Sweet Honey in the Rock bring their 35th birthday party to the Twin Cities

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On February 18th, first lady Michelle Obama invited six African-American women, dressed in flowing bright colors, to sing to 180 school children in what may have been the first Black History Month event at the White House. Sweet Honey in the Rock taught the children a civil rights anthem, “This Little Light Of Mine”—coming full circle, since the group’s founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, a member of the SNCC Freedom Singers, sang at the 1963 March on Washington. When Sweet Honey in the Rock return to the Twin Cities on March 6-10, they will engage in a whirlwind of concerts and workshops that embody the power of song to unite people with one another, sharing their history of struggle and inspiring action.

“If someone has an issue or subject they’ve been thinking about for a long time and they’ve written a song, we’ll do it,“ explained Sweet Honey “bass woman” Ysaye Barnwell, in a KFAI interview. “If there’s a form or genre we don’t have represented—say, jazz or rap—we’ll add it. There’s no shortage of ways to bring in new music!”

march 6-10: sweet honey in the rock 35th anniversary celebration in the twin cities
the o’shaughnessy, college of st. catherine
2004 randolph ave., st. paul

• march 6, 10 a.m. & 12:15 p.m.: educational concerts for youth

• march 7, 8 p.m.: 35th anniversary celebration and concert

• march 9, 10 a.m. & 12:15 p.m.: educational concerts for youth

all concerts are asl interpreted.

tickets for 35th anniversary celebration $59.50-$19.50 (vip reception $75.00), available at ava special events (612-673-9230), the o’shaughnessy box office, or ticketmaster. tickets for educational programs $6.00, available only through ava.

community workshops by members of sweet honey in the rock

• march 6, 11 a.m. ysaye barnwell appears on catalyst on kfai radio. (archived online for two weeks after broadcast.)

• march 7, 9:30 a.m.-12 p.m.: asl workshop for interpreters by shirley childress saxton, music recital hall at the college of st. catherine

• march 7, 10:30 a.m.-12 p.m.: “building a vocal community,” a talk by ysaye barnwell, t plaza at minneapolis community technical college.

• march 7, 5:30-7:30 p.m., pre-concert reception at music recital hall, the college of st. catherine, honoring advocates and supporters of over 200 programs working with sexual assault and domestic violence programs in minnesota.

• march 8, 3 p.m.-5:30 p.m.: international women’s day celebration community welcome for sweet honey in the rock, workshop with sweet honey’s aisha kahlil, center for independent artists, 4137 bloomington ave., minneapolis.

• march 10, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. “power of song,” a workshop by shirley childress saxton for deaf and hard of hearing students (grades 9-12), minnesota north star academy.

With a gumbo of musical styles, this all-female a capella singing group—drawing their name from the 81st Psalm—have nurtured communities since they began in their hometown of Washington, D.C. 35 years ago. Since Reagon retired five years ago, two women have joined, so the group’s current lineup comprises Barnwell, Nitango Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahill, Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, and Shirley Childress.

African-American spirituals and civil rights songs formed the base for their repertoire, from Reagan’s youth with SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). They were “freedom riders” who integrated cross-country buses and sat in at lunch counters in the early 1960s. The Sweet Honey voices accompanied only by rhythm were the ideal choice to record those songs for the soundtrack to the film Freedom’s Song. They’ve recorded African songs from “Wodaabe Nights” to the South African anti-apartheid “Azanian Freedom Song,” labor songs, scat-sung jazz numbers, and their own original compositions.

“When we sing old songs from the black church,” said Barnwell, “people will say, ‘That’s how my grandmother sang!’ We’re trying to preserve and extend a cultural tradition. Grandmothers to children are comfortable at our concerts.”

These powerful women are also great storytellers.

They sing a lineage of freedom fighters, from rebellious slave Nat Turner to 1920s anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in “If You Had Lived,” tell the story of South Africa’s murdered martyr in “Biko,” and describe how a grandmother affirmed children’s self-esteem in the midst of racial segregation and rural poverty in “No Mirrors in My Nana’s House.”

“We are storytellers about people in history that don’t get their due,” said Barnwell. “[Civil rights activist] Ella Baker. NAACP leader Harry T. Moore murdered in Florida for registering people to vote. We have a rap song about Washington D.C. not having a voting member of Congress.”

In support of their mission to reach a broad base of listeners, Sweet Honey in the Rock are multilingual. Since 1980, Shirley Childress Saxton has interpreted Sweet Honey in the Rock concerts in American Sign Language.

Barnwell brings her 20-year tradition of “community sings,” hosting a workshop on this community-building experience that she says requires no musical expertise: “just the joy and act of singing together.” Sweet Honey in the Rock also participates in International Women’s Day on March 8 at the Center for Independent Artists in Minneapolis. Their May 7th concert , co-sponsored by KFAI, honors advocates working to end domestic violence and sexual assault, community organizers and educators.

Dr. Barnswell sums up the essence of what all art does, saying that ”in hard times, humanity needs the arts. We need things that bring us together and help us express ourselves.”

Lydia Howell (lhowell@visi.com), a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio on Fridays at 11 a.m.

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