Fusing gospel, jazz, blues, reggae and hip hop among a group of female a cappella singers seems a feat to be accomplished. Now mix with that a historically driven and politically inclined mindset and one can begin to understand the ever-evolving musical entity that is Washington, D.C.’s Sweet Honey in the Rock. The world-renowned, globally traveled and socially conscious ensemble will be taking the stage at Campbell Hall as part of a four-month long nationwide tour. As they approach what will be their second outing without founding member Bernice Johnson Reagon, the group seems more united than ever, as they work to educate and activate their audience through song, dance and spoken word. Three days after the group’s performance at Carnegie Hall, Artsweek talked with Sweet Honey’s blues songstress Aisha Kahlil about post-election sentiments, a good old-fashioned New York blizzard and the future of Sweet Honey in the Rock as they surpass the group’s 30-year anniversary.
Stranded in her New York apartment during the biggest winter storm of the season so far, Aisha Kahlil is first and foremost concerned with what the weather is like in Santa Barbara. Just 48 hours before departing for New Mexico, Kahlil is without hot water and anticipating a sunny first leg of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s January/February tour. Emphasizing the importance of a warm climate, she explains, “A lot of the personal writing I get to from God, and from nature… and experiences in my life that I try to approach with the most positivity that I can. [I] try to channel them and look at them through the eye of learning and evolution and my own personal growth. Some things I just hear, and I attribute that to the amount of time I spend in nature. I love hiking, the woods, camping, the ocean – those things inspire me.”
In person, Sweet Honey’s live performance has been heralded as an inspirational, sermon-like force to be reckoned with. Asked to describe the concert experience for her, Kahlil spoke of performing as being “like a prayer really,” recalling that “once I hit the stage and I begin to sing with this group of remarkable women it’s so uplifting for me. It’s almost as if something comes over me, and washes away the tiredness, washes away any strife or indecision or anything I may have going on in my personal life. It’s almost like a being a priestess; you’re channeling such wonderful energy that’s coming through you. But at the same time it’s healing other people, it’s healing you too. It’s just incredible. That’s how I always think about it and approach it.” Sweet Honey unites this gospel-inspired approach to performing with an unwavering dedication to educating the masses on issues ranging from social injustice to political activism.
Originally rooted in the nation’s capital, it seems natural for the group to respond musically to the election of 2004, as well as those domestic issues that it raised. Kahlil recalled performing directly after the November returns, saying that, “So many people were so disappointed about the outcome of the election… I mean, so many people were just so depressed, and trying to be sensitive to that, and find ways to uplift and encourage and still let people know that we have to keep on keepin’ on. Eat right regardless of what, you know? … We still have to have hope and have that faith within our hearts and know that things are going to get better, for ourselves as well as our children and our future generations.” And while the majority of the venues that Sweet Honey in the Rock perform to are awe-struck by the powerful social implications being made, the message is not always appreciated; especially when placed in song form and recited by a group of strong, intelligent, black females. “It’s very challenging and it’s always interesting; every single city we go to is different and has its own flavor and feeling. There are just beautiful people everywhere, regardless of what their political inclinations are. We’ve found some places where we go and some people have not appreciated our message; they [want] us to sing some spirituals and they’re wondering why we’re up here trying to espouse any kind of thoughts about anything really… but that’s few and far between. Most of the people are very appreciative of what we do and really come out of the experience feeling very uplifted and inspired to go on with their work in the world.”
As she works to complete her solo effort in time for summer, Kahlil remains optimistic about Sweet Honey’s future. Since the retirement of founding member Reagon last year, the group has undergone a number of line-up and programming changes. “Within each concert you see more of each personality, when before you tended to see basically one person talking and the rest of us were kind of just singing and not having to much to say. Now we all are engaged and we’re moving and it seems much more like a group collective and consciousness, than it was before,” Kahlil emphasized. “I see the group expanding in so many ways, as more and more people get to know who the group is and begin to embrace the group, I see ourselves just continuing, continuing and getting stronger, stronger and deeper and more expansive, more creative, and more loving and understanding within the group itself and who we are as women.”
With such a positive outlook and passionately enthusiastic agenda toward making a change through music, the women of Sweet Honey in the Rock are expected to bring an amazing and thought-provoking concert to oh-so-sunny Santa Barbara on Saturday, Jan. 29 at 4 p.m. at Campbell Hall. Tickets are $19 for students.