973 as the vocal director for an African American repertory theater group in Washington, D.C., Reagon started a workshop for singers and the group was born, named after a parable in the Bible. Since then, Sweet Honey and music have remained Reagon's life path. "I don't see music as something separate from trying to live my life with integrity," she explains. "It is my life. I am in touch with that and as my life evolved, my commitment to being a politically, socially conscious artist became my priority and my own spirituality is expressed through that struggle."

Celebrating their 20th anniversary, Sweet Honey has just released their 11th album, appropriately titled, Still On The Journey (Earthbeat! Records). This milestone is also marked by the publication of We Who Believe In Freedom (Doubleday/Anchor Books), a book that documents the group's history as told by Reagon, the members, and associates.

In both cases, the group takes stock in their progress and pauses to reflect on their path thus far. The album is a potpourri, accurately reflecting the diversity and strengths of the group. Spanning the full breadth of African American history, the songs reach deep into the past with "Sojourner's Battle Hymn," an adaptation by Reagon of a 19th century song recounting Sojourner Truth. Others are distinctly topical. "Spiritual," written by member Ysaye Maria Barnwell, addresses current strife in South Africa, Los Angeles, the AIDS epidemic and misogyny. The book presents a view of Sweet Honey as seen through the eyes of Bernice Johnson Reagon and the members who have been or remain members.

Over the course of the group's history, 21 members have come and gone, but the charter and leadership of Sweet Honey remains with Bernice Johnson Reagon. As one of the group's primary songwriters, Reagon's music echoes her personal views. "Sometimes I am deeply challenged by what happens in the world and it comes out in a song, but I am not a musical journalist. I don't write enough for that." she explains.

Reagon's songs center around a spiritual devotion and push for change and resolution. Her sentiments often resound with anger , but ultimately instill hope. There is nothing trite in her or the group's repertoire. She writes from a position as an observer, a channel for the messages in her songs. "I surrender to my work and operate under a certain discipline," she pauses, "I often have a revelation that comes almost like scratching an itch that I didn't know I had."

"I wrote a love song once, called "I'll Be Your Water," thinking that life is a journey looking for yourself and in that process of searching and being committed to living your life a certain way, you find that you have found someone to walk that path with you," she remembers. "The song is much more saluting a partnership than simply saying 'Oh, I can't sleep at night, thinking about so and so.' It is much more," she pauses, "about finding yourself and trying to live a life of integrity and the joy of finding a partner who will walk that path with you." These are themes and concepts that appear throughout Sweet Honey's music.

Reagon's creative process is slow and methodical, reflecting a willingness to follow her muse. "I turn things over in my mind for a long time. I don't write fast and I use no instruments. I usually start singing a phrase, so the central theme of the text and the melody is there, and then I can usually hear the chorus," she explains. "The words and the music come together. Sometimes I'll be thinking of a melody for a long time and I'll wake up one morning and the song is there. I have this melody in my head now and I have no words for it. I've been singing it for a long time and it has a strong form and it keeps coming back," Reagon relates laughing. "But it has no words and I'm thinking, 'Oh my goodness, I am about to write an instrumental.'"

Her music is also an expression of African American heritage, manifested through arrangements of older songs and influenced by the protest movement of the 1960s. "In writing I find that I use a number of traditional motifs or melodies and forms. I also use forms from other cultures, because I was influenced by being part of the topical song writing movement. I met Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and I found what they were doing was very exciting, so I pull from that too when I write."

Stylistically, her music is deeply traditional, favoring an era of gospel music from the 1800s. "My strongest style is traditional 19th century. I will also do some quartet style that is associated with the Jubilee Quartet from the 1930s and 40s," Reagon recalls. "I usually don't come too far forward with my arrangements of traditional songs. None of the songs I do are brought forward to a place that is post 60s."

Although the material Reagon draws on is historical, the tenor of the material remains current. As she states in We Who Believe In Freedom, "No matter how old a song is, when I sing it, it should be contemporary for me, if I am to bring honesty in my rendering of it. Otherwise, it becomes a historical relic and is dead."

Because Sweet Honey performs a cappella, unaccompanied, the challenges that face them are considerably different from musicians with instruments. Their sole instrument is the voice. In an average concert, the group members will sing straight for two and a half hours. Although they do use hand percussion, the synchronized harmonies, precise vocal patterns, and sustained strength of their voices is crucial to Sweet Honey's performance. "When people go to a Sweet Honey concert, they see we are having such a good time and it looks like it is not work," laughs Reagon. "But people don't understand that when you carry your instrument inside your body it is very different, much more tiring."

Unlike singers supported by a band who can pause during instrumental solos, there is no room for breaks. The only relief comes when members swap the lead roles. Even then, each singer continues to contribute backing vocals. "We did a concert once with Al Green and the whole time we were on stage we were singing. After we finished we went into the audience to watch him. Well, his band came on for 15 minutes before he did and played. Then when he came out he was dancing and everything and he spent 25 minutes singing snatches of songs during the hour he performed. It really struck what a difference it is with Sweet Honey."

The difference that is Sweet Honey endears them to audiences, especially African Americans who see Sweet Honey as torch bearers, carrying the word, keeping the dream alive. The hope and goal of Reagon is to strive for another 20 years and as the world gradually breaks down racial barriers, the message of Sweet Honey remains the same. "Challenges just come. You can't run. You have a choice to speak and when that happens you also have a choice not to speak. You need to speak up. My biggest goal is not to lose too many opportunities. If the door is open at least try to go through it. We need to give people more opportunities to see other cultures. When people see them and realize that it is not going to kill them they'll be able to keep a level head and it'll be all right."

Chris Flisher

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