Hope, Redemption and the Promise for a Better Tomorrow
The Gospel According to Sweet Honey in the Rock
Of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Harry Belafonte wrote: “[their] mission is not just to entertain, for which they so admirably do, but also to open the mind and heart to thoughts about who we are and what we do to one another and to our fellow creatures.” The struggle for freedom will not end until all vestiges of oppression are eradicated. For the past thirty years, Sweet Honey in the Rock•s music has been an impediment to injustice. Drawing on the variegated performance tradition of black America, they seek to remind audiences of every age and ethnicity of their role in the ongoing struggle for freedom. Topics such as political disenfranchisement, AIDS, genocide and poverty are related through blues, rap, gospel, reggae and slave song motifs, and are delivered in a deceptively stark a cappella. Their music exudes a spirituality that is not necessarily attached to any specific religious dogma. Rather, it is about the gathering of community, and the potential of this community to challenge the malfeasance that surrounds us, all the while never forgetting the power of hope, redemption and promise of a better tomorrow.
While touring extensively in support of the thirtieth-anniversary album Women Gather, Bernice Johnson Reagan (BJR) and Ysaye Barnwell (YB) took time out of their busy schedule for an e-mail interview, bringing their message of liberation and social responsibility another step closer to the people.
I recently finished reading Walter Mosley•s Workin• on the Chain Gang, a meditation on the nature of race relations at the turn of the millennium. One argument Mosley advances is that popular culture is a construct of sorts that functions as an illusion, or spectacle, meant to sublimate and distract the people from the “truth”. While I certainly don•t question the veracity of this assertion, it seems that there are small pockets of dissension that demand accountability, that seek to begin truthful discourse. How is the music of Sweet Honey in the Rock an affront to the apathy and irresponsibility of mainstream popular culture?
(BJR) I grew up in Southwest Georgia, and my music and the way I function as an artist is shaped by what kept my people balanced and moving when I was a child. Then as a participant in the Civil Rights Movement, I helped create the culture of that struggle. Sweet Honey In The Rock has been formed out of that experience. We actually see ourselves as nurturers of our constituent audiences and we are nurtured in return by them. We, as artist try to be entertaining, but we are not entertainers. We invite people to come into our community of song and singing with all they carry, and hopefully they will, as a result of being bonded in song, feel a bit more able to go on with whatever will face us the next day. It is not at all a farfetched idea; it is really real and it works. It is the direct opposite of escape or getting away from one’s self.
The liner notes for “Ballad of the Sit-Ins” state that this song is an attempt to “remind” young people of the tenacity of those who participated in the struggle for freedom (a lesson seldom taught in school); “Let Us Rise in Love” is about the frustration of explaining the tragic events of September 11th to a child; In 1989, Sweet Honey recorded the children•s album All for Freedom, bringing the message of redemption, struggle and hope to a younger audience. With many cultural critics and artists themselves (e.g. Chuck D) proclaiming that hip hop is the new civil rights movement, how do you pique the interest of the freedom movement•s future leaders? Is it challenging to instill the transformative power of love and redemption in a generation entranced by all this bling-bling false reality? What has been the response of younger generations to the message of Sweet Honey in the Rock?
(BJR) We come to our young audiences with great respect and with the idea that they are our tomorrow, and our continuance, and that they will be up to what they need to do with their lives if we as a parent generation share with them all that we know about how we have lived with integrity. It is not a matter of determining what they will do, it is a matter of trying to find ways to be with them and share what we have to offer. I am also so moved at the thirst and readiness our young people bring to our songs and stories. They are not shallow and not empty. They do need to hear the songs and they need to feel the sounds of our kind of singing. It does not need to replace their favorites, but it needs to be the instrument of their learning and reinforcement.
Bernice is quoted in Charles Payne•s look at the Mississippi Freedom Struggle I•ve Got the Light of Freedom as saying that the freedom songs were “the language that focused the energy of the people who filled the streets.” Over thirty years later, there is obviously still an energy of the people, yet, how has its power to move the people metamorphosed? How has the “language” in which this energy is articulated changed?
(BJR) During the Civil Rights Movement the singing came out of the struggle, it did not create the struggle. Today Sweet Honey sings out of a stratum of our contemporary society that speaks to the need to continue to work for change and transformation. However, we do not belong to an organized struggle as with the Civil Rights Movement. As a Freedom Singer, I served on the executive board of the Albany Movement, then as a SNCC field secretary. Sweet Honey operates as a voice and energy in a board culture and it is different.
Thirty years ago, you performed in small black churches and at demonstrations at the height of the Freedom Movement. How is it different performing songs in concert halls? Is the sense of urgency still there?
