Afrobellas of the Week: Sweet Honey In The Rock, A capella Afrobellas

Oh, how I love Black Music Month. You’re more likely to stumble across a song or vintage music you’ve never seen on television. Also, there’s no end of amazing documentaries to be seen, sometimes on channels you might not expect. Case in point, Soul Deep, a six-part BBC series that I managed to catch on my beloved VH1 Soul over the weekend.

Episode 2, The Gospel Train, focused mainly on the transition of gospel music into secular pop, a pathway inimitably carved by the one and only Sam Cooke (look for a long, loving upcoming post on him soon). The documentary was amazing, especially for an old-music junkie like me. I got to savor archival footage of R H Harris and the Gospel Paraders, The Soul Stirrers, and the Dixie Hummingbirds.

The documentary was great and very thorough, but I noticed a lack of focus on the female tradition in gospel and jubilee singing. (Which makes sense, because the documentary really focused on the successful males of the era). But you know me, I gotta throw in my two cents wherever I see the sistas missing in action.

There were many influential all-girl gospel singing groups representing for the female belters of the era. One of the best were the Gospel Harmonettes, led by Dorothy Love Coates, one of the most fervent, feel-the-spirit, slept-on gospel greats of all time. The Caravans were at one time led by the one and only Shirley Ceasar (but click here for an undeniably incredible Caravans version of Wade in the Water by Albertina Walker and Loleatta Holloway). Then there were also the Imperial Gospel Singers, The Loving Sisters who sang backup for Reverend Cleophus Robinson, The Drinkard Sisters (sister Emily is now better known as Cissy Houston, by the by). And here’s one for my girl Fresh — Jesus, Be a Fence by The Meditation Singers. These groups all helped to shape the layered harmonies more modern girl groups like En Vogue came to employ.

Many of the older gospel groups continue in new incarnations, and keep the traditions alive. Then there’s Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-female, Afrocentric, a capella singing group that reinvents the genre. Bernice Johnson Reagon founded the group in 1973, from members of a vocal workshop she taught with the D.C. Black Repertory Company. The group was named after a passage from Psalm 81:16, which Mamie Forehand popularized as a gospel refrain — Honey in the Rock. It’s all about abundance provided by God, and these sisters have that kind of talent.

The group was originally founded as a quartet, who set themselves apart by dressing in regal, bright, and traditional African garb, wearing turbans and natural hairstyles. The group sings a capella — traditionally unaccompanied but for the occasional use of percussion instruments like rattles, gourds, and sticks. Although the group now is comprised of six women, they often refer to Sweet Honey as one person that they all embody on stage.

The group has undergone tremendous overturn in more than 30 years of existence — even the group’s founder retired in 2004. Still, the Sweet Honey flows on, providing rich musical sustenance to those who listen, and remaining strong and unchanged in the face of a fickle music industry. When it comes to lyrical content, Sweet Honey isn’t about “by the light of the silvery moon” kind of sentiments, or purely religious doctrine, neither. Founding member Reagon once explained, “I think everything is political. We are about being accountable.” In a time when few musicians are taking such a stand, Sweet Honey is to be celebrated and applauded.

Their messages are often timely, case in point Give the People The Right to Vote, which is all about the DC Voting Rights act, and boldly declares, “no taxation without representation.” The women’s voices — bold, tender, bass, soprano, and every note in between — combine to stir the listener into feeling and understanding. Unfortunately, there aren’t many video links for Sweet Honey in the Rock. For now, enjoy the brief song posted below.

I also found a working link for Ella’s Song. Listen to it, let the voices and lyrics wash over your spirit, then do yourself a favor and buy one of their CD’s. These women are incredible. Congrats to the women of Sweet Honey! You’re Afrobellas of the Week!

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Comments

  1. This ladies are awesome! heard them a few years back on The Word Network.
    Thanks Bella for the remind of good music again.

  2. Beautiful Post Bella! I love Ella’s Song and really needed to hear this today! Thanks

  3. byrdparker says:

    i had mentioned them b/4 when u did the post on beth ditto.. I am so glad you have written about them ,because they sure do fit as an afrobella…

    The founder bernice has a daughter Toshi Reagon http://www.toshireagon.com/ who has never got the recognition she deserves … She is extremely talented , but not with the look america is wants … I highly highly suggest , for you to go to Toshi’s website and take a listen , also go to the links portion of the site , there are some fabulous singers there as well such as http://www.stephaniemckay.com/.

    great post!!!!

