Cellist Yo-Yo Ma emphasizes, “As a musician, you are always working toward something larger than yourself.”
Ma was talking about the core values of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Citizen Musician initiative, which he helped establish in his capacity as the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green creative consultant. But his words also could describe the members of a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.
When this all-female ensemble comes to Symphony Center on Dec. 7 for an SCP Special Event concert, they will raise the roof with “Sweet Honey in the Rock: Celebrating the Holydays,” a program of American holiday spiritual songs and hymns, as well as songs of the season from other lands and cultures ranging from Africa to Israel.
They also will bring something else to Symphony Center: a commitment to supporting social and humanitarian causes that is as fundamental to Sweet Honey in the Rock as the diverse mixture of blues, African, jazz, gospel and R&B music that the group performs. “People are generally in good spirits, so they want to hear things that are uplifting and remind them of their own celebrations,” said founding member Carol Maillard. “But they also want to hear something new, something that they should be thinking about in terms of politics or social issues and the holidays, and people’s needs, and families and even love.”
For the past 40 years, the women of Sweet Honey have frequently addressed issues like civil rights, immigration and gun violence during their concerts. “We always talk about these things from the stage,” Maillard said. “We make mention we know what’s going on, and we might call a song that relates to that issue.”
In fact, the group was born out of the music of resistance.
Founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, who retired from the group in 2004, first became aware of the political power, or the “rock,” of song while in jail in 1961 for her participation in a civil rights march in her Albany, Ga., hometown. After her release, she became a member of the original Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers and a leader in the civil rights movement, traveling the country spreading its songs and its message: “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
Ever since the group’s founding in 1973, the vocalists of Sweet Honey have walked their talk, appearing at numerous political rallies, including demonstrations against apartheid (Reagon and Ysaye Barnwell were arrested at the Free Africa Movement anti-apartheid demonstrations in front of the South African embassy in Washington, D.C.). Sweet Honey was honored to take part in the 1990 celebration tour for activists Nelson and Winnie Mandela, after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
Sweet Honey also appeared at the 1979 Musicians United for Safe Energy concerts in New York City that became the “No Nukes” concert film and album. In 2011, Sweet Honey and other MUSE musicians (including Bonnie Raitt and Crosby, Stills & Nash) performed a benefit concert for disaster relief efforts in Japan. The group’s latest release, the two-CD set, “A Tribute – Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center” (SHE ROCKS 5/Appleseed Recordings), salutes some of the great female African-American vocalists, including Abbey Lincoln, Odetta, Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone, whose songs influenced the ensemble.
The group co-wrote a song with Grammy-winning songwriter Barry Eastman about SB 1070, the controversial immigration law enacted in Arizona in 2010. The song, “Are We a Nation,” was recorded with hip-hop vocalist Yonas and released in 2012 on Sweet Honey’s own SHE ROCKS-5 label. The song captured a Gold Songwriter Award from the 27th annual Mid-Atlantic Song Contest and was featured on an all-star compilation, “Bordersongs,” that raised money for the No More Deaths organization, which provides water and humanitarian aid along the Arizona/Mexico border.
“With what is happening recently in terms of immigration, we are doing our best to make sure people know about it, or at least get to hear the song, and use it for their events, or play the video at events. That’s something we are pretty vocal about,” Maillard said.
Her words echo those of another musician who believes in going above and beyond the music itself: violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who recently said, “At the end of the day, it’s about what you are as a human being and what you are willing and able to contribute to society, and it has to be more than a concert.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock has embraced this idea for the past 40 years, basing its social activism on the “rock” of music.
Louise Burton is a Chicago-based arts writer.