(BJR) During the Movement the Freedom Singers sang in small churches, in marches, in night clubs, in large concert halls, in huge festivals. There never has been a time when I have not performed in all kinds of spaces. Each community has its own way to responding. The Washington DC concert audience is different from an audience in Germany. I have learned as an organizer to be grateful and accepting of any opportunity to share my songs, and it has served me well– whether singing before 250,000 or 10 people. There is not the intensity I have every experience that matches the singing I helped to create in Albany, GA in jail and in mass meetings, and that is quite all right. I do not compare it or wish for it because I have it as a part of my soul. I do not think comparisons are helpful with human beings, if you give all you have to give it is yours and a part of who you are. And if you are blessed tomorrow will bring something new and never before experienced.
Are politics and music inextricable? Does music have an implicit social/political function? How has the function of Sweet Honey in the Rock•s music evolved over the years?
(BJR) For me yes, there is no separation. If something is alive it changes, Sweet Honey has stayed the same because we have changed. Our changes have come from the different African American women singers who have joined us to create Sweet Honey and what they bring that is rich and different. Then we change because the issues we address change. But we stay the same in remembering we are African American and we are women and we walk a path that was ploughed, that came before us, and it calls us to sing the truth as we experience it, it calls us not to betray our community and our art, it calls us to always be open to using our voices to share the lessons of those who came before us.
(YB) If you believe that politics, like God and culture, is in everything, then yes, politics and music are inextricable. Every composer and musician reveals who they are and what they believe not only in their textual messages, but in the rhythmic and melodic content, and musical forms they choose. Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, music (like all art) is intended to impact the observer/participant, and does in ways that we feel we intend and in ways we have never considered. The music of African Americans has historically been a functional music, documenting every significant social/political change African Americans have undergone in this country: e.g. Spirituals documented the circumstances and feelings of enslaved Africans, the convergence of African spirituality and Christianity, and the dialectic on the options for freedom. Early Blues documented the migration of individual Black folks from the south to north in the early 20th century; Gospel signified the convergence of secular and sacred musical elements to form a new sacred music in the north.
I think that function is explicit in much of African American music. I think that Sweet Honey’s musical function has remained fairly constant over our 30 years: in a sense we are griots or troubadours. We seem to articulate for our audiences elements of our culture, society and struggle that are otherwise difficult to articulate. In addition, we are a link between traditional messages and contemporary sounds and struggles, establishing the relationship between old songs and their issues and new struggles. We are a continuum between traditional vocal music forms and contemporary vocal music forms, preserving the old and extending into the new. We began as practitioners in traditional culture when compared to popular culture, and we remain there; our intention is to serve our community — which over time has broadened and is now world wide.
Is it just about lyrics, or is sound equally important? What about instrumentation? Although you are an a cappella group, there is a sense that the voice can function as an instrument.
(YB) If it was only about the lyrics we would be poets. Song is about the integration of the two: words and music. Indeed, some words can only be heard when they are sung. That is the power of song. There are poorly written words set to good music, excellent words written to poor music, bad words set to bad music and the reverse, good words put to good music. I believe we have endured because we are the epitome of the latter. The voice is an instrument; perhaps the first instrument. It is used to imitating everything around it. Every instrument that has been created has only expanded the potential of the human voice. One of the greatest compliments we can receive is someone (especially a child) telling us that it was the end of the first half before they realized there were no instruments. It means that our voices have filled every space that the ear wants to hear as we sing. The voice rules!!!
What is the role of memory in your music?
(YB) In our music is a cultural memory, the memory of a collective unconscious, if you will, of our roots as African people. I believe that this is true for Black music throughout the Diaspora: the rhythms, the cries, the pain, the joy of survival, the hope, the spirituality — it is all there. In addition, as an oral collective we have documented who we are in our music, as we sing the old songs we are reminded. Even as we ‘create’ new music we are incorporating the unconscious elements, as in Rap began with the griot, the preacher, the Last Poets, Niki Giovanni, etc.
Throughout Sweet Honey in the Rock•s history there is an emphasis on call and response, between singers, as well as between the group and the audience, that stresses the importance of community. Has community proved essential to the group•s existence? Without community, can there be progress? Without community, can there be Sweet Honey in the Rock?
(BJR) I wrote this on the occasion of Sweet Honey’s 10th anniversary it is still true for me:
We come to you
You in every color of the rainbow
With your freedom and struggle stances in every position of the moon and sun
We come to you
Offering our songs and the sounds of our Mothers’ Mothers
To everyone of us
There really is a community
We have seen and felt and been held by you
These ten years
There is this community we belong to without geographical boundaries DC, Atlanta, Berea, Chicago, East St. Louis, LA, Toronto, Chiba, The Bay, Newark, Seattle, Chapel Hill, Boston, Frankfurt, London, Richmond, Little Rock, NYC, Denver, Albuquerque, Nashville, Brixton, New Orleans, Vancouver, Portland, Berlin, Albany, Durham, Tokyo, Detroit, St Paul, Dallas, Peoria, Jamaica…
There really is a community Lovers Searchers Movers into life Fighters and builders of a place where Military machines, hatred of women, abuse of children, homophobia, societal male suicide, racial bigotry, starvation, work that kills and cripples, social orders driven by greed, the USA invading whoever … this week. Where the dying and acting out of fear, anger and terror will find no feeding ground I wanna be there!