Sweet Honey in the Rock addresses political issues in song

by Zeke Turner | 1/26/09 5:31am

Sweet Honey joined Hop programming director Margaret Lawrence for a post-performance discussion on Friday.
by Zeke Turner and Zeke Turner / The Dartmouth

"I've just been given an assignment, which I will execute faithfully," she said, taking a lighthearted jab at Chief Justice John Roberts' fouled-up administration of the oath of office to President Barack Obama during Tuesday's inauguration. "I think the man just looked at Barack and had a brain fart."

In a week of celebration and progress -- Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the inauguration of America's first black president -- Sweet Honey in the Rock brought a lighthearted yet fundamentally political presence to Dartmouth's campus,

While Sweet Honey's membership has changed with the coming and going of over 20 people -- most recently Bernice Johnson Reagon, the group's founder -- the ensemble has been singing about social justice, resistance, love and community for the last 35 years.

The group's most recent children's CD, "Experience ... 101" (2007), was nominated for a Grammy Award.

"We walked the red carpet and everything, and then the Muppets took our award -- we'll be back," joked group member Ysaye Barnwell at Friday's concert.

The group is the product of five virtuoso black female vocalists -- Nitanju Casel, Aisha Kahlil, Louise Robinson, Barnwell and Maillard -- as well as Shirley Childress Saxton, the group's American Sign Language interpreter.

"I try to show what sounds look like; I'm like the Picasso of sound," said Saxton, who signed, danced and even had her own solo in Friday's concert.

Veterans of the Spaulding Auditorium (the group performed in Hanover in 1997 and 2003), Sweet Honey in the Rock took the stage before a sold-out audience, which was boiling over with anticipation. A man one seat over from me had been waiting 25 years to see the group, and his wife began to sob before intermission.

Kahlil took the stage with a steaming cup of tea and noticeably held back during the first song, "Forever Love," raising questions about whether or not three days in Hanover had gotten the best of the group's vocal health.

But any uneasiness was put to rest before the end of the fourth song, "Do What the Spirits Say," sung by Barnwell, whose amazing virtuosity and stunning deep bass challenge all assumptions about what a woman's voice is capable of.

In the over two-hour long concert, the group performed songs from an impressive array of styles and influences -- chant songs from Mali, Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," and even "I Like It That Way," which the group wrote for Nickelodeon network Noggin's "Jack's Big Music Show" -- each of which focused on the group's message of social justice and harmony.

Group members took turns introducing the songs -- no front woman here -- and did not shy away from injecting politics into their comments throughout the show, consistently celebrating the 2008 election and at one point rousing the audience to stand and chant "O-bam-a! O-bam-a!"

The group also editorialized about the state of America's politics and people in their songs: adding "that's why you voted like you did" to their song "Trying Times"; comparing Obama to Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Do What the Spirits Say"; and pointing to government negligence during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath and, less explicitly, the investment practices that have taken a toll on America's financial markets in "Greed."

"We want all children to grow up without war, to be loved unconditionally ... and to know that the adults today will not completely destroy the environment," Casel said. "It's not going to help anybody if he fails," she added later, urging the audience members to get behind Obama, whether or not they voted for him.

Sweet Honey came to Dartmouth as part of the Hop's Class Divide initiative, a three-year program aimed at sparking discussion about class in the Upper Valley by engaging artists with community members.

On Wednesday, Sweet Honey joined community members in Hanover's Howe Library for a discussion based on an excerpt from David Shipler's book "The Working Poor: Invisible In America" (2004).

On Thursday, Barnwell led a singing workshop, "The Power of Song: Singing in the African-American Tradition," for community members and students in Rollins Chapel.

With Saxton, Sweet Honey's ASL interpreter, perched beside her, Barnwell said, "I will sing to you, and you will sing back to me, and we'll make it sound really good," before leading the audience of mostly community members through a series of chants and songs, including Negro spirituals, such as "Wade in the Water" and "I Want to Die Easy When I Die."

"I think of music as coalitions," Barnwell told the audience, which she asked to sit according to vocal range. "We have to suspend some of our own agenda -- the goal is always to build something greater than our individual parts."

Earlier that day, the group met for lunch with Dartmouth's all-female a cappella group, the Rockapellas, who cite Sweet Honey as the inspiration for their name and repertoire.

The Rockapellas began the lunch by singing two songs for Sweet Honey. They first sang Lauryn Hill's "To Zion," and then "Harbor Me," written by Barnwell, who attentively watched the students sing and provided feedback about their tempo and harmony afterwards.

"The pressure of wanting to be really good for them made us bring our A-game," said Julia Dewahl '09, the director of the Rockapellas. "We were extra soulful for them."

Rockapella Molly Roy '09 said that she was especially moved when Saxton encouraged the group to write their own songs.

"We write about anything we think about," Barnwell told the audience in Spaulding Auditorium.

"It made me think about writing songs more than I ever did before," Roy said.

Politics came up at the luncheon with the Rockapellas as well. Barnwell said that Obama's election has special significance for older generations.

"There are requirements that my generation has that your generation doesn't have," she said. "There's a sense that my generation wants him to own his African-Americaness. My father was born in the 1800s -- I feel only three generations separated from slavery."

Perhaps the best story that Sweet Honey shared with the Rockapellas was about the time that the group had the chance to meet then-Senator Obama. The group prepared a gift basket for the senator and earnestly introduced themselves. When Obama got up to speak at the meeting, he said, according to Barnwell, "Sweet Honey thinks I don't know who they are," and began to sing the chorus from "Ella's song," which says "we who believe in freedom cannot rest."

At Friday night's concert, the audience members had the opportunity to sing the very same chorus, rising to their feet and singing with such vigor that Robinson had trouble quieting the audience so that Sweet Honey could finish the song.

"Dartmouth knows how to act at a Sweet Honey concert," Barnwell exclaimed.