Fifty years of Sweet Honey in the Rock: Topical songs for times, trials and triumphs
Sweet Honey in the Rock, it just sounds good. So what is, who is Sweet Honey in the Rock? They are a dynamic, historical a capella singing group of women founded in November 1973. They will be celebrating their 50th anniversary this month with concerts at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
The concerts will represent a culmination of of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s performances, recordings, touring, charting and changing the paths of Black music culture. The group today is made up of Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil and Rochelle Rice. Barbara Hunt is the American Sign Language interpreter and Romeir Mendez is a featured musician on upright acoustic bass and electric bass.
Singer-activist Bernice Reagan Johnson founded the group, an offshoot of the civil rights era. Sweet Honey in the Rock has literally chronicled, cared for and reported the needs, joys, and concerns of Black people and the causes in our society for decades with their music performances and work all over the world.
The ensemble’s songs have become legendary: Wanting Memories, Spiritual, No Mirrors in My Nana’s House, In The Morning When I Rise, Hope, A Tribute, Greed, Run and Redemptive Song. Theirs are topical songs for times, trials and triumphs.
But it was not just their music, but their purpose, their presence, their dedication and substance that raised them to iconic status. Believed in and beloved, they are one of the most impactful and important Black musical groups of all time. Their musical innovation that is also of note.
Sweet Honey in the Rock has toured the planet, bringing songs with joy and dedication to the preservation of Black music: traditional West African song, spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, reggae, rock, funk, urban contemporary and hip-hop.
Their incredible blended voices, vocal improvisations, choral-stacked spiritual/gospel and jazz traditions approach are threaded with diasporic thematic grooves, stories and dance traditions. All are delivered with Black eclectic excellence and song ritual, unheard of in the beginning and still unparalleled today.
As a matter of fact, nearly everyone in music has gained from their innovative musical approaches: Harry Belafonte, gospel choirs, rock and roll and R&B stylists, even most protest movement singing rallies.
Even their name is iconic: Sweet Honey in the Rock is taken from Psalm 81:16, which talks about people being fed with honey out of the rock. The metaphor of sweet honey brings definition and distinction to who they are.
Steeped in the sweet sacred music of the Black experience and charged with the clarion call of the numerous human rights movements through today, they are griots and great music culture makers and keepers of traditions.
The group’s website shares their mission as being “a performance ensemble rooted in African American history and culture. The ensemble educates, entertains and empowers its audience and community through the dynamic vehicles of a cappella singing and American Sign Language interpretation for the Deaf and hard of hearing. Sweet Honey’s audience and community comes from diverse backgrounds and cultures throughout the United States and around the world, and includes people of all ages, economic/education/social backgrounds, political persuasions, religious affiliations, sexual preferences and differing abilities.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock has performed in most of the world’s most respected music venues and concert halls.
In 2001, the group embarked on U.S. Embassy tours with performances in Ethiopia, Peru, Jamaica and Swaziland. In Swaziland, they were one of the headliners of the internationally acclaimed 9th Annual Mountain Bushfire Music Festival, part of a tour that included Melbourne and Sydney, both in Australia. Other concerts of note include being commissioned by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company to compose a score for its 50th anniversary 2008 program, “Go ion Grace.” The ensemble toured Belize in 2014. Their February 2016 appearance at New York’s historic Carnegie Hall was their 32nd concert there.
In 2012, they debuted their first orchestral collaboration, writing original lyrics for composer William Banfield’s, “Symphony 10: Affirmations for a New World,” a 30-minute symphony that was co-commissioned and presented by the National Symphony Orchestra, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., the Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis and the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Millennium Park, with the Sphinx Orchestra in Chicago.
Sweet Honey in the Rock was a favorite group of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and performed by request at the White House.
The group has been featured in two PBS television specials, including in “American Masters,” with a biography concert film called “Rise,” produced by award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson.
The late Horace Boyer, a gospel music historian and professor at UMass Amherst wrote, “Sweet Honey in the Rock remains among the most vibrant, versatile and ever relevant musical collectives in music today; both as a performance ensemble and as an ambassadorial African American organization founded on the triumvirate missions of empowerment, education and entertainment. Revered most for their live performances, the women have recorded 25+ albums, paid homage to their kindred sisters: vocalists and activists Abbey Lincoln, Odetta, Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone. Sweet Honey in the Rock is a powerful and unique concert entity that fuses the elastic 360-degree possibilities of the human voice with a theatrical flair that keeps avid audiences returning for more year after year.”
Sweet Honey member Nitanju Bolade Casel told the Banner: “I feel most assured of our impact when we hear back from our audiences, who tell us that our songs and performances have moved them through the obstacles of their lives. And every now and then I hear vocal ensembles, that are not wedded to just the notes, but moving too by inspiration that comes through the meaning and messages of their music.”
Upcoming Boston concerts
John Andres, who currently serves as Bill T. Jones Director/Curator of Performing Arts at the Institute of Contemporary Art, said, “The ICA is proud to once again partner with Jazz Urbane Cafe. Our upcoming concerts with Sweet Honey in the Rock highlight both organization’s shared vision of inclusive and vital collaboration. This exciting intergenerational event highlights not only a legendary and historically important ensemble, it also uniquely incorporates many of our area’s talented professional and student musicians. This collaborative partnership among the ICA, Jazz Urbane Cafe, the Longy School of Music and the Boston Arts Academy expands our collective efforts to create meaningful and artistically rewarding experiences for audiences.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock’s ICA concerts, scheduled Nov. 11 and 12, will open with William Banfield’s “Symphony 12: Affirmations,” conducted by maestro Julius Williams.
Sweet Honey will close the concert with their historic performances of their songs and arrangements of Black music that has wowed and delighted audiences around the world for decades. The concerts will be a music cultural, historic event not to be missed.