by G.W. Mercure
Sweet Honey in the Rock, the timeless and dynamic collective that has been creating daringly-inclusive, female-forward music for almost half a century, will perform a special holiday show produced by Payomet at Provincetown Town Hall on December 18. The show will feature the band’s signature spiritual amalgams and holiday fare familiar to western revelers, as well as selections from other faiths, traditions, and cultures.
The collective was founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who retired from the group in 2004. The current line-up includes two original members (Louise Robinson and Carol Lynn Maillard), a bass guitar player (Romeir Mendez), an interpreter of American Sign Language (Barbara Hunt), as well as singers Nitanju Bolade Casel, Rochelle Rice, Christie Dashiell, and Aisha Kahlil.
“They asked me to audition,” Kahlil says. “I was bussing tables in a vegetarian restaurant—I was vegan at the time. I was making ten dollars per night bussing tables, but at least I got to eat for free.”
The audition went well. “They asked me if I wanted to join the group and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do that for a little while.’” She laughs. That was 1981. “Time passes,” she says.
Time passes, and times change. Asked if a show like the one Sweet Honey in the Rock puts on is more relevant in such divisive times, Kahlil says, “It’s built around the concept of unity of religion, of spirituality. There are certain aspects of spirituality that seem to come with focusing on different cultures, especially this time of year.”
But the times haven’t changed what Sweet Honey in the Rock does, according to Kahlil. They have always been about transcending the struggle—it’s right there in the name of the group. “There has to be honey in the rock today,” she says. “Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the group and named the group ‘Sweet Honey in the Rock,’ she took it from a verse from the Bible that talks about a land that’s so sweet that honey comes from the rocks. She thought that that aptly described Black women because throughout our history here in this country we had to be incredibly strong just to withstand slavery and discrimination, not just as a Black woman but as a woman,” she says. “We’re trying to hold families together, we’re trying to make a mark, or make a stepping stone for our children and grandchildren coming up after us.” For women and Black women—“the lowest on the totem pole,” she says—that struggle required a rock: “A very hard type of exterior, just to survive and be able to do all of these things. But the sweetness is still there: Crack that, and honey will flow out of it. As far as me, I always have hope,” she says.
Her hope, like Sweet Honey in the Rock and their performances, is dynamic, personal, inclusive, endless. “I hope it goes on forever,” she says of the group. “Not only continue but also flourish.” Even if it continues and flourishes without her. “Someday I’m going to be somewhere in the sun by the beach,” she laughs. “I’m going to make that happen!”
The strength, the perseverance, the longevity of the group is built into its ideals. And she believes that the same can be said of our culture, our nation. Her words here are worthy of the band, worthy of the country, worthy of the ideals underpinning each: “I realize that everything is a struggle. But as long as there are enough people who keep that understanding of what that means, the very precious nature of what that means, how treasured it is, the ideals that we said this country was based on: Freedom, independence and freedom. As long as that remains the dominant ideal in this country, I feel that there will be honey again from those rocks, regardless of how many times we have to battle through. To understand that we will go through whatever we have to go through to obtain that, it’s amazing.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock will perform on Sunday, December 18, 3 p.m., at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St. For tickets ($33 – $55) and information call 508.349.2929 or visit payomet.org.