Sweet Honey in the Rock

Take six African-American women, blend their voices in a mix of gospel, blues and jazz and what you get is Sweet Honey in the Rock. The Grammy Award-winning ensemble performs and talks about their unique style, and a career that spans three decades.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The human voice was the first musical instrument, and human voices the first musical group. In 1973, a group of African-American women gathered to lend their voices to the music of the civil rights movement and the music of black churches--songs from Africa and the Caribbean, songs from the stoops of Philadelphia and Brooklyn; songs of their own. After more than 30 years, Sweet Honey in the Rock has evolved from a group to an institution.

It's my pleasure to welcome them today to Studio 4A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Group of Women: (In unison) Thank you.

CONAN: I'll introduce everybody in a bit. If you have questions for members of the group about what they sing and why, about their long careers in the music business or about their purpose, our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

But hey, we brought them in here for a reason. Let's hear some music. Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Unidentified Group Member: One Sunday morning, Bernice Johnson Reagon went to church in Washington, DC, and listened to her pastor, Reverend A. Knighton Stanley, preach a sermon about how we do not exist in this world as a single unit, but as the result of all of the dreams, the struggle, the hope, the determination of all of those who came before us. And she encourages us on those days when we wake up and turn on the news and we just cannot believe a word of what we are looking at, when we see American citizens being considered as refugees, when we see the violence and the political maneuvering that something in our gut tells us, `This is not what is correct,' that we draw on the strength of all those behind us and propel ourselves forward with the mission that we have to the generations beyond us to use our hope, our struggle, our beliefs, our dreams and everything that we have to lay down a foundation for their futures. "I Remember, I Believe."

(Soundbite of "I Remember, I Believe")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Chanting in syllabic music)

I don't know how my mother ...(unintelligible). I don't know how my father, I don't know how my father stood his ground, stood his ground. Well, I don't know how my people suffered slavery, slavery, but I remember, I do remember. Oh, I remember. That's why I believe. I believe. I remember.

I don't know why the river's overflowing. I don't know why the snow, I don't know why the snow falls all around, on the ground. Well, I don't know why the hurricane sweeps, sweeps up and down every mountain. Standing in a rainstorm, I believe. I believe. I remember.

I don't know why the angels wake me up with the morning sun. I don't know why the blood still runs through my veins, through my veins. Well, I don't know why I reach too high ...(unintelligible) in the east, still running. I believe. I believe, I believe, I believe.

(Chanting in syllabic music)

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) My God calls to me early in the morning, in the morning. You know, none in all the universe, no one like me, no one like me. You know that he gave me a song to sing and then he sent me on my way. And now I raise my voice for justice. I believe. Yeah, oh yeah.

(Chanting in syllabic music)

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: I don't know how my mother ...(unintelligible). I don't know how my father, I don't know how my father stood his ground, stood his ground. Well, I don't know how my people suffered slavery, slavery, but I remember, I do remember. Oh, yes, I remember. And that's why I believe.

CONAN: Well, I always wondered whether six women in chairs could swing. And now I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You should be here in Studio 4A to watch this. That was Sweet Honey in the Rock. And let me introduce the members of the group: Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, Ysaye Barnwell, Arnae, Nitanju Bolade Casel and Aisha Kahlil. I hope I pronounced everybody's name right.

Unidentified Group Member: Yes, you did.

Unidentified Group Member: All right, all right.

Unidentified Group Member: Very good.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Carol, tell us a little bit...

Ms. CAROL MAILLARD (Sweet Honey in the Rock): Yes.

CONAN: ...about the song you were just singing.

Ms. MAILLARD: This is a song that was written by Bernice Johnson Reagon, and we love to open our shows with it. We love to start somewhere in the beginning of our shows to encourage people to take that step forward, to know that there is someplace where you can continue to move forward and make a way for those who are coming behind you--stepping out on faith, I guess you could say. "I Remember, I Believe"--`As long as I know my history, know where I'm coming from, know where I have come from, I will be able to make a way for others.'

CONAN: Let me ask you just a process question, if you wouldn't mind. How are the songs arranged for voices? Are they written down in parts? Do you guys work them out in rehearsal, just make it up as you go along, what?

Unidentified Group Member: Sometimes all the above.

Unidentified Group Member: Sometimes it's all the above.

Unidentified Group Member: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. YSAYE BARNWELL (Sweet Honey in the Rock): But pretty much we work in the oral tradition, which means we don't usually work from notes on a page. Whoever is bringing the song comes prepared to teach the song, will determine who they'd like to hear singing certain parts, or sometimes they give us a choice. And we'll sort of direct how we learn the song and how the song will go. Sometimes people will come and they'll have just a melody, and they'll ask us to make up parts, to see what feels right, and we'll experiment until we find something that comes off really well.

