Awareness heightened, backs straightened and motivation to march onward count as some of the inspirational qualities attributed to the music of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Bernice Johnson Reagon began working with vocalists in the early ’70s in D.C. who became known as Sweet Honey.
Reagon, an activist, toured with groups of “freedom singers” during the cvil rights movement and in November 1973, Sweet Honey gave their debut performance in a Howard University classroom.
On Friday, Sept. 16, at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda, the group will kick off a three-year, 50th-anniversary tour, “Sweet Honey in The Rock: Road To 50.”
Current members of Sweet Honey include: Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson, both original members of the group; Nitanju Bolade Casel; Aisha Kahlil, former Strathmore Artists in Residence Christie Dashiell and Rochelle Rice; and featured musician Romeir Mendez, upright acoustic bass and electric bass. Hosting the Strathmore event will be Kiki Shepard, former host of “Showtime at the Apollo.”
Beginning as an acapella vocal group, the multi-Grammy Award-winning group has played to sellout audiences around the world. The original four-member ensemble expanded to five-part harmonies, with a sixth member acting as a sign-language interpreter.
Maillard recalled the first concert back in the group’s formative years.
“When we started at the DC Black Repertory Theater at Georgia Avenue and Farragut St., NW, there was a music training where Bernice was our teacher – she gave us everything she knew,” said Maillard, who’s also an actress, musician and composer.
“At that time, it was the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “Music began talking about social issues from rock, country and folk vibes. The Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the O’Jays and the Staple Singers were beginning to put social issues in their songs.”
While primarily an a cappella vocal group, Maillard explained how their music remains relevant and said today’s peaceful protests are often motivated by a legacy of civil rights music.
“We are alive in the present moment but remember our past,” Maillard said. “We are totally immersed in whatever is happening in the present. This includes musical styles, conversations, how we look, what we don’t want to look like, how we want to put the music together and looking forward.”
On many occasions, Sweet Honey has performed with instruments. During this anniversary tour, which continues through 2025, the sounds of both an upright acoustic and electric bass will be heard. In past performances, the group has been accompanied by the piano and conga drums.
In their impressive past, Sweet Honey has performed with groups and solo artists including the Morgan State University Choir, the National Symphony, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Odetta and Miriam Makeba.
“You know, some people may say they can’t think of many groups that have been around for 50 years that are still putting out music,” Maillard said. “But we are Black women running our own business, managing ourselves. We are still here because our fans want the music.”
For ticket information for “Sweet Honey in The Rock: Road To 50,” visit www.strathmore.org.
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