Versatile, vibrant, timeless, revolutionary and evolutionary, Sweet Honey in the Rock has graced the world with their regal stage presence and soul-stirring melodic rhythms for over 40 years. The internationally renowned, Grammy Award-winning, a cappella ensemble was founded in 1973 by the scholar and civil rights activist, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who retired from the group in 2004. In the four decades since their existence, 24 women have, at one point, experienced first hand, the power of collective singing as members of Sweet Honey in the Rock. The group’s core members today are Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel, and their two subs, Rochelle Rice and Christie Dashiell.
The group’s mission of empowerment, education, and entertainment is accomplished through their inspiring and captivating sounds rooted in Gospel, spirituals, folk with elements of hip-hop, jazz, Rhythm & Blues and African chants. The group’s music addresses the various political and social issues of today, a repertoire that includes songs about peace, spirituality, motherhood, police brutality, gun control, freedom, racism, domestic violence, immigration issues, environmental imbalance and more. About 75 percent of what they sing about are original songs or their own arrangements.
Sweet Honey in the Rock has performed all over the globe at many of the world’s most prestigious venues, including royal command concerts and festivals. In 2015 alone, they embarked on four U.S. embassy tours with performances and community outreach in Ethiopia, Peru, Jamaica, and Swaziland. While in Swaziland, they were one of the headliners of the internationally acclaimed 9th Annual Mountain Bushfire Music Festival that attracted over 20,000 people. They were also featured at the 11th Annual Festival of Voices in Hobart, Tasmania, as part of a tour that included Launceston, and also in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia.
Sweet Honey, a favorite of former President Barack and Michelle Obama, have entertained them by request at the White House. The group also had the honor of performing at the National Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Over the years, Sweet Honey has had the distinction of appearing at the legendary New York’s Carnegie Hall for 32 performances.
Carol Maillard, an actress, singer, composer, and violinist, who is one of the founding members of Sweet Honey in the Rock. She also creates arrangements for many of the group’s songs. Maillard’s acting credits include Broadway and off-Broadway roles in Eubie!, Comin’ Uptown, and Beehive and the television production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. She also appeared in the film, Beloved. Maillard spoke with 50BOLD about the distinctiveness of Sweet Honey and shares a deeper insight into the journey of this astounding group.
50BOLD: Sweet Honey in the Rock has been around for 40-plus years and has a great legacy. Tell us how the original group first got started.
Maillard: There was a theater company in Washington D.C. that was started by the actor Robert Hooks. He had been instrumental as being one of the founders of the Negro Ensemble Company. So much around theater was starting to take place at that time—the Black consciousness movement, Black arts and going back to Africa energy–all of this was happening. He really wanted D.C. to have something, Black arts. So he got together with some of his friends and started a theater company and we had to audition. In his theater company, we had to learn a lot of different things. We had to hone our craft and had weekly dance and voice group lessons with Bernice Johnson Reagon. Someone thought we should have a singing ensemble and asked Bernice to help us put it together. It was a wonderful group of 10 to 12 men and women from bass to high soprano, who were the best. After many rehearsals and group configurations we had one reheasal with four singers–Louise, Bernice, Mie Fredericks and me, and this is how Sweet Honey in the Rock came to be.
50BOLD: What year was this?
Maillard: The year was 1973. We sang and everything sounded so good. Our first performance was at Howard University where we sang about six songs at a blues festival.
50BOLD: I had read how the name Sweet Honey in the Rock stemmed from a song based on one of the Psalms that mentions a land so rich that when rocks cracked open honey flowed from them. Do you remember how the group’s name came about?
Maillard: I remember we were at a rehearsal and working on vocal warmups with one of the tunes we all knew. Bernice said something like, “There’s something that’s been in my head for a while and I haven’t been able to put the song together, but I’d like to see how the chords sound.” She taught us this chorus, and we all loved it. It was just a beautiful chord and Bernice said something to the effect of “sweet honey in the rock!” And I remember saying out loud, “This would be a great name for our group!” And the others who were at the rehearsal murmured, “Yeah, this is good, we should have this name,” and it stuck.
50BOLD: Your group performed at the White House for Barack and Michelle Obama. What was that experience like?
Maillard: It was awesome. Michelle had come to see us perform in Chicago the year before in 2008. She invited us to perform for 6, 7 and 8th graders at three schools with a predominately African American population. The event was for a young people’s family concert that was awesome. She had been a fan of ours for a long time, along with her mother. President Obama and his sister had also been fans of ours for a long time as well.
50BOLD: Your group sings songs that center around political and social issues and also tells of our history. Many of your songs have such powerful messages.
