I didn’t grow up listening to Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye. My mama was raised in the church, and so was I, so most of my early musical memories are religious in nature. I can probably identify the sample of any gospel song in the background of your favorite rap battle, and recently, a friend texted me to find “an upbeat gospel song the mother of the church sings while washing greens,” and I was able to provide her with Be Ready When He Comes Again, and I think it fits pretty well. All the music I listened to (pre-Kanye West) all had a great effect on my understanding of my blackness and my history. I viewed music religiously, as the thing that differentiated my loud and interactive church services from the short and contemplative sermons I heard in my private school chapel. But I also viewed music as something political, and that’s probably due to Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Sweet Honey is an a capella group that probably describes itself better than I ever could—their mission statement says they are “rooted in African American history and culture…[Sweet Honey In the Rock] 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 hearing impaired.” They are a group of black women artists and activists who have been singing and signing since 1973, when their founder, Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the most influential GRITS in my life, held a workshop in the group’s home base of DC.
Johnson Reagon was an activist and artist in her own rite before the group was even formed. Born in Albany, Georgia in 1942, she was expelled from Albany State College due to her arrest after a Civil Rights demonstration, and transferred to Spelman College (my mama’s alma mater) for a short period of time. Soon after, she left the college (she would finish her undergraduate degree there in 1970, and earn her PhD from Howard in 1975), and joined the Freedom Singers, a group who raised money for SNCC. She worked at the Smithsonian, won a MacArthur, and had a folk music career of her own (honestly, your fave could never) before she formed and led Sweet Honey in the Rock, which she named after Psalms 81:16—“and with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee.” Sweet Honey is unique in that its members are constantly and intentionally moving in and out—more than twenty members have come and gone, though currently the group is five people, including their sign language interpreter and my favorite lightskin, Shirley Childress Saxton.
Johnson Reagon’s political history and southern heritage have a strong influence on the music Sweet Honey in the Rock creates. Their sound is very raw, accompanied only by basic percussion and some serious talent. Their music reflects the balance of simple lyrics and complex harmonies negro spirituals and folk songs have perfected throughout history. One of my first musical memories is of their rendition of “No More Auction Block” (famously recorded by Bob Dylan, whose ancestors were more likely on the other side of the auction) being sung to me—it was one of the ways I learned not only about slavery, but also about the courage and strength it took to end it.
And their music educated me on activism and history. I can give a decent explanation of the history of voting rights in Washington D.C because of their song Give the People the Right to Vote, and they also make a point to record songs that were important to the Civil Rights movement, like their rendition of "This May Be The Last TIme." But Sweet Honey in the Rock also taught me the importance of advocating for struggles that don’t apply to you—if everyone could understand the literal and metaphorical lesson in their song “Would You Harbor Me,” there would be no refugee crisis. One of the moments that brought me to appreciate their poetry was the combination of the negro spiritual “Stay on the Battlefield” with Sonia Sanchez’s poem “For Sweet Honey in the Rock,” which should be in every ‘Introduction to Intersectionality’ course in the world. If all this weren’t enough, as we previously mentioned on this blog, “Ella’s Song” introduced me to the powerhouse that is Ella Baker.
My mother came to know Sweet Honey through their performances on Spelman’s campus, and I came to know their music and their message through her. They taught me the intersection of activism and art, they taught me black history, they taught me the value of my blackness, and they taught me the power of my voice. In Sweet Honey, I found a network of elders that reminded me (in a very hotep way, bear with me y’all) of the ancestors we reference when we talk about black history, or of the way we talk about ‘us’ we when refer to blackness, to southern-ness, as a collective. I try to anchor myself to these voices that give such wisdom and comfort, by opening each new year with their song “Breaths." I feel connected to history, their activism, and most of all, their motivation to keep spreading our good news.
For more information on Sweet Honey in the Rock, visit their website.