Arriving in Japan for an 11-city tour last summer, Sweet Honey in the Rock, a black female a capella vocal quartet, was greeted at the airport with a huge welcoming sign and a large crowd singing, "We shall overcome."
"Another song they knew that we would get them to sing along with," says group founder Bernice Reagon, "was 'Goin' to Lay Down My Sword and Shield.' One of the striking things was that they related to us as a group of performers who do socially conscious music. They have lots of women performers in Japan but they don't have women performers who sing about women. So they were really impressed that we sing about black women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth."
Sweet Honey in the Rock, which will be at Blues Alley tomorrow night, grew out of a 1973 workshop at the D.C. Black Repertory Theater where Reagon was vocal director. Since then, 17 women have passed through the group. Reagon is the only original member left and Evelyn Harris joined a year after its inception. The other current members are Yasmeen Williams and Ysaye Barnwell.
The apparent contradiction in the group's name, taken from a gospel song, is intentional, Reagon says. "There's something about the black woman being the backbone of her people. One of the things we say in this group is that it really isn't true, we really aren't infallible and invincible. So a lot of the songs about women are peculiarly about black women. You know, a rock is strong and unyielding but honey will respond to whatever is. So we're both of those things."