Academic journal article Women & Music

Not Your Mother's Racial Uplift: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Journey, and Representation: Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice

Academic journal article Women & Music

Not Your Mother's Racial Uplift: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Journey, and Representation: Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice

Article excerpt

Not Your Mother's Racial Uplift: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Journey, and Representation: Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice. Produced and directed by Stanley Nelson. New York: Thirteen/WNET, 2005. Videodisc (84 mins.).

FOR THE PAST THREE DECADES THE MUSIC of Sweet Honey in the Rock (SHIR) has provided the soundtrack for many a middle-aged feminist life, black or otherwise. For social change activists such as myself at work during the 1980s and early 1990s attendance at the annual or biannual Sweet Honey event meant you had survived the psychic effects of cutbacks in spending for social programs, ongoing threats to reproductive rights, and unrelenting attacks on the poor. With sufficient energy and discretionary funds in reserve you could find collective validation of your efforts at a local SHIR concert. Stanley Nelson's Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice documents the thirtieth-anniversary tour of this acclaimed African American women's a cappella quintet. (1) Founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon in 1973, the ensemble's eclectic repertoire features politically concerned songtexts cast in traditional gospel, blues, and spirituals with occasional forays into rap (especially effective at children's concerts) and the music of West Africa. (2)

Rather than addressing only the documentary at hand, in this essay I read the film as an intertextual artifact and refer to analyses by black feminist scholars and the scholarly literature about the ensemble, including the writings of Reagon. In particular, I have found the work of political philosopher Joy James useful in my attempt to situate SHIR in relation to black feminisms. If combined with the writings of Reagon, James, Darlene Clark Hines, and others, the film would work quite effectively in teaching contexts.

Although not a concert film per se, Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice juxtaposes clips of SHIR rehearsals and performances with reflections by ensemble members. Reagon, the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award, is featured along with other members of the ensemble: founding member Carol Maillard, Aisha Kahill, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell, and sign language interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton. (3) Gospel music scholar Horace Clarence Boyer, ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt, photographer Sharon Farmer, radio show producers Dred Scot-Keys and Kojo Nnamdi, American Symphony Orchestra director Leon Bolstein, and black performance artist Aku Kadogo address various aspects of SHIR'S long memory of black music performance and activism and the organization's significance as a national institution. (4) In the late 1980s and early 1990S scholars from across disciplines invoked "voice" as a metaphor for vocality, cultural agency, political autonomy, and both individual and collective power. These referents resound in Nelson's film; Sweet Honey's commitment to social change is evident in Casel's assertion that the group sings "a cappella style with a political ring." In a montage of concerts and interviews filmed in New York, New Jersey, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Seattle director Stanley Nelson structures the film to skillfully naturalize cinematic techniques so that the subject appears more "real." (5)

Like Reagon, Nelson is also a MacArthur Fellow. Highly respected for his earlier documentaries on African American historical subjects, Nelson, who is white, brings a historian's eye for detail to his project. (6) Under Nelson's direction black-and-white still photographs function like program notes to some of the more popular songs in the ensemble's repertoire and thus make the film a valuable multimedia resource for classroom use. Nelson places topical songs in historical context through the judicious incorporation of archival footage that signposts black southern civil rights activism from the 1930s to the present. Clips of SHIR'S performance of "We Who Believe in Freedom" are highlighted with photos of black civil rights activist Ella Baker and the slain student workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, whose murders she deplored. …

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