On Tuesday, February 5th at 7:30pm, Don Michael Randel Ensemble in Residence Sweet Honey in the Rock presented their stories and other selections to students and the public as part of their 45th anniversary celebration. Prior to their visit to International House, Lead Global Voices Metcalf Intern Rena Slavin conducted an interview with Sweet Honey in the Rock about their mission, artistry, and residency at the University of Chicago.
Global Voices: For those who might not be familiar with SHIR’s exceptional history growing out of the Civil Rights Movement, could you tell me a bit about the founding of the group?
Maillard: Yes. There was a professional black theater company started by the actor Robert Hooks, who was also instrumental in starting the Negro Ensemble Company. And in the early 70s, he was wanting to have the same kind of professional company in Washington D.C. And he started the D.C. Black Repertory Company, which was also a training ground for acting, writing, singing, [and] dancing. We had a dance company, we had a professional actors’ company, we had a training workshops, and we trained new actors. And one of the actors in the professional company, a gentleman by the name of LeTari, he wanted there to be a singing group. We were studying, we would take voice every week, and ensemble singing every week with Bernice Johnson Reagon, the vocal director for the theater. He thought the music we were doing was really wonderful, and he said, “Bernice, can we have a group?” And he nagged her until she finally said, “Okay, I’ll work with you, and I’ll help you all put this group together.” So we had 10 voices, men and women. I think we started in February of ’73, and by the fall of ‘73, 4 people showed up after the summer break for the first rehearsal. There was 4 of us, and that was Mie, myself, Louise Robinson, and Bernice. We were all very accomplished singers, and everything we sang had a nice blend, and Louise said, “Let’s keep going, we could do this, we could be a group,” and Bernice gave in, and there was Sweet Honey in the Rock. The group had already been named, during those early rehearsals. And here we are 45 years later.
Global Voices: That’s an incredible story. The group has stayed a strong cultural presence despite the fact that members have left and new members have joined—how have you, as a group, managed to create such a unified aesthetic and philosophical goal?
Maillard: You know what, that is something I would tend to say...It’s mysterious. And it might require someone to do a PhD study on it. I really don’t know. I was in the group and left and came back to something that was vaguely familiar to me in terms of how the group operated. I think a lot of things changed, of course, from the time I that I left in the late 70s and that I came back in the early 90s. But I do believe that the women that are in the group—that come in and out of the group—have a certain mindset, and a cultural understanding, and a socio-political awareness of the world that we’re in as women, as black women, as mothers, and daughters, and lovers, and teachers, and doctors, lawyers, you name it! Educated women who raise families, and start businesses, and write songs, and are poetic, and dance, and do all of those things. I think that that perspective has been something that’s been consistent, probably with the women who have stayed with the group the longest, probably Bernice and Aisha and Nitanju. Nitanju came in ’85, Aisha came in ’81, and Bernice was there from ‘73 to 2003.
Global Voices: We can pass the PhD topic to the Ethnomusicology Department and see what they do with it.
Maillard: Absolutely! Please! Because I also think that the people really want the music. We get invited places. We don’t have a producer or a company that sends us out. We don’t have a big label that books a tour for us. We really just have the four of us and our booking person. We don’t have PR. We have a booking person, a road manager, a sound engineer, and us.
Global Voices: When you go to a SHIR concert, you see the hard work of these individuals in putting everything together, and you see a fantastic display of vocal and musical prowess, but you also get to hear a very vocal socio-political statement. Given the divided society in which we live today, why do you feel it is important to stick to your convictions as a group and continue to share your message?
Maillard: I think it’s just what we do—I don’t have any other answer for it. We come out of an era with socially conscious music. The way I’m thinking is I’m remembering being a teenager and the folk music movement that was happening: Peter, Paul, and Mary; Pete Seeger; Richie Havens; The Staple Singers; the Temptations; and all of that music. I don’t think Diana Ross ever sang a socio-politically aware song, ever. Reach Out and Touch might have been the closest the Supremes came to it. But basically, everybody—Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers—people were in that state of mind in terms of how music was being talked about. Jimi Hendrix, into the rock sound—it just kept evolving. That’s what we come out of. I think that even though we might like certain kinds of R&B individually, certain kinds of jazz, certain kinds of African music, the Fela sound, all those things influence us as writers and arrangers and performers and singers. That’s who we are; that’s where we are. And we can write pop songs, we can do pop music in our own shows. We can do all that, but what we present as Sweet Honey in the Rock has to be able to touch people, educate them, empower them, enlighten them, inspire them. And we like that. And that’s what people ask for; they tell us that’s what they need.
Global Voices: Given your dedication to socially conscious music-making, what is the importance of projects such as your year in residency at the University of Chicago?
Maillard: Oh, we get to reach so many people, so many people who may not come to the concerts. We get to have a dialogue, we get to talk about what we do, where we come from. We get to hear questions from our audiences and be able to answer them in a really personal way. I love the residencies—it brings you much more in touch with the audience, with our fans, with our people. People who don’t know Sweet Honey may come to an event and get to know more about the group. We have longevity; we’ve been around for 45 years, but we’re not a group that people are writing about constantly or seeing on the television, or specials done just on us, so people get to know a little more about the women who created and sustained the group. It keeps us up close and personal; I would love for us to do more residencies like this, this has been wonderful. So we’re heading for Round 2!
Global Voices: What was a highlight of your Autumn Quarter week at the University of Chicago?
Maillard: I think the first conversation we had with a writer, Barbara Ransby, who interviewed us. And to hear back from people in the audience was overwhelming and touching and emotional. And working with the choirs—with Mollie Stone—that was something else as well.
Global Voices: We are excited to have you back in Hyde Park and to welcome you to International House. The International House mission is to foster cross-cultural understanding through cultural exchange; this seems to me to resonate with the Sweet Honey in the Rock’s mission. [My last question for you is:] why do you believe acapella is an effective medium for communicating across different groups of people?
Maillard: Well mostly because it’s the human voice. And for those who don’t have a physical voice, it’s our sign language interpreter giving the feelings and the message of what the music is about. And the music is for all people. We don’t do everything acapella anymore; we always travel with a bass player, we’ve worked with percussion, we’ve worked with full orchestra—and I mean full orchestra. We’ve done jazz trios, we’ve done piano-bass-drums. We’ve just done it all. But the songs and our arrangements that are acapella are very unique because they’re not college acapella, they’re not doo-wop acapella, they’re Sweet Honey in the Rock acapella. It’s our particular way of arranging and looking at music, and it’s unique. I know what we do is extraordinarily unique, and I want to say priceless and timeless. It’s very wonderful to have in the world.
Global Voices: I agree. What are you most looking forward to in your remaining Winter and Spring Quarter residencies?
Maillard: Just learning more about what people need, what people want to hear, what people have been touched by. That’s always my favorite. I love when people ask questions and give comments—that’s what I like the most. I wish that after concerts we could do that: “So how was it? What did you like? What are you thinking about?” We don’t have a lot of artists who are putting it out there about what’s important about being alive, and being truthful, and calling it out. What’s not righteous, what’s wrong, what’s a lie. Naming it. Naming what is not right and don’t let people get away with it. Even if it’s in a grocery store and somebody’s being rude or insensitive. Say, “you don’t have to be like that,” just call things out. Make people wake up to their behavior.
Global Voices: That is what makes your group exceptional—you really do educate as well as entertain. Thank you for your time this morning and we’ll see you next week!
Maillard: Yes, thank you!
This interview has been edited for clarity.
This program was co-sponsored by the International House Global Voices Performing Arts Series and the University of Chicago Department of Music.