by Kendall Winter, Third-Year Musicology Graduate Student
It’s been said many ways that communal singing brings people together in music, in mind, and in action. And I can think of no artist who has worked longer or harder to take anti-racist action through singing than Sweet Honey In The Rock.
Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon—a celebrated civil rights activist from Albany, GA, and alto in the original Freedom Singers quartet affiliated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee—founded the Black women’s a cappella group in 1973. In its dual functions as a recording and performing ensemble and as a self-fashioned ambassador of African American history and culture throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sweet Honey In The Rock has never wavered from its “triumvirate missions of empowerment, education, and entertainment.” Understanding the power of cooperation and coalition building, Sweet Honey In The Rock has used its platform to bring awareness and financial assistance to a variety of organizations whose peace and justice initiatives are in line with the group’s own.
Most of Sweet Honey In The Rock’s songs are arranged or composed by its members and alums who blend musical and performative traditions and techniques from Africa and the Diaspora into their signature sound. Although the ensemble’s song texts (and essays, interviews, etc.) regularly grapple with heavy social, political, spiritual, and environmental issues, their musical sound exudes resiliency and joy and cultivates unity and hope wherever it is heard.
Since its founding, twenty-four women have given their voices to Sweet Honey In The Rock. Beginning in 1980 and at the suggestion the group’s bass, Dr. Ysaye Barnwell—who, when she is not singing or composing or teaching is a speech pathologist, the ensemble has included an American Sign Language interpreter who engages the Deaf and hard of hearing communities in their music. In recent years, Sweet Honey In The Rock has reinvented itself again and pushed a cappella boundaries by collaborating in the studio and on tour with instrumentalists.
With twenty-four records and forty-six years of music to their credit, recommending just one song, or one album, or one concert could never suffice. In offering the following selections, I hope to showcase the breadth of their musical style and honor their longstanding commitment to fighting racism and racial injustice. Please consider these as just a starting point:
- “I’m Gon’ Stand” (2018) Sweet Honey In The Rock joined artists and speakers from around the country in the festivities for the grand opening of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. This live performance features Romeir Mendez on bass.
- “Second Line Blues” (2016) The title of this track from their latest album, #LoveInEvolution, recalls the New Orleans tradition of performing jazz in the streets as part of funeral processions. The women supply improvised mournful wails over snare drum as they take turns reciting the names of victims of police and mass shootings.
- “Are We A Nation?” (2010) This single condemns the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070—regarded as the most far-reaching anti-immigration legislation in the country—and the racialized hatred, fear, and suspicion that it enables and is enabled by. The group donated proceeds from this music video to the Center for Community Change and joined other artists in boycotting performances in Arizona. Hip hop artist Yonas joins them on this track.
- “Ella’s Song” (1988) Dr. Johnson Reagon dedicated this anthem to the memory of fellow activist, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and SNCC leader, Ella Baker. Its refrain—”we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes”—is a fitting mantra for our Do The Work series.
Further Reading, Listening, and Viewing:
Sweet Honey In The Rock on Spotify.
Upcoming Live Stream Concert in UCLA’s Tune-In Festival (fee).
Recordings, scores, and books by and about Sweet Honey in the Rock in the UNC Music Library.
Boyer, H. C. “Introduction.” In Continuum: The First Songbook of Sweet Honey in the Rock, edited by Ysaye Barnwell. Southwest Harbor, ME: Contemporary A Cappella Pub, 1999.
Buffalo, Audreen. “Sweet Honey in the Rock: A Capella Activists.” Ms. 3, no. 5 (1993) 24–29.
Hayes, Eileen M. Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics, and Women’s Music. Baltimore: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
———. “Theorizing Gender, Culture, and Music: Not Your Mother’s Racial Uplift: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Journey, and Representation – “Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice.” Women and Music 10 (2006) 71–79.
James, Joy. “Ella Baker, ‘Black Women’s Work’ and Activist Intellectuals.” The Black Scholar 24, no. 4 (1994) 8–15.
Nelson, Stanley, dir. American Masters. Episode: “Sweet Honey In The Rock: Raise Your Voice.” Aired June 29, 2005 on PBS. request the DVD
Reagon, Bernice Johnson, ed. We who believe in freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock–still on the journey. New York: Anchor Books, 1993.
Smith, Arlette Miller. “Speaking the Song, Spreading the Word, Lifting the People: The Reimagination of Community Through Vocal Music Activism.” PhD. diss., SUNY Buffalo, 2005.