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Keeping time with Sweet Honey in the Rock.

THE GROUP: Sweet Honey in the Rock

THE NEW ALBUM: In This Land (on EarthBeat! Records)

BEST TRACK: a rap called "(Women Should Be) A Priority"

MUSICAL CATEGORY: uncategorizable -- includes rap, ballads, blues, and even traditional African music. It's a cappella (without instruments) except for some percussion.

SOUL SCALE: We give it a 9. Lyrics tackle homelessness, hunger, AIDS, love, and death.

Bandmember Ysaye Maria Barnwell, whose voice hits both the highest and lowest notes of the group, talked to Currents about what makes the Sweet Honey sound so special.

Would you describe your music as African-American - not just American?

African-American music represents American all over the world. Everywhere we go, people play African-American music - Michael Jackson, James Brown, rap, or whatever - and they know it as American music. But there is a wealth of American music. There's Native American, Italian-American, Jewish-American, and more. African-American music is unique because of its sound and the experiences we draw from. We are a group of people who have been oppressed - through slavery, segregation, and prejudice. Our music is a response to that experience.

Sweet Honey often sings a cappella. Where does this tradition come from?

It's a very long tradition. In traditional African music, people often sing unaccompanied or with drums. In the U.S., slaves sang unaccompanied because instruments were banned except during music performed for the master. All the first gospel music, quartet music, and civil rights movement music were a cappella. When Sweet Honey performs, sometimes we sing the history of black people. We start with African songs, then spirituals, gospel, jazz, right on up to rap.

I really like the song "No Images".

I wrote "No Images" because I grew up in a time when black girls didn't see themselves in the common media. There is still a dearth of images of black women. Society generally doesn't recognize our beauty. In Sweet Honey, there is a range of black women - body sizes, body types, skin color, features - and all of us, I think, are incredibly beautiful. But one would not learn to respect our beauty from what one sees in this society. When you read or travel, you begin to see that not every place is the same.

Do you feel that you have a responsibility to your fans?

Yes. We do our art because we want to have an impact. To act as if that were not the case would be foolhardy. Music is a very powerful tool for communication. When you use it, people listen. You need to be sure that you send messages that help people, that teach, heal, and stimulate thought and action.
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Title Annotation:singing group
Publication:Science World
Date:Feb 26, 1993
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