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Sweet Honey in the Rock shares its commitment to inclusivity and social justice with Carleton

This past Friday the internationally renowned, Grammy Award-nominated a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock performed in Skinner Memorial Chapel to a packed house of Carleton students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the Northfield community. This African American female group was formed in 1973, and two of its original members—Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson—were in Friday’s performance. The other three singers were Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel and Rochelle Rice, and the group was accompanied by bassist Romeir Mendez and an American Sign Language interpreter.

This unusual addition of a sign language interpreter demonstrates the group’s commitment to inclusivity and was just one of the many social justice and political statements made throughout the evening. In her introduction, Dean Livingston perfectly described how Sweet Honey in the Rock’s  music “not only stirs your soul but requires you to act,” turning their performance into not just a night of outstanding music but also one of empowerment.

One of my personal favorite songs was “The Living Waters,” written by Aisha Kahlil after returning from Jamaica where she had been overwhelmed by the clean and pure ocean that can no longer be found in the United States. Her trip made her more aware of “how we mistreat our water” and inspired her to write this passionate song as a cry of desperation in a world where humans have “killed the living waters.” This call to take care of planet Earth touched everyone in the room. Katherine Nowak ‘22 remarked that the “lyrics were really moving and meaningful.”

Other songs had direct political references such as “Do What the Spirits Say Do” with lyrics “I’m going to stand when the spirits say march” and “I’m gonna vote, I’m gonna march, I’m gonna shoot.” While this song was originally written in the context of segregation, in today’s political climate it held a renewed meaning. In the introduction to the piece a Sweet Honey member remarked how “we don’t want no trouble in the white house” but “sometimes the spirits get into the streets and march, sometimes the spirits say go vote.”

The musical abilities of the group were outstanding, and the passion and soul put into each and every song were spectacular. Maddie Thall ‘22 commented that “you weren’t just listening to the music, it was a full experience.” Nowak “was impressed by how all the women harmonized with each other and how each voice sounded so powerful on its own, but when the group sang together it was even more incredible and you could see the capacity of each woman’s voice.” The impressive musical capabilities of the troupe were especially highlighted in “We Are” where one singer sang “I don’t want no trouble at the river” which was echoed by the rest of the group. Although the lyrics barely changed, the dynamics and pitch with which they sang varied greatly, preventing the piece from becoming too repetitive.

Recognition also must be given to the bass player, Romeir Mendez, who Anders Brodnax ‘22 described as “phenomenal.” His solo, performanced completely in piccicato (i.e. not using a bow) was incredibly impressive and had the audience whooping in amazement.

Finally, the sign language interpreter added another dimension to the performance, embodying the music and creating a sort of dance. When there were no lyrics to sign, she swayed her body and moved her arms in imitation of the pitches, and the mood of each song was evident in her facial expressions and quality of movement.  

Sweet Honey in the Rock was able to take a room full of strangers and unite them into a community on Friday night as the group got the audience to their feet, clapping and singing; the energy was palpable. Miiko Taylor, the Assistant Director of Student Activities and New Student Orientation at the Student Activities Office, perfectly encapsulated the performance with his comment that “students were able to see a music collective that rooted in African-American history and culture that has been around for 40 years. Sweet Honey in the Rock has been committed to having their music be accessible to all by having an American Sign Language interpreter at their shows so that their music and their message is accessible to wider audience. Their music is empowering, educational, and inspirational.”

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