Sweet Honey in the Rock voices its opposition to racial profiling
The all-female, all-African-American vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock has never shied away from tackling social and political issues. In the four decades since the D.C.-based ensemble’s inception, its members have used blues, reggae, African chanting, jazz improv and gospel styles as a platform for their views on everything from civil rights to domestic violence.
It was no surprise then, that when the controversial anti-illegal immigration act known as Arizona Senate Bill 1070 passed last year, Sweet Honey responded not only by joining the international Sound Strike boycott of Arizona, but also by releasing the song and video “Are We a Nation?” (Sample lyrics: “Does the color of your skin determine how and when you can be stopped and booked for the way that you look? Racial profile—this is not freedom’s style.”)
Carol Maillard, a founding member of the group, explains, “We wanted to make sure we did something that not only talked about the injustice behind the law, but the other side needed to be listened to as well, in that something had to happen to change the policy so that everyone could be respected and given a fair opportunity to be in the country and do whatever they need to do to become citizens.”
Maillard adds that the members of Sweet Honey were particularly upset at the prospect of people being thrown into jail simply because they looked like they didn’t belong. “That was very disturbing, because there are a lot of white people who probably come in from Canada and other countries who make it through and will never be looked at because their skin is not brown,” she says. “They could be an illegal alien and a criminal, but they won’t be questioned, because the way they look is the way the powers think everybody should look.”
“Are We a Nation?” is a break from the norm for Sweet Honey: Not only does it feature a rap by Yonas, the winner of 2009’s Billboard Songwriting Award for Best Hip-Hop/Rap Song, but it also contains backing instrumentation—an anomaly for a group known for its a cappella work. “We’re not so staunch and stiff that we don’t have an appreciation for musical instruments,” says Maillard. She adds that on April 15 and 16, the group will present “Remembering Nina, Odetta & Miriam” at Jazz at the Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, where they’ll be accompanied by a trio.
Sweet Honey makes its way to The Rio Theatre on April 20. While attendees can expect some political messages, the emphasis will be on universal themes. “Recently, our focus—and it might be just because we’re getting older, and we’ve seen a lot in this world—is that we’re still involved in recognizing things that need changing, but we also know that people’s hearts and souls need healing,” Maillard says. “So the music needs to bring that element where people really feel uplifted and good and stronger when they leave a concert. They feel more open, more aware of the people sitting around them.”
The singer says some members of the audience leave their shows with new insights about themselves and music. “The messages that come to them, how they feel physically—some people are really affected physically, with tears, deep emotion, because of the way the sound seems to heal. So I think if there’s anything we might be doing with the music we create and the messages that we offer, it’s to heal people: to heal the soul, to open the heart, to open the mind and to help people to be a little bit more accepting of themselves as well as accepting of others.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock plays at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 20 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Advance tickets are $40 Gold Circle or $30 general admission. For more info, call 423-8209.