  4. I have seen Sweet Honey in the Rock performing here in The Netherlands. What a great group of singers.

    Last year I saw a film about them. Bernice Johnson Reagon had left the group and they held an audition for a new singer. They started to harmonize with all the women who had come to the audition. It was amazing and breathtaking.

    And last but not least, one of my favourites,
    Mrs Dorothy Love Coates. This woman wrote her own lyrics, made her own music/arrangements and played piano. And then that voice. I can hardly express how good her voice was. Everybody has to go and listen.

    One of my cherished CD’s is: The Great 1955 Shrine Concert. Dorothy Love Coates performed there with many other singers and musicians.

    Afrobella, thanks for this post.

  5. I let out a little squeal when I saw this post. (I’m not sure why.. lol)

    I LOVE Sweet Honey. Got most of their cd’s — seen them live 3 times.
    If they are ever in your area — don’t miss the chance to see them.
    I’m glad I got to see them while Bernice Johnson Reagon was still with them. Her voice is a national treasure and I’m so sad that she won’t be touring with them anymore — though after 30 years she has the right to be tired and pass it on to someone else.
    There are so many great Sweet Honey songs… I hate that there isn’t more for people to sample online.
    Youtube doesn’t have a lot (I guess they keep a tight rein on performances and audio — good and bad sides to that…)

    I can’t say enough good things about them — they are hands down one of my favorite all-time music groups.

  6. Sorry about the double post
    Here’s Ysaye Barnwell’s myspace page
    http://www.myspace.com/ysayembarnwell

  7. Bridgette says:

    Thank you so much. I had never heard of them before.

  8. islandgirl550 says:

    I caught the ‘Soul Deep’ Documentary on VH1-Soul as well this weekend. It was great. And, as someone who works in the music industry I thought it was complete. The part on Sam Cooke was especially interesting.

  9. Bella this is why I love you! I took my mom to see Sweet honey in Feb. and they were just as rich, nourshing, and fulfilling as their name. Thank you SO much for including them. BUt Y’all need to hear them sing Redemption Song. Phenomenal! They would have to be to get me so write such a long word to describe them because I can’t spell! LOL Thank you Bella, seriously. I really liked this site before, but now I truly love it.

    Be Blessed

  10. Thank you Bella! Sweet Honey In The Rock is an amazing group. I actually had the privilege of meeting Bernice Johnson Reagon when she came to my college during the winter. I also had the privilege of leading one of their songs with a group I sing with.

  11. you’ve been tagged! check out my latest entry =)

  12. I have been a Sweet Honey fan for many years. I just saw them a few months ago in Santa Fe, NM. A wonderful performance as usual. I agree with Candy…Redemption Song was beautifully done! Thank you so much Bella.

  13. Mona B. says:

    Bella, I’m SOOOOO glad that you did a post on these ladies. My dad has been a fan for years, and I’ve come to be just a big a fan of their work (one of many bonds we share). If you have one of their CDs, please check out their live version of “The Beatitudes.” Simply beautiful! I love that their sound and message is just as relevant today as it was when they started. Great post!

  14. Wow…I could defnitely imagine myself listening to them in the bed with some candle lit! So relaxing.

  15. Alright sisters of the AfroBella! Thank you for this article and thanks for the posts. It lets us know how we;re doing! This was so exciting to see posted and to read. Sweet Honey In The Rock has been around for 34 years and there have been 23 (we have a new sub) different women who have graced stages around the world. When Bernice retired three and a half years ago we knew we had the strength to go forth and make sure Sweet Honey remained a part of musical culture. We’re so grateful and honored that audiences continue to experience the empowering messages and slammin’ music we bring to the stage. This is an awesome site and I’m happy we we blessed to be a psrt of it. We have a new CD coming out in the Fall entitled EXPERIENCE 101. Please keep us in your prayers and mediations. We have a lot more to give and even more to experience. We travel to the Marciac Jazz Festival in Marcia France to open and perform with Wynton Marsalis on August 2nd 2007! Onward and Upward AfroBellas and Sweet Honey In The Rock. http://www.sweethoney.com

  16. Wow! I saw Sweet Honey a couple of years ago when they performed at my college in Iowa. If you haven’t already, check out their song “Patchwork Quilt” which raises AIDS awareness. This was the very first song I ever heard from them and it’s a wonderful one.

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