Maillard: Our songs have messages because when the group was formed, that was the consciousness at the time in R&B and soul music. People performed pop songs but every now and then, a record would surface with a strong political message. The O’Jays, The Isley Brothers, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye sang powerful songs with meaning. A lot of the singers out there were putting out music to make you think about political issues and the social environment. Our theater company was involved in that social commentary vibe too, so we were performing what we were into at the time. As we kept evolving–Bernice had her style of writing–and everybody had their own ideas of what they wanted to bring to a song.
50BOLD: Over the years I’ve attended a few of your performances and noticed that the group has someone doing sign language at your concerts which is fantastic. How did this come about?
Maillard: Yes, we have an interpreter for the deaf and hard of hearing at our concerts. When the group began traveling they had gone to the West Coast to perform for a women’s group and saw how the organizers had made sure things were accessible to many people. They ensured that ramps were put in place, there were wheelchair accessible spaces, and sign language was performed for the deaf and hard of hearing. Child care was also provided for concert goers so that mothers could bring their babies and have someone trustworthy look after them. Mothers could enjoy our concerts worry-free and Sweet Honey really loved that the women’s group had provided these extras for their audiences.
We were especially impressed with the sign interpreter. One Sunday morning Bernice went to a church and met a speech pathologist, Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, who was signing and singing at the service. Bernice asked Dr. Barnwell to audition for Sweet Honey. She was accepted as a sign language interpreter and was also asked to sing. Dr. Barnwell, however, realized she couldn’t do both simultaneously and recommended Shirley Childress Johnson, who was an American Sign Language Interpreter. Shirley joined us in 1980 and remained with the group until 2016. Sadly, she passed last year.
50BOLD: I attended a concert some years ago and I can still remember the unique way in which Shirley interpreted the songs through sign language; she was so passionate, it was like watching another performance.
Maillard: Yes, Shirley was extraordinary, and so developed her particular craft. Generally, sign interpreters stand off to the side and the deaf and hard of hearing sit in front of them. Shirley was incorporated into the fabric of the movement and sound of the group. There was no one like her. So many people miss her presence.
Shirley was what they call a coda–a child of deaf adult. Shirley’s parents were deaf. All of the children in Shirley’s household had hearing, so there was a dual culture going on in the home. She really did understand deaf culture and the needs of a deaf audience. The messages of Sweet Honey’s music were empowering to so many people you know, deaf audiences should have this experience and someone to interpret it for them. Shirley was great at what she did. The person who signs for us now is Barbara Hunt and she’s also excellent.
50BOLD: When I saw you perform last October at the Symphony Space in New York City, there was a jazz bass musician playing with you who was amazing. Does he perform often with the group?
Maillard: Yes, our bassist’s name is Romeir Mendez. What’s interesting about Romeir is that he’s listening to us as if we are instruments and we’re listening to him as if he’s another voice. When he does his solo, he doesn’t go too far and overshadows. He’s a very sensitive and exceptional young man. I hope we have him for several more years because everyone is trying to snatch him up.
50BOLD: What are some of the places you’ve visited? Are there any special places that have stood out for you most?
Maillard: Oh absolutely. Australia was a blessing. When I went to Australia in 1978, I went with the company of For Colored Girls. We toured Australia and I took 12 Sweet Honey recordings with me to hand them out to people in various places. I just gave them out to people who weren’t familiar with Sweet Honey in the Rock’s music. The people in Australia barely knew For Colored Girls. We sang a song at the end of the show written by a member of Sweet Honey, Dianaruthe Wharton, who wrote I Found God in Myself, it was the big finale.
I stayed in Australia for an extra month. Our music was played on the radio and I did a radio and TV interview where we talked about Sweet Honey, For Colored Girls, Black theater, and women, etc. Belinda Gross, a producer, brought us to Australia. In 1989 she lost her parents in a car crash and she had heard our song Breaths on Australian radio. The song really moved her. She made up her mind that she was going to get Sweet Honey to Australia and she did for a total of about eight times and each visit was wonderful!
50BOLD: When was the last time you visited Australia?
Maillard: The group’s last visit to Australia was in 2015, we conducted a workshop there called the Voices Festival. We had a class of about 200 who learned three Sweet Honey songs well enough to perform them on stage.
50BOLD: Can you talk a little about your attire and overall style of Sweet Honey?
