Ysaye Barnwell didn’t plan to end up in Ferguson. Her vocal workshop was supposed to be held in nearby St. Louis, but it was going to conflict with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and had to be moved.
And so the Washington singer and composer found herself in mid-March in the headline-making Missouri city that had been on her mind for weeks. Before there was Baltimore, there was Ferguson, and she had found an aspect of the protests there puzzling.
“I wondered why they were not singing,” she says of the crowds that swarmed Ferguson last year to protest the police shooting of an unarmed black man. Where, wondered the 69-year-old former member of Washington’s iconic African American a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, was the music? Music, after all, can unite a protest movement; without it, she says, no movement has staying power.
“It was this nagging thing where I would wake up in the middle of the night and think — Ferguson,” she says.
And then there she was, leading more than 100 people in songs that ran the gamut from the slave tradition to gospel to the civil rights movement. In the place where much of the recent racial unrest started, the city she couldn’t stop thinking about.
Call it serendipity. She would.
“It was chosen,” Barnwell says of her unexpected landing in Ferguson. Just as so many other turns in her life seem to have been chosen for her.
She is sitting in the dining room of her Glover Park rowhouse on an April day, reflecting on those fateful turns: from her 34-year stint with Sweet Honey in the Rock to her recent return, after a bout with cancer, to singing and her much-loved “community sings” monthly group gatherings for joyous
music-making at the Levine Music school.
She is a regal-looking woman with a round face, a wide smile and piercing eyes, wearing a flowing tunic and multiple silver hoop earrings, surrounded by the memorabilia of a lifetime in music — musical scores, drums, African art.
And yet, she’d never planned on a music career. Her father was a classical violinist who named her after the early 20th-century Belgian composer and violinist Eugene Ysaye, and she studied violin for 14 years in her youth. But in college she turned to speech pathology, much to her father’s disappointment.
She was fascinated by deafness. “I don’t know how you live in a world without sound,” she says. “And I keep trying to get inside of people to figure that out and to figure out how I can make sound accessible.” She eventually became a professor at Howard University’s College of Dentistry, teaching courses in speech pathology and craniofacial function for 12 years.
And then, a moment of serendipity.
Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon walked into Northwest Washington’s All Souls Church one Sunday in 1979, on a day when Barnwell sang a solo while simultaneously signing for the deaf parishioners.
After the service, Reagon asked her to audition for the all-female group, and Barnwell became the bass voice of Sweet Honey, named after Psalm 81:16: “But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
About a year after she joined the group, Barnwell’s life changed once again. She learned that she would not be granted tenure at Howard.
“Blessings come in very devastating packages sometimes,” she says.
She poured her energy into Sweet Honey, writing dozens of songs for the group, including “No Mirrors in my Nana’s House” (which also became a children’s book) and “Would You Harbor Me.”
Sweet Honey became a fixture in Washington, attracting an almost cultlike following to its African American a cappella tradition. The group made 26 albums and won a Grammy for its contribution to the 1988 album “Folkways: A Vision Shared — A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.”
What she loved about the group was its oral tradition. “Anything can happen,” she says. “You hear a note and you’re like, ‘Ahhhh,’ and you do something different because that person just hit the most amazing note. Let me go there with you.”
But in 2013, Barnwell decided to leave. “It was time,” is what she’ll say. “Things change, energies change, new people come into the group, and they bring their energy in.”
For a few months, her life was busy with other projects. Then she faced another moment that upended her plans. Diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, she underwent surgery, two rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She lost weight and she lost her hair.
She became, she says, a “peaceful warrior.”
“I’m accepting that this is where I am,” she says.
Now she is singing again.
In March, after a year’s break, Barnwell resumed a 25-year tradition — her community sings. These are not singalongs but lively workshops at which, through a series of notes and chants, the group re-creates the sounds of a rain forest, sings spirituals in rounds and makes music that fills a room with voices.
“There are so many people in the world who want to sing,” Barnwell says. “And they will look me in my face and say, ‘I can’t sing.’ ” She tells them, “Just come and move your lips.” And when they do come, she says, “They’re happy!”
A recent April evening at Levine marked her second community sing since the cancer diagnosis. The room is packed with men, women and children of all ages and races.
Barnwell, wearing armloads of silver bangles, leads the singers through a clapping and counting exercise and then moves to a spiritual, “Everywhere I Go.” The original lyrics are, “Everywhere I go, somebody talking about Jesus.” Instead of Jesus, the group sings a series of refrains: Everywhere I go, somebody talking about: freedom, mercy, justice and “hands up, don’t shoot.”
As she starts to sing the opening of another spiritual, “We shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” the eyes of more than a few participants fill with tears. Over the next two hours, Barnwell painstakingly leads each section — soprano, alto, tenor, bass — through its part.
“It’s like building a house,” says Anne Collins, a psychologist from Northwest Washington who has been coming to the sings for more than 20 years. The community sing is “one of the hidden treasures” of life in the city, she adds. “It’s been a real gift to so many people.”
It is Barnwell’s hope that the workshop in Ferguson was a gift in much the same way. It was certainly a gift to her.
“You know that there are other communities going through the same thing” as what Ferguson went through, Barnwell says, and she is speaking well before the recent Baltimore riots proved her right. And then somehow, she says, you see a way to respond “opening before you.”
At the day-long workshop, called Building a Vocal Community, Barnwell took the group through the African American musical tradition, from its origins in Africa through the civil rights movement. “Understanding those elements of the music helps people understand how it is that music is the glue that holds communities together,” she says.
Most of the participants were from St. Louis and white, and many had never set foot in Ferguson, just eight miles away. Leanne Latuda, the director of the St. Louis Women’s Chorale , which had invited Barnwell to Missouri, says that the response was “wonderful, given that it was in Ferguson. Some people, quite honestly, were afraid to go there.”
The workshop, Barnwell says, gave participants “a way through the music to understand and to identify. That, I think, was really important.”
She hopes that they also picked up another message — that music can form a bond. Today’s protesters, she says, use social media to gather crowds, so people don’t necessarily have a history together. With a common history, “when something happens, you have that communal identity that is responding. And they’re picking up people all along, saying, ‘Come with us, come with us. This has happened and we need to respond.’ ”
At the end of this year, Barnwell will take a break from her multiple projects to undergo reconstructive surgery. She figures that it will be another serendipitous opportunity, much like her initial cancer treatment.
“I canceled everything because everything was so unpredictable,” she says. She enjoyed being home. “I woke up one morning and there was this huge red flower in the center of my yard. It was a hibiscus, and I didn’t know I had it. Could it be that I was gone so much I never saw that?” she says.
One lesson from her cancer remains. “There’s this feverish side of being in the world and doing your thing, and there is this quiet side where you don’t really have to do anything,” she says, and laughs.
“I didn’t know that.”
Bruno is a freelance writer in Washington.