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

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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.

TR: It also seems like a lot of pressure. How do you maintain the legacy? 

YB: You just take one step at a time. I think that sometimes when you look at it too deeply, it's scary and it's overwhelming, and you can't do it. [Laughter.]


But you have to say, "Hey, we have a mission, and let's live to the mission as best we can in this moment, and see if we can get to the next moment."

TR: Your music has stirred up, educated and basically addressed major issues like immigration head-on. What impact do you hope to have on such a hot-button issue?  


YB: As artists, we speak from some place inside. We really are never clear how people are going to be impacted. We know what we are trying to say, and sometimes we really are successful and people get the message. Also, each individual will get something else that we can't anticipate.

Each person brings their experience, their body of emotions, their history to each song that we sing. We want people to have a range of experiences when they come to our concerts. We want people to be uplifted. We want people to say, "Oh, I never thought about that," and "I didn't know the part this person had in history," and "Geez, I hadn't really put this issue on my agenda." We also want people to say, "I came tired, but I feel better now." We are hoping there's something vital in the music that will lift people's spirits.


When we do a song like "Are We a Nation?" we are trying to say to people that these are complex issues, we don't have the answer, but what we are hoping is that people will be willing to discuss the issues. When we say "Heed the call," we are saying, "Can we come to the table and really talk about why this is such a frustrating issue?"

TR: Can you tell us about Go in Grace?

YB: Go in Grace is the music that we wrote for Ailey. It was a story about a young girl who was deaf and grew up in a family that understood she needed some special attention. The music is part of Sweet Honey's relationship and work with the deaf community and sign language. We felt like this was a great way to include elements for that part of our audience who rarely see themselves onstage.


What we constructed was a series of lessons to be taught to this young child as she becomes a young woman through those lessons from her elders. The music really takes you through that journey. It talks about the family, the love of the family. You see the passing of the father, you see the son taking over and you see these elder women passing on words of wisdom to this young woman.

TR: There's a lot of debate about the state of black music and art in general. Many have said that the days of voicing a message have gotten lost. What are your views on where things stand?


YB: One of my thoughts is that African-American music is in a constant state of evolution, and some periods of the evolution are more transparent and fragile than others. But always, I think, wherever we are, the evolution reflects the times that we are living in.

In the '60s we were really strong. Coming out of the '60s and '70s, we had Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder; we had people who were writing some amazing music at a time when we had come through something.


I think [now] we are in a crazy, mixed-up time, where the dividing line between the generations shows up in how we are communicating with each other. We are in a really fragile part of the evolution. The music shows that kind of confusion. It shows the negative and positive, and it has depth where we don't even expect it sometimes.

Today's artists are trying to figure out how to bring the past forward into what they are doing now. They are documenting this strange period of time we are in. None of us know where it's going to wind up; nor do we know where the next stage of the evolution will be.


Monee Fields-White is a Chicago-based writer who covers a wide array of topics, including business and economic news.

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