CONAN: So each song is different.

Unidentified Group Member: Each song is different, yes.

Unidentified Group Member: Very different.

Unidentified Group Member: Sometimes after a song is already completed and we've sung it, it starts evolving.

Unidentified Group Member: They do evolve. They do evolve, yes.

Ms. MAILLARD: Because this is a group that really--we don't really sing a song the same way twice. There is some element of improvisation that goes into each song, and as you learn the song and as it grows inside of you, you begin to sing it differently. So it changes over time.

CONAN: We're talking today with Sweet Honey in the Rock, who are all here in Studio 4A. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org. And let's get a caller on the line, and this is Rebecca. And Rebecca's calling us from Chicopee, Massachusetts.

REBECCA (Caller): Hi. I just really wanted to express my appreciation. I was introduced to Sweet Honey in the Rock through a PBS documentation that I came across just randomly on the television one evening, and I was riveted to the point that I was weeping. And I just wanted to thank these women, who offer such beautiful, beautiful musical rhetoric, musical talents to the world. My two-year-old daughter and I sat there, and it was just so beautiful.

Unidentified Group Member: Oh, wow, thank you.

Ms. MAILLARD: Thank you very much, Rebecca.

Unidentified Group Member: Thank you, Rebecca.

REBECCA: Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Rebecca.

REBECCA: Thank you.

CONAN: The documentary that she was talking about was on the program "American Masters"...

Unidentified Group Member: Yes.

Unidentified Group Member: Yes.

CONAN: ...as I recall, and that's a compliment in and of itself.

Ms. MAILLARD: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.

CONAN: "American Masters"--not too bad. It also came and documented a moment of enormous transition. I was wrong earlier in the program. I said 32 different members--22 different members of...

Unidentified Group Member: Yes.

CONAN: ...Sweet Honey in the Rock, but probably no departure was more dramatic or resonant than the one that was uncovered, or followed, in that documentary: the departure of the founder, Ms. Reagon.

Unidentified Group Member: That's correct. Dr. Reagon, who was there in the beginning as the vocal coach at the DC Black Repertory Theater Company. And when some of the actors said, `We really want to take some of this music to the stage,' she agreed, and there were rehearsals and that evolved into what evolved into Sweet Honey in the Rock. And so it was under her leadership and direction that we existed for 30 years. And when she left, there was a moment of `Hmm, how will we proceed?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Louise, you were among those. There were two people who really replaced her. You were one. And this was a homecoming for you.

Ms. LOUISE ROBINSON (Sweet Honey in the Rock): Oh, absolutely. It was like going away to college and coming back 30 years later. Everybody's grown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You were an original member of the group?

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. Actually, Carol and I are original members. And Carol and I are dear, intertwined souls on this Earth, so all along, I've been coming to concerts and going backstage and hugging and talking and, you know, knowing these wonderful women, but this is the first time, everyone except Carol, that I have sat onstage and, well, sung permanently with the rest of the women. So it's been a wonderful, wonderful experience.

CONAN: And there was another new member, and that was Arnae, right?

ARNAE (Sweet Honey in the Rock): Yes, that's me. I'm number 22.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Group Member: Actually--right, you're number 22.

ARNAE: That's right, 22.

CONAN: Do you wear, like baseball players, numbers on your back?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARNAE: That's not a bad idea. Merchandising, people. Let's think merchandising.

Unidentified Group Member: Yeah, and it's merchandising.

ARNAE: Oh, yeah. Come on, now. Shucks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAILLARD: People can take more than some recordings home from Sweet Honey. And I just wanted to say one thing. One of the things when we--when a new singer comes into the group, it's not so much that they're replacing the person that left, because most of the women that come to the group pretty much are irreplaceable...

ARNAE: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Ms. MAILLARD: ...in terms of their voice, how they write, what they offer the group. So we basically--we have two new singers.

ARNAE: Two new voices.

Ms. MAILLARD: Two new voices.

CONAN: And when we come back, we'll hear all six of them blended together with some more music and some more conversation. If you'd like to join us and talk with Sweet Honey in the Rock, give us a phone call. Our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. Or you can send us e-mail: totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. Back after the break. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're live in Studio 4A this hour with the Grammy Award-winning a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. They are Arnae, Ysaye Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson. Save the easiest one for last there. If you have questions about the music and career of Sweet Honey in the Rock, give us a call at (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Before the break, you were talking about how unique each person's voice was. Backgrounds, also, in terms of forming a group, are really very different as well. Ysaye Barnwell, let me ask you--you came to the group in an unusual way. As I understand it, you were working at the dentistry school at Howard University.

