The Root Interview: Sweet Honey in the Rock's Ysaye Barnwell

The composer and longtime member of the famed a cappella group talks about collaborating with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, taking on controversial material and why black music is in a fragile state today.

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For almost 40 years, the Grammy Award-winning a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock has captured in song the struggles, tenacity and triumph of black America. They have also not been afraid to rattle thoughts on key issues -- ranging from diversity to racial intolerance -- that continue to divide the nation. Take their recent single, "Are We a Nation?" released this summer, which tackles the national debate on the controversial SB1070 immigration law that was enacted in Arizona.

This month the group of six women will join their vocal prowess with the strength of dance at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the classic spiritual dance piece Revelations.

This marks the second collaboration between the two legendary arts organizations. In 2008 Sweet Honey was featured in an original piece, Go in Grace, to commemorate Ailey's 50th-anniversary national dance tour. Sweet Honey composed and performed the music for the piece, which was directed and choreographed by Ailey protégé Hope Boykin. The group released the music independently on its label, She-Rocks 5, Inc.

Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell, who joined Sweet Honey in 1979 and has composed many of the group's songs, talked with The Root about the collaboration with Ailey (scheduled to be performed on Dec. 31), music's impact on critical national issues, and the state of black art and music.  

The Root: Revelations is a classic dance piece that bears testimony to the faith and tenacity of African Americans. How is this piece most reflected in Sweet Honey's music?

Ysaye Barnwell: We really are tied very closely to African-American traditional music. We try to preserve the vocal heritage of African Americans, and we try to extend it. We go beyond the church, and we go beyond the civil rights movement.

It's clear to me that this is a piece that expresses the struggle, the suffering and the triumph over all of it at the end. That's what we have done as a people. Each of us in the group has been through our own struggles, and we feel like we have come out pretty well.

On every level, we identify with this music very deeply. To be singing it as the dancers are dancing it, for me, will take it that much more in-depth. You will have another layer of emotions that get expressed through the dance.

TR: Sweet Honey and Alvin Ailey are both legendary. You will be working with Judith Jamison, another icon. What does that mean to you? How special is this moment?

When we come together, we are building something bigger than the two of us together here. That's really an amazing thing to be building a new work, or to be able to put another shape or twist on a piece that's been around for 50 years and to re-energize it. That's an amazing thing for two cultural institutions to come together to do.