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Thirty Years, and the Honey Is Still 'Sweet'

Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock
Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock

For more than three decades, the rhythms of Sweet Honey in the Rock have provided a soundtrack to worldwide movements of social justice and equality. The a cappella ensemble is widely known for using a variety of musical genres (blues, folk, gospel, hip-hop) to highlight the full spectrum of the human experience.

Birthed out of the Black Repertory Theater in Washington, D.C., and founded by civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, the group's name is inspired by a Psalm in The Bible.

"Sweet Honey speaks of a land that is so rich that 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, who, along with Arnae, Ysaye Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, Carol Maillard and Shirley Childress Saxton, contributes her talents to the group.

With 34 years' worth of wisdom to share, Sweet Honey in the Rock appears ready for the next phase of its calling: using music to share life's lessons with today's youth. While the ensemble has always placed a high value on oral history, the women also see the tradition as a way to guide young people in ways beyond instructing them to read a book. Their latest project, Experience...101, is aimed at younger audiences.

"It's one thing to read words on a page, another thing to have someone tell you a story," Barnwell says. "On this CD, we really wanted to use music as a context for sharing a number of different things that we felt were really important, particularly for young people to know." Liner notes to the album contain lesson plans.

Sweet Honey in the Rock recently visited NPR's Studio 4A for an interview and performance, and to take questions from a studio audience.

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