Sweet Honey in the Rock
8:00 p.m. Tonight at Hill Auditorium
Tickets: $10-$46, student rush tickets available
A group formed during an era of prominent social protests, Sweet Honey in the Rock makes music inspired by a belief in openly expressing the need for a more equal and unified world. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes” they sing. These lyrics exemplify what the group is best at: prompting the need for social change. The a capella ensemble will return to Ann Arbor for the 8th time tonight at Hill Auditorium.
In 1989, the group won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Recording and it was nominated last year for Best Musical Album for Children. Their music isn’t mainstream, but it had a profound impact on the youth of the 1970s. The group toured college campuses, writing songs that coincided with the engagement of students in the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements.
In deep, soulful voices, Sweet Honey addressed these issues directly, fueling protesters’ needs to voice their beliefs.
“I think that the Civil Rights Movement, which was really a creation that grew out of African American culture and struggle, was inspiring because it incorporated music so thoroughly throughout the entire movement,” said Ysaye Barnwell, a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock since 1979.
Founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, the six-member group that grew out of the Washington D.C. Black Repertory Theater Company has seen many changes over the past 30 years — not only in the composition of its members, but in the social and political atmospheres upon which many of its songs are based. Experimenting with traditional gospel hymns, jazz, blues, rap and reggae, the group has maintained its politically direct nature.
The lyrics to the songs Sweet Honey performs are rooted in songs of slavery and traditional African chants. The blending of these sounds with percussion instruments is what defines the socially conscious group’s music.
“Soul music became popular at a moment when the urgency of gospel music and concern with the improvement of the state of the world got married to, in all kinds of ways, this kind of evolutionary and revolutionary energies of youth culture,” said Michael Awkward, a professor in the U-M English and CAAS departments.
The group’s name refers to a parable from the Old Testament that speaks of a rich land where honey ran from cracked rocks. The symbolism of honey and rocks was used to signify the nature of African American women: kind and considerate but also strong and assertive. This projected demeanor was certainly representative of the attitude of African American female singers of the time.
“There was this kind of demand for respect, demand for equal rights and demand for social justice that became a big part of the repertoire of black female singers at that time,” said Awkward. “And in that way they mirrored what was going on in the culture — they mirrored the advances in the black power and other kinds of movements, and advances in women’s rights.”
What distinguishes Sweet Honey is the way its music spurs social discourse. It’s been a long time since a group sang so vehemently about the issues of today’s generation. As people have found other ways of speaking out, mobilization continues to occur in innovative ways. Still, the physical presence of combined voices and group gatherings — whether it’s an assembly of five or a rally through the streets — has its own importance as it engages the audience in a more intimate way.
“I feel like we did our piece, and that together, the collective body of ‘socially conscious or protest movement music’ really brought everybody to a different place,” said Barnwell. “And in fact, we continue to make an amazing statement with other musicians who are doing their thing today. Whether it’s hip hop or whether it’s folk, we have each done our part.”
Although the way people get connected through mobilization has changed, tonight’s performance will display how music has, and will continue to be, an effective way of allowing people to become socially aware.
“I think that Sweet Honey will force us to continue to think about not only what’s good but what’s wrong, and the fact that we still need to be concerned about all kinds of things,” said Awkward. “(The group) will allow students who got mobilized in all sorts of ways because of Barack Obama and what he represented, to stay mobilized or at least reinforce their sense of importance of being politically engaged.”
Even as we come closer to fulfilling the civil liberties and resolving the inequities Sweet Honey sings about, the group’s return to Ann Arbor is a reminder of what it means to preserve and honor the spirit of social change.