Sometimes you can just walk into a room and know you”re in the presence of something powerful. When the six members of Sweet Honey in the Rock walk on stage, the audience immediately knows that they”ll leave feeling uplifted, inspired and most of all, thoroughly entertained. Tomorrow night, these strong-willed African American women will envelop Hill Auditorium with an a cappella sound that touches the soul.

“We affirm the complexities of life, and part of that is trying to touch the ancient, as well as the newest breath,” said Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey. Drawing on themes from the Bible, all the way to present day political and social issues, the group has constantly evolved from its beginnings 28 years ago. Their sound becomes a unique blend of individual talents, drawing in gospel, blues, jazz, rap and theatrics. The scope of Sweet Honey”s repertoire is not limited to American music much of their songs take root in West African spirituals and rhythms. The ability of Sweet Honey to combine a variety of historical contexts and musical styles has afforded them their continued success.

As an outgrowth of the Black Repertory Theater in Washington, D.C., Sweet Honey began as a collaboration among aspiring stage performers. Carol Maillard, one of the group”s founding members, studied voice under Reagon as a student at the Theater. Regardless of what Maillard learned as a student, most of her influences came from growing up in Philadelphia, where inspiration to become a performer came from her congregation and her home. “We all have similar backgrounds, in terms of religious upbringing,” Maillard said. “There are certain sounds that you hear in your home, that you gravitate towards on the radio, songs that are part of the thread of your being and those sounds come out in what it is that you write.”

Much of the political spirit of Sweet Honey also comes from each member”s experiences in young adulthood. Some of the group”s members, including Maillard, grew up at a time when they could see the Civil Rights struggle in the South on television. In even Northern cities like Philadelphia, one could hear the powerful rally songs against a backdrop of sit-ins, protests and picket lines. Reagon, in particular, was a driving force in the Civil Rights movement, allowing her to fuse her experiences into her music.

It seems natural, then, that Sweet Honey has become involved in social activist projects, including the recording of the soundtrack to the TNT original movie, “Freedom Song.” The film, which premiered in February 2000, shows the impact of the Civil Rights movement on a small Mississippi town. For Sweet Honey, this recording was an opportunity to recapture the spirit of the time, by composing and performing original songs. Reagon drew on her own experiences in writing the music and then shared them with Sweet Honey. “She taught us how to sing the songs of that era the way she sang them,” said Maillard. “The same force and power, chord arrangement and structure.”

Sweet Honey is as much concerned about the present as they are about the rich history of African Americans. Inspiration for music comes from the everyday lives of these women, in their schools, churches and families. “The women in the group are very affected by what happens in their own communities, as women, as parents, as African Americans, as socially active people, as educators,” Maillard said.

The audience will have a lot to look forward to tomorrow night, both as listeners and active participators. Crowds are encouraged and expected to join Sweet Honey in making sweet music. “Ann Arbor is one of the great audiences,” said Maillard. “We know people know exactly what to do.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.