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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Sweet Honey in the Rock's celebration of the National Museum of African American History and Cul

Sweet Honey in the Rock at the grand opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. From left: bassist Romeir Mendez, sign language interpreter Barbara Hunt, Aisha Kahlil, Rochelle Rice, Nitanju Bolade Casel and Carol Maillard. (Photo credit: Jamir Kirby)

With a continuing 43-year legacy as the premier traditional African-American music performing ensemble, it was only natural and fitting that Sweet Honey in the Rock participate in last month’s grand opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“It was marvelous!” says Carol Maillard, a founding member of the all-female vocal group, which was formed in 1973 by singer, composer and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon from her vocal workshop group at the D.C. Black Repertory Theater Company.

Reagon had been a member of The Freedom Singers, the 1960s civil rights movement’s paramount African-American singing group, and Sweet Honey in the Rock, which took its name from a quartet song based on a biblical parable about a land that was so rich that honey flowed out of its rocks, expanded the Freedom Singers repertoire to include traditional and original music deriving from the sacred music of the black church and including blues, spirituals, gospel hymns, rap, reggae, African chants, hip-hop, ancient lullabies and jazz improvisation.

“We were happy to be at the dedication, and happy be on stage,” continues Maillard, who’s joined in the current Sweet Honey line-up by fellow founding member Louise Robinson, veterans Nitanju Bolade Casel and Aisha Kahlil and longtime sign language interpreter Shirley Childress.

“We had two substitute performers, because Shirley was recuperating from an illness, and Louise was on vocal rest. But we did things from our new recording #LoveInEvolution and told the story of the Tulsa riot of 1921 [300 black people were killed by whites during a Memorial Day weekend riot that also destroyed over 35 blocks in Tulsa’s Greenwood district—then the wealthiest black community in the country, known as the Black Wall Street].”

From #LoveInEvolution, then, Sweet Honey sang "Oh, Sankofa,” Casel’s song detailing the historically neglected incident (which was commemorated by a memorial park in 2010).

“It was really incredible to be part of grand opening, because it was a historic moment for the country and people of African descent, that this beautiful structure [the museum] was created,” says Maillard. “It doesn’t even hold everything--that’s what’s so deep about it: It’s massive and there’s so much stuff that’s in it, but there’s so much more that could be covered. We started going through it at 9:15 a.m. and were there until almost 12:30 and didn’t get through most of it!”

As for the dedication ceremony, Maillard states, “Rev. Calvin Butts [pastor of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church] nailed it in what he said and in presenting everything—the significance of the fundraising, how people from all walks of life in American culture made sure it happened. President George W. Bush was there, and he signed the okay for it--and I don’t think it was an easy road to get it approved by Congress. But it got done during his administration, which was incredible—and I’m glad that the process began and, wow! Here it is today! And I’m alive to see it!”

Maillard was especially touched by the official bell-ringing ceremony, where Ruth Bonners, the 99-year-old daughter of a former slave, and her seven-year-old granddaughter joined President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in ringing the specially restored Freedom Bell, from Virginia’s historic First Baptist Church—the first black Baptist church in the U.S., founded in 1776.

“The whole program was really lovely,” says Maillard. “Patti LaBelle was just beautiful, and had the wherewithal and guts to mention Hillary in ‘A Change is Gonna Come.’ After the dedication, we did a 40-minute set outdoors on the main stage—the Freedom Stage. It was a lot like the Folklife Festival.”

When Sweet Honey in the Rock began in 1973, Maillard, who lives in New York, was working in D.C. for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Reagon was vocal director for the D.C Black Repertory Theater Company and was working on her doctorate at Howard University, and in 1974 hired people in theater to do research for the first African Diaspora program at the Folklife Festival leading up to the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial.

“I and Louise were field researchers and worked with Bernice in early ’74,” recalls Maillard. “She was the artistic director for the African Diaspora, and Sweet Honey sang at that festival and again in ’75, when it was a month-long festival and we sang every day. Then we sang for the Folklife Festival during the Bicentennial, when it was three months long. We sang for many other Folklife Festivals after ’76 onward, so our history with the Smithsonian is as long as Sweet Honey’s been in existence.”

To commemorate its 30th anniversary in 2003, Sweet Honey donated some of its famous stage costumes and artifacts for the permanent performing arts collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Maillard hopes to eventually do the same for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

"We have an amazing archive of artifacts and costumes and citations and articles and posters in our warehouse,” says Maillard, “and it’s such a massive structure—absolutely beautifully done, with interactive video and places to walk.”

“They do need more places for people to sit, though!” she concludes. “I’m sure that will come.”



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