February 1, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 25
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Sweet Honey keep roots alive through music

Bridgit Brown

The mission of the African American female a cappella sextet known as Sweet Honey in the Rock is twofold: to keep alive some of the vocal music traditions of the African American journey — from Africa to the Middle Passage to slavery to migration to the civil rights movement; and to expand that already rich repertoire with new sounds.

Ysaye Barnwell, composer, songwriter and member of Sweet Honey, took the time to speak to the Banner about her life, music, history and the roles that individuals play in an increasingly volatile society.

How did you get involved with Sweet Honey in the Rock?

I’ve had several lives. My first life was as a public health professional with a post-doctorate in public health.I was teaching at Howard Dental School when I decided that I wanted to study sign language. So I went to study sign language and to learn a bit about the deaf culture. I wound up interpreting a church service and singing for the first time in church a song that I signed. Bernice Johnson Reagan (who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973) happened to come to that service and asked me if I was interested in auditioning for the group. That was in 1979, and that’s how I joined the group.

You have written a lot of songs and many of them have been recorded by Sweet Honey.

Most of the music that I’ve written has been commissioned. Sweet Honey has liked some of it and decided to record them.

Can you expound a bit on popular music today and how it permeates the mainstream culture? Do you feel like it has a purposeful function?

I think it does. I think that there is a difference today because there is an industry that drives the music as a commodity. Once it becomes a commodity, it no longer has the sacred function that it has had for us historically. It has a commercial function; so in fact, it has crossed the line into becoming commercial rather than functional as we’ve known it traditionally.

So how do you think we might be able to change that?

Well, I think it takes a good bid of activism to decide that there are things that we are, as a community, not going to burden. And that we actually begin to develop some new networks where the music that serves us in the way that we wish it to serve us has gained access to the community and can be made available.

Do you listen to rap music?

I don’t listen to an awful lot of music right now at all. When I do, it’s primarily because I’m trying to learn music for Sweet Honey or trying to work on music for workshops and things like that, so the small answer is no, I don’t listen to a lot of rap. The big answer is no, I don’t listen to a lot of music.

What’s the big project that you’re working on?

I’ve been commissioned to write a requiem for the bones of a slave in Waterbury, Connecticut. He died in 1787. Marylyn Nelson is an African American woman and the poet laureate of Connecticut. She wrote a magnificent poetic narrative of what happened to this man whose name is Fortune and it’s that text that I’m setting musically. “Fortunes Bones” is the name of the poem.

In your opinion, what’s the state of black America? Where are we going?

Many people, who are 35 years of age and younger, do not have a clue of what happened during the civil rights movement, or know that a civil rights movement even existed. I think it’s going to take some rigor on the part of older black people, educators, scholars and professionals to have a real as wakening to where we have come from, how we wound up here and the fact that we need to take a good look at what our values are now.

I feel like we need to have serious reassessment, and I’m not sure who or where this conversation should begin. It would seem to me that in some cases it would take place in black universities so that students who are graduating from those places have something to say when they leave, but I don’t feel like it should be isolated there. I think that artists can play a big part in this, but we are not in that commercial market where our messages are going to be promoted by the industry.

What advice would you give to someone who has received a lot of opportunities, but yet takes the fact that he/she has them for granted?

Now that you got it, what do you do with it? And what is your understanding of what allowed you to get in a position where you’ve gotten all the things that you want, because it can’t without some understanding that somebody paid for you to do that. How do we get you and your peers to understand who paid for this and what was the cost? You know how they say, “follow the money”? Follow the money backwards.

The female a cappella sextet Sweet Honey in the Rock sing with a mission through the traditions of the African American journey and expand upon it with new sounds. (Photo courtesy of Berklee College of Music)

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