Sweet Honey in the Rock
Singing truth to power
What: Sweet Honey in the Rock
When: 7 pm Fri., Jan. 17
Where: Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St.
Wednesday, January 8, 2020
In the Bible, Psalm 81:16 says, “But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” King David is doing the talking, and he’s letting his people know if they’re into following the Lord, abundance would be their reward. Supposedly, the honey found in rocks was the good stuff. Either that or their land would be so rich and fertile, they could split a rock open and get honey from it. Or possibly both.
I was never very good at Bible study.
Owing to the fact that their name derives from a Bible verse and their performances bear a striking resemblance to a good old-fashioned church revival, you’d be forgiven for pigeonholing Sweet Honey in the Rock as a gospel group—forgiven, but also wrong.
While certainly in touch with their spiritual side, the acclaimed all-woman a cappella ensemble is something bigger and more elemental than what kind be ascribed to a musical genre or style. They’re more akin to a force of nature—dynamic, infused with energy, crackling with electricity, and existing without needing permission to do so.
And like forces of nature that build rather than destroy, Sweet Honey in the Rock is a creator of and catalyst for beauty.
The story of Sweet Honey in the Rock begins some 47 or so years ago, with Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, whose singing ability was matched only by her political activism. She was teaching a vocal workshop as part of the Washington D.C. Black Repertory Company when she founded Sweet Honey in the Rock, and unlike other groups that became political over time, her ensemble was always intended to be an expression of her activism.
From the start, Sweet Honey in the Rock sang truth to power, harnessing only their voices and the sparsest rudimentary instrumentation, along with hand-clapping, foot-stomping and the like, to fill rooms and raise rafters wherever they went. I was not alive in 1973, but I know enough history to surmise that there were safer career choices for women of color than to tour singing openly of racism and government oppression on the heels of the Civil Rights era.
That was then, this is now and not nearly as much has changed in this country—or the world over—as we once might’ve thought. A parallel can be drawn between the perils of the past and those of the present—but that same bright line can also be drawn between then and now when it comes to the necessity of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s music and the message contained within.
Visitors to Sweet Honey in the Rock’s website will find not only a wealth of information about the group, but will also see a James Baldwin quote highlighted with little explanation or context: “If I love you then I have to make you conscious of the things that you do not see.” Although Baldwin was not referring to the Grammy-winning ensemble with his words, it’s as good a description of what they do as any you’ll find.
Yes, the current incarnation (they’ve cycled through some 20-plus members since their founding) will sing about systemic violence, police brutality, environmental degradation, Black Lives Matter, historical racism and innocent lives lost. But a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert isn’t like turning on the nightly news and coming away with a sense of creeping dread. The noise they make is joyful as they weave their voices together, nimbly making their way through a song list comprised of soul, pop, Latin, folk, jazz, world, R&B and, of course, some gospel for good measure. They take on serious subjects, but infuse them with hope, painting an optimistic picture of a future we can all strive to make happen. And they don’t just do this with four singers and the bass player they’ve incorporated in recent years. They also tour with a sign language interpreter—who is wholly part of the group rather than an adjunct to it—increasing accessibility for an audience typically left out of the live concert experience.
Let’s be real: These are troubling times. It seems that every day brings with it new reasons to fret, a rolling back of rights and attitudes, fresh sources of stress. It’s affecting. It can be a lot. We don’t just need Sweet Honey in the Rock because they’ve been practicing their brand of musical activism for going on half a century. We are drawn to them for the same reasons people flocked to the tent revivals of yore: because they bring us together, get us on our feet, give us an excuse to clap along as they use their voices to create something bigger than the sum of their parts and remind us that if we truly believe we’re all in this together, we’ll get through this together. When that day comes, rest assured, Sweet Honey in the Rock will be there to sing all about it.
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