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Still so sweet: on the road once again, Sweet Honey in the Rock continues to cultivate its queer following.

Backstage years ago at the Newport Folk Festival, someone was holding court with a gaggle of music journalists. "Who's that?" I asked a fellow scribe. "Oh, that's the Rock," he replied. When the crowd parted, there stood a majestically bedecked figure in African garb Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-African-American, female a cappella group that has endured for 30 years.

Reagon, 61, who will be retiring from Sweet Honey at the close of 2003, was an original Freedom Singer born out of the civil rights movement. Her mission for Sweet Honey, beginning in 1973, has been to sing the stories--past and present-of African-American women, doing so with a group of vocalists whose fans have changed over the years.

The Sweet Honey audience is a true motley, multicommunal phenomenon all its own, replete with disenfranchised hippies, tattooed denizens of the Y and X generations, '70s-era feminists, and a strong, ever-growing showing of gay men and lesbians.

Migration blues, sweaty pulpit moans, bluesy wails, and even a little contemporary R&B and reggae punctuate Sweet Honey's catalog of material, including the group's latest CD, The Women Gather, on EarthBeat! Records.

When asked about her queer tan base, vocalist Ysaye Maria Barnwell--a Sweet Honey member since 1979--explains that "chief among Sweet Honey's messages is a deep reject for all kinds of people." She adds that the peace, civil rights, women's, and gay movements are joined by "a culture of struggle," a culture to which Sweet Honey devotes much of its passion to addressing in its songs. Barnwell says the group's latest release includes reflections on the events of September 11 and on going to war. "We are the ones who are disappearing off the street," she adds, referring to the minority population in America's armed forces.

Lesbian funk-folkster Toshi Reagon (daughter of Bernice) produced The Women Gather and agrees that Sweet Honey has a remarkable crossover appeal that extends to the GLBT population. "They have great gay audiences. The gay rights movement is one of the most progressive movements, and so much of Sweet Honey's music speaks to that," notes Toshi, who, along with her band Big Lovely, is currently crisscrossing the country perforating "Evening-song," a series of concerts in collaboration with Sweet Honey.

Toshi's favorite part of those concerts is in the beginning, when the ensemble's performers file into seats among the audience while the lights are still up. "Nobody knows it's them," she says, until they slowly stand and start singing. Toshi vividly remembers one shocked and delighted woman who realized that she was sitting next to a Sweet Honey member and then proceeded to shout over and over, "That's her! That's her!"

Tucker has written for The Boston Phoenix, New York Press, and. Time Out New York.
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Title Annotation:music
Author:Tucker, Karen Iris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 25, 2003
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