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Sweet Honey in the Rock (Saturday, April 23rd, 2005, O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, College of St. Catherine, St. Paul)
Sweet Honey in the Rock - Photo from their website by Dwight Carter


By Helen Blodgett

At the College of St. Catherine Saturday night, inside the pleasant brick rock walls of the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, there were 7 women singing, making honey for us to take home and to keep on giving.

Overestimating my navigating skills, I was a few minutes late. I rushed into the O’Shaughnessy, slid by many knees to get to my seat, where I landed and settled into the space and sounds. The women of Sweet Honey in the Rock were sitting in an arc of evenly spaced chairs. And as they started singing, they started moving; some swaying their arms like grass in the river, others bopping their shoulders. Their chairs could barely contain them. And pretty soon Aisha Kahlil had to stand up and dance. Throughout the show, their soothing harmonies kept us amazed in our seats, later driving us to stand up while their voices rose powerfully with emotion.

Sweet Honey in the Rock has been performing for 31 years. They formed at the D.C. Black Repertory Theater Company back in 1973, where they began their commitment to sing songs born of the African American legacy and traditions. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the founding members, moved on to new projects last year, but their collective voice continues to sing strong.

Shirley Childress Saxton provided an American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation for the performance. She seemed to have drawn crowds of both deaf and hearing fans for her unique style of interpreting that captures the rhythms and color of all that is being sung. I’ve seen very good interpreters at plays before, but she was wonderful! She made her hands sing.

As the women sat, they would bring up a topic of conversation, “Here in DC, we were hoping you’d help us get new neighbors…” Then they would break into a song, discuss it with shakeré and fiberglass agogo, building layers of melodies, and then carry the conversation forward into the next song...

Along with many of their songs from their 25th Anniversary album, they sang quite a few selections from their most recent album, “The Women Gather” including the “Ballad of Harry T. Moore,” which tells the largely forgotten story of the highly successful NAACP organizer. He registered 100,000 black people to vote in Florida during the 1930s and 40s, and because he was so successful, KKK members bombed his house, killing him and his family on Christmas Eve. (Read more at www.pbs.org/harrymoore)

Bringing a powerful message to the stage, Aisha Kahlil dedicated “Prayer at the Crossroads” to those struggling with addiction. Through a haunting melody and a stream of single words that flashed images within us, she urged everyone to recognize the intrinsic power of each moment, and the possibility for change.

Nitanju Bolade Casel composed and took the lead on the “Give Us the Vote Chant.” A credit to their skill, they somehow managed to make the phrase “voting representation” a catchy line. Many of the women live in Washington D.C. and are part of the mobilization to give D.C. residents representation in the House and Senate. I was not aware of this issue previously, but they told us about how to get involved at www.dcvote.org.

I think everyone left feeling empowered and renewed. The women know themselves and believe in what they’re doing. They were the freedom singers during the civil rights movement and they are the freedom singers of our grass roots struggling today. And this is so important. Like they said (approximately), “At these protests going on now…there’s not a whole lot of singing. We’re going to practice with you tonight and you can go lead with these songs.” They taught us our history, how to protest, and urged us to figure out or to keep on fulfilling our role in fighting for freedom.

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes” ~Ella’s Song

I encourage you to watch the documentary special about Sweet Honey in the Rock, directed by Stanley Nelson. It will be airing in the Twin Cities on TPT 2 on June 29th 9:00pm.

Helen Blodgett is at helen.blodgett@howwastheshow.com