Dr. BARNWELL: That's right. I was teaching there; had taught there for 12 years; not expected to be a musician, even though that's how I started my life and I'm named after a violinist. I gave it up. I really decided that I wanted to be something different. And I had studied sign-language interpreting and had gotten asked to interpret a church service, and someone who knew that I liked to sing said, `Oh, you should sing and sign,' because I used to do that as a hobby. And Bernice Johnson Reagon decided to come to that church service at the last minute that morning, and then afterwards asked me if I knew about Sweet Honey, and would I like to come and audition.

CONAN: Serendipity or Kismet, do you think?

Dr. BARNWELL: (Laughs) Serendipity!

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And, Carol, as I understand it, you don't really--when you're asked, you don't define yourself as a singer, at least not primarily.

Ms. MAILLARD: No. I actually don't. I think of myself as an actress who sings. My training is also as a violinist and also as an actress, so when I'm thinking of myself, I don't think, like, `Oh, I'm a singer.' I function as a singer. I function as an actress who sings, and that's about the best I can explain it.

CONAN: Does the acting inform your performance as a singer?

Ms. MAILLARD: Yes, it--definitely. Definitely.

CONAN: How so?

Ms. MAILLARD: I have to understand what it is that I'm singing. I'm not just singing words. I'm not just making sounds. I'm--there's an energy, I think, and a character to each song, so there's a color, there's a dynamic, there's an energy that comes forward through the songs that I'm doing--the way I sing it, how I'm thinking about it in my head as the music is coming forth.

CONAN: And, Aisha, your background is as a dancer.

Ms. AISHA KAHLIL (Sweet Honey in the Rock): I have background as a dancer, theater, acting, choreography. I just think of myself as a performer, a `performer' performer, in terms of all the different aspects of performing.

CONAN: And so do you work out the choreography for everybody when they're onstage?

Ms. KAHLIL: Well, we kind of work together on that. I mean, we kind of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Group Member: However...

Unidentified Group Member: How can we keep up with her?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KAHLIL: I kind of...

Ms. MAILLARD: We started moving more when she came into the group.

Ms. KAHLIL: When I first came into the group, we were all sitting in these chairs, wearing ballet shoes and sitting in chairs, and...

Unidentified Group Member: Shh! Don't tell that.

Ms. KAHLIL: ...I had so much energy, you know, because I was not used to that. So I just wanted to get moving, moving. Finally, I kind of got the group up and moving.

ARNAE: We're seriously up on our feet now, no doubt. No doubt.

CONAN: Well, why don't we hear another song?

(Soundbite of "Precious Memories")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) Precious memories. Precious memories, how they linger, oh, how they ever flood my soul. In the stillness of the midnight, precious secret scenes unfold, scenes unfold. Well, now, as I wander, ooh, life's journey, well, I, I just don't know what the future may hold, may hold. As I ponder, oh, my childhood, precious memories do unfold. Ooh, well, precious memories, precious memories, how they linger. Oh, how they ever flood my soul, flood my soul. Well, well, well, in the stillness of the midnight, sacred, secret scenes unfold, scenes unfold.

CONAN: "Precious Memories." Sweet Honey in the Rock, live in Studio 4A on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Michael, Michael calling us from Wichita, Kansas.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello. It was a real pleasant surprise to hear Sweet Honey's voices on the radio, when I turned on the radio. And I wanted to mention that at our child's dedication in our church, I sang with three other people the song "Your Children."

Unidentified Group Members: Ooooh.

Unidentified Group Member: "On Children." Yes.

MICHAEL: I think of the song very often. I'm raising a child while my wife works, and I think of the song very often when problems arise or (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Those rare occasions.

Dr. BARNWELL: When they start thinking for themselves.

MICHAEL: Yeah, exactly. And I would like to hear a little bit more about the background of the song...

Unidentified Group Member: Oh.

MICHAEL: ...and how you came to write it.

Unidentified Group Member: Yes. The text is by Kahlil Gibran. It's called "On Children," and it's a section of the book "The Prophet." I heard this read at All Souls Church every month when children were dedicated in the church, and I kept thinking, `Lord, there must be another way that we can hear this song every month.' And it started singing itself to me, and literally, that's kind of what happened. And there was a group that I had started at the church called the All Souls Jubilee Singers, and they were the first ones to sing it. And I brought it to Sweet Honey when I came.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much.

