Washington's acclaimed a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock receives well-deserved kudos Wednesday when PBS's "American Masters" presents the premiere of "Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice."
Director Stanley Nelson's documentary, built around the group's 30th anniversary celebration at the Warner Theater in November 2003, is heavy on performance but also traces the group's astonishing journey from its origins in a local voice workshop to its current status as globe-trotting celebrants of African American culture and history.
"We sing to offer a look at the world from a black woman's voice," founder Bernice Johnson Reagon tells Nelson. "The world needs to know what it looks like to us, and that's why we exist."
In the film, longtime member Nitanju Bolade Casel describes Sweet Honey's sound as "traditional African song, gospel, blues, jazz, hip hop and everything in between; a cappella style with a political ring."
It's a life-affirming ethos built on a repertoire that addresses racial, gender and political oppressions, past and present, while also celebrating the redemptive power of love, family, friendship and community.
As Nelson's film shows, Sweet Honey's artistry is cathartic, from the brilliant colors of the singers' flowing robes and beautiful tonalities of their voices -- a swirl of ever-shifting leads and intertwining harmonies -- to the spirit-raising, transformational nature of the music. Sweet Honey makes music that matters, and it's telling that one of the group's most powerful voices belongs to Shirley Childress Saxton, a signer for the hearing-impaired whose eloquent expression transcends sound.
As creator and executive producer of "American Masters," Susan Lacy has been responsible for 130 documentary biographies of musicians, writers, composers, artists and architects, as well as theater, film, dance and media innovators.
"American Masters," which celebrates its 20th anniversary on PBS next year and which recently moved to a weekly schedule, "is about influence, about a body of work, about people who have either had a substantial impact on our culture or on their discipline.' Lacy said. "Things didn't look the same or sound the same or feel the same after this particular person had done what they did."
While Lacy had heard of Sweet Honey, she had never actually listened to or seen them. "I'm a big fan of Stanley Nelson's, and when I heard he was making a film about the group, I called him up. I was blown away with what I saw."
The ensemble evolved out of a 1973 women's vocal workshop that Reagon had started by teaching participants "Sweet Honey in the Rock," an old spiritual about a land so rich that honey would flow from the stones when they were cracked. From the start, the voices swelled with a meld of power, grace, passion and purpose that would become Sweet Honey's trademark. Naming the group was easy.
"From the beginning, the phrase -- with sweetness and strength in it -- resonated in a deeply personal way with me," Reagon wrote in "We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock Still on the Journey," a history of the group published in 1993. "As African Americans and as women, we have had to have the standing power of the rocks and the mountains. . . . Inside the strength, partnering the sturdiness, we are -- as honey is sweet -- sweet. If our world is warm, honey flows, and so do we; if it is cold, honey gets stiff and stays put, and so do we."
Songs of the black church and the civil rights movement have always been central to Sweet Honey's repertoire, reflecting Reagon's history as a member of the Freedom Singers, a group put together by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to elevate public awareness about racial injustice in the Deep South. The daughter of a Baptist minister in Albany, Ga., Reagon was part of the "Albany Movement" that took the unaccompanied congregational songs and harmonies of the black church to the front lines of mass meetings, marches, boycotts and jail cells.
In the 1960s, the Freedom Singers performed in concert halls, churches, clubs, living rooms and schools around the country, galvanizing support and raising funds for SNCC's grass-roots organizing activities in the South. The film includes a clip of the singers performing "We Shall Not Be Moved" at the August 1963 March on Washington, moments before Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
It didn't take long for Sweet Honey's bracing blend of conscious music and social activism to find an audience, though the film points out that their first radio play in 1975 came not from a deejay but a newsman, Kojo Nnamdi. Now there are more than 20 CDs, videos and books capturing songs and performances that have always taken Sweet Honey audiences not out of the world, but more deeply into it.
After Sweet Honey approached Nelson about documenting the group's anniversary concerts, he persuaded them to expand the film's scope. Besides concert footage and scenes from their community singing workshops, Nelson interviewed the group's current members -- who include Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Aisha Kahlil and Carol Maillard. Thirty-three women have been members over the years.
What no one knew was that during filming, Reagon would announce she was going to retire from Sweet Honey after the concerts. Her retirement, and the auditions to find a replacement singer -- which turned out to be two singers, Louise Robinson and Arnae -- provided unexpected emotional drama.
"I knew that Bernice was the anchor, the founding member and the essential component of the group," said Nelson, who like Reagon has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. "It was one of those things where, as a filmmaker, you get this strange feeling because you know this is great for the film, though it may not be great for the subjects of the film. Well, where's Sweet Honey going to go as they're going through this trial and tribulation? Half of me was really saddened by it, but half of me was, 'Oh boy, now we've got the third act for this film.' "
Reagon must have known that Sweet Honey would continue its mission after her retirement. After all, in one of the group's key testimonials, "Ella's Song," they insistently sing, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes."
Nelson's films have documented various aspects of African American history. "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords" in 1999 explored historic black-owned newspapers, while "A Place of Our Own" in 2004 looked at his childhood summers spent at Oak Bluffs, the predominantly black resort community on Martha's Vineyard.
"The Murder of Emmett Till," which examined the case of the black teenager kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 reportedly because he whistled at a white woman, debuted on PBS's "American Experience" and earned Nelson an Emmy in 2003. The documentary also was cited by the Justice Department when it recently announced investigators would exhume Till's body to prosecute suspected accomplices in Till's death.
"I've tended to use a lot of music in all the films that I've done, and I've always wanted to do a film about music -- and this was a chance," said the New York-based Nelson. "A lot of my films have to do with social action, and that's what Sweet Honey represents. I've been a fan for years, and to work with their music and them on a history film with a social action component, all those things married together was a real treat."
What Nelson hopes people take away from his film is "first and foremost, just the beauty of the music. But Sweet Honey's music also carries a powerful message, something that we've gotten away from in music today."
SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: RAISE YOUR VOICE
Wednesday at 9 p.m. on WETA; at 10:30 p.m. on MPT.
Pouring It On For 32 Years
Some key events in the history of Sweet Honey in the Rock:
1973: Bernice Johnson Reagon forms the group; it performs for the first time at Howard University.
1976: First album, "Sweet Honey in the Rock," debuts on Flying Fish label.
1981: Release of first live concert recording, "Good News," on the Flying Fish label.
1983: Tenth anniversary reunion concerts feature 15 of the 18 women who had been members of the ensemble.
1985: The group joins Free South Africa Movement demonstrations in front of the South African Embassy in the District. Reagon and Ysaye Barnwell are arrested.
1989: Appears on Grammy Award-winning album "A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly." Receives Washington, D.C. Mayor's Arts Award for excellence for artistic discipline.
1993: Publishes "We Who Believe in Freedom," written by Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock, commemorating the group's 20th anniversary. Alice Walker writes the introduction.
1996: Receives the National Black Arts Festival Award for Distinguished Achievement. Inducted into the Washington Area Music Association Hall of Fame.
2000: "Still the Same Me" is nominated for a Grammy.
2003: Thirtieth- anniversary tour.
2004: Reagon retires from the group.