Maillard: When Sweet Honey got started we’d basically wear our own clothing. We had one costume; everyone was a little Afro-centric style-wise in the 70’s. We had this one outfit made that incorporated how we liked to dress and our look then started to evolve. The group wanted more styles that were uniform, looks that tied them all together a bit more. And the style just evolved depending on who’s in the group and who was getting the clothes made at the time and what fabrics we decided upon. I think Afro-chic might be more of where we are now style-wise and we’re developing a new approach as far as what we wear.
50BOLD: I know you’ve been to Africa. What was your experience like there?
Maillard: The group went to Nigeria in 1977 for a festival. Years later the group got an invitation to travel around Southeast Africa. We went to Uganda, Mozambique, and Swaziland in 1990 which was an incredible experience. In 2015, we went back to Swaziland to the Bush Fire Music Festival and performed several times there. Our dream is to go to the Cape Town Jazz Festival or go to South Africa and Senegal to perform. Going to Africa is costly. You have to have some kind of connection. Someone has to bring you there. One of the former members of the group who was a sign language interpreter lives in Ghana now. She’s trying to get us to a vocal festival in Africa next year and is working on securing this now.
50BOLD: What is the group going to be doing moving forward?
Maillard: Well, there are a couple of things that are pretty important to us at this moment in terms of large projects. We’re doing a three-part residency at the University of Chicago starting this November. We are going to Chicago for about a week next year, and our visit will culminate in a concert with a choir—either a combined choir or one that you can acquire. And we’ll be also be teaching and going into the community.
Our 45th Anniversary concert takes place in Los Angeles at UCLA on November 30, of this year and it will be an extravaganza. We will perform and hopefully have some guest artists that will surprise our audience. We also have a few regularly scheduled concerts coming up. We’re currently looking at where we’re going within the next five years, where we’ll be at 50 and what we’ll do as an organization moving forward. So hopefully in the next five years, there will be more special collaborations and projects for Sweet Honey. Maybe we will finally get to work with some artists whom we’ve honored and respected throughout the years for our 50th Anniversary. We are hopeful that we will be around for our 50th.
50BOLD: What’s the name of the group’s last CD?
Maillard: Our last CD is called #LoveInEvolution which came out in 2016. The entire recording is about the various aspects of love. Love being an action word. In 2017 we collaborated with the Sultans of Spring and released a single called Celebrate the Holy Day, the video (see below) is on YouTube as well. The song is about the December holiday season for all different cultures. These songs are available on Amazon, Goldenrod Music, and iTunes.
50BOLD: Was there a documentary on Sweet Honey in the Rock and if so, how can our readers obtain a copy?
Maillard: The documentary is called Raise Your Voice and it was released in 2005. The DVD is available on Amazon and Goldenrod Music.
50BOLD: How can people find out more about Sweet Honey in the Rock, what is your website?
Maillard: Our music is available on Amazon, Golden Rod, iTunes. Many of our videos are on YouTube along with other tidbits about the group. It blows my mind how almost every song is available there. Our website is www.sweethoneyintherock.org and our email address is email@example.com. Folks can also go onto our Facebook page where we post at least three or four times a week. We also have a twitter page but most of our fans don’t tweet. Sweet Honey is on Instagram but we’re not that active. We’re always promoting things on Facebook.
50BOLD: With all the amazing performances Sweet Honey has done and your travels throughout the world, it’s surprising more people have not heard of you.
Maillard: My theory has always been that everybody needs to know about Sweet Honey in the Rock. Young people come to see us and say, “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of you. I can’t believe I don’t know this group. I’m here at the university in the music department and I can’t believe I did not grow up listening to your music.” We’re working really hard to maintain the spirit, integrity, and essence of who Sweet Honey in the Rock is and to keep this organization afloat and constantly moving. We really just need the support of the public, and of our fans. We need for people to ask for us, for Oprah to embrace us, or some television show to say, “Wow! We want Sweet Honey’s music!” We need to get our product to a wider audience.
50BOLD: How would Sweet Honey like to be remembered? What do you want your group’s legacy to be?
Maillard: I’ll speak for me. I think Sweet Honey is such a precious, amazing, light in this whole world of music. We are so unique and I think sometimes, it’s difficult for some people to really understand what we have to offer. The music is inclusive, it’s inspirational, it’s informative, it’s culturally diverse, it’s musically diverse. And the fact that we’ve been able to survive for 45 years is a testament to our music, culture, and history and woman-focused legacy.
We really do want our music to support, uplift and make people think, as well as feel great. We’ve visited Finland, Norway, many places in Europe, and Africa. We’ve actually been to Oman and Turkey in the Middle East and to Mainland China. We want our music to go further. We want our sound to do more than just make you want to move, we want it to go to the heart and soul of humanity.