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Sweet Honey in the Rock  

"An ensemble of Black women singers" is how Sweet Honey in the Rock defines herself. A group of cultural and political activists, whose repertoire includes everything from Negro spirituals to civil rights movement freedom songs to a feminist anthem by lesbian folksinger Ferron ("Testimony," 1983) to their own original compositions, Sweet Honey has included in its roster, to date, some twenty-two women.

Early on, founder Bernice Johnson Reagon realized that, because the group defined itself as professional but part-time, it was best to keep membership open, allowing members to go and come depending upon the demands of their lives.

Born in 1973 in Washington, D.C., out of a vocal workshop led by Reagon, whose own roots were in the church and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers, Sweet Honey is currently composed of founding members Reagon and Carol Maillard, Nitanju Bolade Casel (joined 1985), Aisha Kahlil (joined 1981), Ysaye Maria Barnwell (joined 1979), and sign language interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton (joined 1980).

Although an early member of Sweet Honey, Dianaruthe Wharton, played piano and the performers do use hand percussion instruments, Sweet Honey remains an a cappella vocal group.

A Grammy-winning ensemble with an international following, Sweet Honey in the Rock incorporates spiritual, gospel, blues, jazz, folk, African, and rap musical styles to sing about the political as well as the personal.

Sweet Honey in the Rock's enduring connection with the gay and lesbian community dates back to a 1977 California tour arranged by feminist activist Amy Horowitz. Through Horowitz the group was also invited to perform on a record by Meg Christian, who self-identified as a "political lesbian."

According to Reagon, on that tour their audience went from "Black people, churches, schools, theaters, folk festivals, and political rallies, to the radical, separatist, White-women-dominated, lesbian cultural network in California."

While only one member of Sweet Honey was self-identified as a lesbian (Evelyn Maria Harris, who sang with the group for eighteen years), the experience of working with and performing for political lesbians led Reagon to write songs specifically about women loving women and to reevaluate the group's overall political mission.

That first song included the powerful lyric: "Every woman who ever loved a woman / You ought to stand up and call her name / Mama, sister, daughter, lover." As Reagon explains, the group's exposure to the lesbian community led them from that point forth to "sing about oppression of every kind, including the oppression experienced by the homosexual community."

From songs specifically about lesbianism to the simple but defiant act of not switching genders in songs sung from the point of view of a male, such as "I'm Going to Get My Baby Out of Jail" (1993), Sweet Honey in the Rock has embraced homosexuality as a life force that deserves a voice.

In 1981, Reagon and Harris helped Horowitz and her organization Roadwork to found Sisterfire, a "women's cultural day" that eventually became a two-day, multistage festival. In its six years, Sisterfire hosted many lesbian artists, including Reagon's folksinger daughter, Toshi Reagon, June Jordan, Holly Near, Cris Williamson, Ferron, and Kate Clinton, among many others.

Solidifying their relationship with the lesbian community, Sweet Honey has also performed at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, the legendary annual women-only music festival.

Carla Williams


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arts >> Overview:  Music Festivals

A cultural institution among lesbians, women's music festivals are community-based events that celebrate women's space as much as women's music.

arts >> Overview:  Music: Popular

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons have had tremendous influence on popular music, though some musical genres have been more receptive to a homosexual presence than others.

arts >> Overview:  Music: Women's

Stylistically diverse and continually evolving, women's music has broadened over time, but it remains committed to lesbian visibility and feminist values.

arts >> Christian, Meg

Women's music pioneer Meg Christian was among the first performer to address lesbian and feminist issues in her songs.

arts >> Clinton, Kate

Comedian Kate Clinton has been comfortably open about her lesbianism from the beginning of her career in the entertainment field.

arts >> Dobkin, Alix

A lifelong progressive activist and a pioneer in women's music, Alix Dobkin not only helped create a new era of women's music in the 1970s but also paved the way for mainstsream lesbian musicians.

arts >> Ferron (Debby Foisy)

Canadian folksinger Ferron (Debby Foisy) is a pioneer in women's music who has been compared to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

literature >> Jordan, June

In both her poetry and her essays, June Jordan called for the rejection of stereotypical views of bisexuality, and she associated sexual independence with political commitment.

arts >> Williamson, Cris

Pioneering singer, songwriter, activist, and teacher, Cris Williamson has been at the forefront of the women's music movement--and a major presence in the lesbian community--for decades.


Bessman, Jim. Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Reagon, Bernice Johnson, et al. We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock...Still on the Journey. New York: Anchor Books, 1993.


    Citation Information
    Author: Williams, Carla  
    Entry Title: Sweet Honey in the Rock  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 16, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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