Back in 1973, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a socially conscious artist and civil rights activist, started an a capella vocal group of African-American women named Sweet Honey in the Rock. Now, though Reagon retired in 2004, Sweet Honey in the Rock continues to address social ills and politics with soaring, life-affirming songs.
On their 2003 album, The Women Gather, the group proves that they are still committed to battling social injustice and making musical sense of recent tragedies. With vocals cracking like percussion instruments, the title track is a plea to end senseless violence, inspired by real life events like Columbine and the shooting of Amadou Diallo. Meanwhile, the reggae-like “Give the People Their Right to Vote!” is a song demanding representation in Congress for the 600,000 residents of Washington D.C.
In a phone interview from her home in New York City, co-founder and longtime Sweet Honey in the Rock vocalist Carol Maillard says that the group still adheres to a core belief system despite the fact that the group is mutating.
“We haven’t changed our m.o. since Bernice retired,” she says.
But, with new members Louise Robinson and Arnaé in the fold, Maillard—who is also an actress who has appeared in Broadway shows like Eubie and on soap operas including One Life to Live—says that there is no doubt Sweet Honey in the Rock is evolving.
“We bring whatever we have and offer it to the group,” she says of each member’s contributions.
Maillard is especially excited about the vocal group trying to become a more visual presence with the new lineup. Specifically, she is looking forward to the release of an hour-long documentary on Sweet Honey in the Rock titled Raise Your Voice being debuted on PBS this summer.
Because it has been 22 years since the group was the subject of a film, Maillard says the members of Sweet Honey in the Rock were a bit camera shy.
“I think the main thing is that we were not used to being watched,” she says, laughing. “Of course, they want to film everyone sleeping, which is unattractive.”
In addition to the documentary, Sweet Honey in the Rock is planning on releasing a soundtrack CD to accompany Raise Your Voice in the near future.
“God willing, the release date will be around the release of the film,” Maillard says.
Before Maillard got off the phone, I asked her what all of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s songs—which range from gospel to blues to children’s tunes—have in common.
“The true meaning of Sweet Honey’s message is freedom,” she said. “Whatever it is that we do, I think there is a lot of love and kindness in the music.”
Sweet Honey In the Rock plays the Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th Street in Carmel, Sunday, April 10, at 8pm. $52. 620-2040.