Celebrating the Holydays with Sweet Honey in the Rock
The mission of Sweet Honey in the Rock is to educate, entertain, and empower — three things the group has done since first forming in 1973 in Washington, D.C. The ensemble, rooted in African-American history and culture, brings its acclaimed “Celebrating the Holydays” show (a diverse mixture of blues, African, jazz, gospel, R&B music, and songs from the season) to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark on Saturday, December 20 at 7:30 PM.
Sweet Honey’s name comes from the first song that the original quartet ever learned, “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” which is based on a Biblical psalm. “Sweet Honey speaks of a land that is so rich when you break the rocks open, honey flows. And we thought it was something like us African-American women . . . strong like a rock, but inside [there’s] honey – sweet,” says Louise Robinson, one of the original members along with Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Carol Maillard, and Mie.
In the decades that have followed, 23 vocalists have passed through the group, and political and social activism has been the cornerstone of their legacy. As artists, activists, and humanitarians, Sweet Honey in the Rock members have used their collective voice to advocate for truth, justice, and compassion while addressing the critical issues of democracy, freedom, racism, and economic and social justice. Among the group’s many highlights are appearances at the 1979 Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) concerts in New York City (immortalized in the “No Nukes” concert film and album), performances at the U.N. World Conference on Women, two PBS documentaries, and a Grammy Award for their participation in the record “Folkways: A Vision Shared – A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.” In 2012, the group performed at the unveiling ceremonies for the monument honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the National Mall.
According to Maillard, the “Celebrating the Holydays” program features a blend of songs from Sweet Honey in the Rock’s répertoire along with songs from the holiday season. The songs range from traditional holiday classics to originals written by members of the band. “The program is designed to bring people into a feeling of what the holiday/Holydays season is about and [give them] things to think about,” she says. “Things to contemplate, to be aware of, and to [let them] just enjoy the time together with the music.”
Earlier this month, the group released a new version of “Silent Night” arranged by Maillard. It’s a rather appropriate song for this year’s holiday season, which marks a decade since our country has been at war and follows months of disturbing media images. While audiences love the way the ensemble applies its own original sound to this traditional song, “The Women Gather” is the one song that Maillard truly believes needs to be heard at this time.
“During these trying times, when we are challenged on every front, we hope ‘Silent Night’ will bring a sense of calm and hope to all who listen,” explains Maillard. “In trying times, people are searching for that inner calm and that quiet but ‘The Women Gather’ talks about the fact that all over the world people are in pain. Women cry because their loved ones — their beloved children — are taken away by crazy violence. Police violence, school shootings… It’s just everywhere.”
The “Celebrating the Holydays” program is a great opportunity to see Sweet Honey in the Rock, with the songs performed reflecting the pain and troubles of today’s society while offering the hope and uplifting feelings of the holiday season. It’s not your traditional holiday show, but it’s one that completely fulfills the group’s mission and allows for much-needed reflection at the end of a year.
“I think that there’s a lot to be said for the kind of music that we do,” continues Malliard. “It’s very thought provoking and some of it is extraordinarily soothing to the soul. People need that. People need to know that there’s a place where their concerns can be heard via music; where you can enjoy it, be entertained, and feel empowered to go start a petition or volunteer someplace. Everything matters, every person matters… every life matters.”
Last December, Sweet Honey in the Rock helped honor the life of one such person who was an inspiration to millions — Nelson Mandela. The group was invited by the South African Embassy to be a featured performer at the National Memorial Service for the former President of South Africa. The group never got the chance to meet Mr. Mandela in person, but they did perform at several of the rallies and welcoming celebrations for him when he came to the United States following his release from prison. The memorial service marked their first trip to South Africa and formed a memory they will never forget.
“It was amazing!” recalled Maillard. “We were so surprised and so honored to be asked to perform… We always felt a kinship to him and to his legacy, so to be there was fantastic. It really was a high point for us.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock will perform at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, One Center Street Newark, NJ 07102, on Saturday, December 20 at 7:30 PM. For tickets or more information, call (888) 466-5722 or visit www.njpac.org.
Note: The group proactively advocates for accessibility for the differently abled, and welcomes the Deaf and hearing impaired with the inclusion of a Sign Language interpreter in the ensemble.