Grammy-winning Sweet Honey In The Rock combines art, activism at UChicago

Feb. 8 performance highlights weeklong stay for a cappella ensemble

When Sweet Honey In The Rock first performed this fall at the University of Chicago, both the singers and audience members were moved to tears while sharing stories of struggle and resiliency.

The love was palpable—the Grammy-winning ensemble’s peaceful, humanitarian spirit resonating as they described the power of music. That message is part of the a cappella group’s mission as the 2018-19 Don Michael Randel Ensemble-in-Residence.

“It was refreshing and inspiring,” said Louise Robinson, a founding member. “And an honor to hear and get feedback from people about what our music has meant to them and their lives.”

Sweet Honey In The Rock returns to UChicago this month for a series of events, part of a residency which gives world-class musicians a chance to engage with the University and Hyde Park communities. Randel, the program’s namesake, served as the 12th president of the University of Chicago and is an emeritus faculty member in the Department of Music.

Sweet Honey’s stay begins with a Feb. 5 meet-and-greet at International House. On Feb. 7, the group will host an “Arts in Activism” discussion panel at Goodspeed Hall with Asst. Prof. Eve Ewing, playwright Kristiana Rae Colón and musician Jonathan Lykes.

The weeklong winter visit culminates with a Feb. 8 performance at Mandel Hall, but the singers are due back on campus May 6-11.

“Sweet Honey’s high artistic standards, finely honed repertoire and deep commitment to issues of social justice will have a profound and lasting impact on the students and audiences with whom they interact,” said Barbara Schubert, director of performance programs at UChicago.

Connecting with their audiences

One of America’s most vibrant and versatile musical collectives, Sweet Honey In the Rock traces its synthesis of artistry and activism to 1973. It was founded in Washington, D.C. by Bernice Johnson Reagon—a civil rights activist and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singer—as part of the D.C. Black Repertory Theater Company. The group strives to preserve African-American heritage through gospel hymns and freedom songs.

The current ensemble features four core members—Robinson, Carol Maillard, Aisha Kahlil and Nitanju Bolade Casel—as well as vocalist Rochelle Rice, bassist Romeir Mendez and American Sign Language Interpreter Barbara Hunt.

The women of Sweet Honey are prolific entertainers, having taken the stage at Carnegie Hall more than 30 times, including a 1988 appearance preserved in an album. In February 2009, they were invited to the White House, where First Lady Michelle Obama introduced them as “one of my favorite groups in the whole wide world.”

Now, they are the first choral ensemble to join the Don Michael Randel residency program, which supports an acclaimed musical ensemble for up to three years.

In addition to community programs, Sweet Honey will work with students in the Department of Music’s choral ensembles—the Motet Choir, Women’s Ensemble, University Chorus and Rockefeller Chapel Choir. As the first choral ensemble to hold the position, Sweet Honey provides UChicago’s singers the opportunity to engage, workshop and perform with a world-class ensemble.

The ensemble seeks to preserve and extend the traditions of African-American vocal music, and to inspire an intergenerational audience to use their voices to address the critical issues of our time. Sweet Honey has built a reputation as powerful storytellers, vocally and visually, while prioritizing inclusion. Themes from their most recent album, #LoveInEvolution, draw from today’s headlines, addressing systemic injustice as it pertains to people of color—police brutality, gun control and the Black Lives Matter movement.

This month’s visit extends the impact that Sweet Honey made on UChicago and the surrounding communities in November. During that visit, Sweet Honey performed in front of more than 1,300 people at Rockefeller Chapel, held a community presentation to continue educating future activists, and joined artists, vocal groups and choral students to share music that energize people around social justice and community transformation.

“We are honored that people open their hearts and minds and souls and let us in,” Bolade Casel said, “and have created a space for us to be exist in the world.”

—Adapted from a story that first appeared in the UChicago Arts Magazine.