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June 11, 2005

A Taste of Sweet Honey

Washington Blade (DC):

When Bernice Johnson Reagon broached the subject of Iraq, Saddam Hussein and President Bush during a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert in Lawrence, Kan., several years ago, some audience members walked out. They came, one man said after the performance/political pep talk, to be entertained ó not challenged.

But for Reagon, who retired in 2004 from the a cappella ensemble she founded in 1973, based on a vocal workshop group at the D.C. Black Repertory Theater Co., there is no other way. Singing about freedom and struggle, equal rights and social justice has been a non-negotiable part of the groupís mission for 32 years.

In "Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice," an 84-minute documentary scheduled to premiere in metropolitan Washington on Wednesday, June 15, at Silverdocs, the AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival in Silver Spring, Md., viewers witness Reagon and other Sweet Honey members performing, raising children, as well as working through the groupís creative process behind the scenes. "We sing," one of the women says, "to offer a look at the world from a black womanís voice."

As far back as1975, Sweet Honey has been spreading its message in this manner. That year, Reagon, a member of the SNCC Freedom Singers during the í60s, wrote the song "Joan Little" after a black woman in North Carolina killed a white jailer who had sexually assaulted her. Little eventually was acquitted. Among the songs performed in the film are "Joan Little," "I Remember/I Believe," "Women Gather," "Denko," "Fulani Chant," and "Wanting Memories."

In a written statement for the American Mastersí documentary, which also is scheduled to air June 29 on PBS stations nationwide, Reagon tells the filmís director, Stanley Nelson, how Sweet Honey was one of the first black groups in the nation to sing songs about AIDS and discuss homosexuality and AIDS at every concert, "not just the ones with a lot of gay people, who were really being hit by the crisis."

Reagonís daughter is lesbian musician Toshi Reagon, who also performs in the documentary, in particular at her motherís final appearance before a D.C. audience, when she retired in February 2004. "Weíd go into a black church and I would talk about using condoms and the danger of having sex without talking," Bernice Reagon told Nelson. "It was rough going in black audiences because many in our community were homophobic and uncomfortable about AIDS and that, unfortunately, included the black church. "Sweet Honey has a long experience of going into different communities with issues that made some in our audiences uncomfortable," she says. "It was and continues to be very important work."

Reagon is described as the glue that kept the ensemble together. There have been more than 20 different members in Sweet Honey since its inception. After she stepped down, the remaining members decided to keep performing and hired two singers to replace her: Louise Robinson and Arnať. The ensembleís other members are: Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, Carol Maillard and Shirley Childress Saxton, who joined Sweet Honey in 1980 as an American Sign Language interpreter and continues her work in this role.

Posted by acapnews at June 11, 2005 3:06 PM