MICHAEL: Yes. Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: OK. So long.

And let's go to Doc, and Doc's calling us from Santa Rosa, California.

DOC (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

DOC: My question is--I was wondering about the nature of Sweet Honey in the Rock, the name, where it came from. And I have sort of a running bet with an old girlfriend about--that it refers to a certain part of the female anatomy. I'd also like...

Unidentified Group Member: Ooh!

DOC: ...to thank you for being just strong, strong women with a huge voice out there, and keep it up.

CONAN: It's--so...

Unidentified Group Member: Whoo! ...(Unintelligible).

CONAN: ...Carol Maillard, does it relate to the human foot?

Ms. MAILLARD: The human foot--I guess if you're patting your feet while you're singing a song. It refers to a land. It comes from a parable in the Bible and refers to a land that is so rich, even if you opened a rock, you would find it flowing, overflowing with sweet honey. And it is a metaphor, I guess, in some ways, for--I guess for black women, for African-American women, as in there is a strength, and some people would call it a hardness--we just say strength--and--but when you really get to the warm core of it all, we are overflowing with beautiful things, including sweet, sweet, sweetness.

Dr. BARNWELL: It also has to do a little bit with adaptability, which we as African-Americans and African-American women have to do constantly. And it says something about the properties of honey, which, you know, when it's warm, honey is very fluid, and when it's cold it gets a little crystalline.

Unidentified Group Member: Ooh-hoo.

Dr. BARNWELL. But it retains its sweetness, and that's the important thing.

Unidentified Group Member: Amen.

CONAN: Louise Robinson, you were there. I understand that the song, "Sweet Honey in the Rock," was the first song you guys learned.

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, it was. We actually had formed a larger group with men and women, and at each rehearsal the group got smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller...

CONAN: As these groups tend to get. Yeah.

Ms. ROBINSON: Yeah. And one day there were just four women sitting there, and we decided, `Let's move forward.' And we--Bernice taught us that song, "Sweet Honey in the Rock."

CONAN: Mm-hmm, and--been singing it ever since.

Ms. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Has there ever been any consideration all those years to inviting men or other people to join the group?

Ms. KAHLIL: You want to join us?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You've never heard me sing. No, I just wondered. Is it...

Ms. ROBINSON: It started with men.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. ROBINSON: But, you know, they had their chance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAILLARD: You know, I always like to mention that there's a--one of the gentlemen who were one of the--you know, in the original rehearsal...

Dr. BARNWELL: Formation. Yeah.

Ms. MAILLARD: ...ensemble, Mike Hodge(ph)--he has a chapter in Sweet Honey's autobiography, "We Who Believe in Freedom," that talks about him being, you know, one of the first members of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and people just can't believe it. But, you know, he's a singer and he was with us, so we say he's an old Sweet Honey.

CONAN: So he'd be number 5A.

Ms. MAILLARD: Yes. Yeah. That's it.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Cherylee, Cherylee calling from Cleveland, Ohio.

CHERYLEE (Caller): Hello, ladies. This is Cherylee.

Unidentified Group Member: Hello.

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (In unison) Hi, Cherylee.

CHERYLEE: ...Louise Robinson--you know, it's funny, the metaphor that gentleman out there in the Midwest made about the name of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Yes, it is a warm core of sweet honey, and in my own experience with Sweet Honey in the Rock, it's always been a nurturing spirit, so I thought that Carol and Louise and you, too, Ysaye, who have been a nurturing spirit to me, would love to know that my daughter Beth has just had her first baby.

Ms. MAILLARD: Oh, my gosh!

Dr. BARNWELL: Oh, congratulations!

Ms. MAILLARD: Cheryl!

CHERYLEE: And they're down in Raleigh, North Carolina. And Erica Elizabeth McRae(ph) will be one year old on Thanksgiving Day.

ARNAE: Oh, congratulations.

Ms. ROBINSON: Congratulations.

Ms. MAILLARD: Cheryl, what...

CHERYLEE: And I was wondering if you could suggest which album I should send Beth to take her--spring her through her first year of motherhood.

Ms. MAILLARD: Oh, "Still the Same Me." You can do--What's the other one? "All for Freedom."

ARNAE: "I Got Shoes."

Ms. MAILLARD: "I Got Shoes, You Got Shoes." Cheryl, that is so great.

CHERYL: Great. I'll have to find some way to get in touch with you, Maillard. I know I have your e-mail somewhere around.

Unidentified Group Member: Girl, go to the Web site.

Unidentified Group Member: SweetHoney.com.

Unidentified Group Member: Go to SweetHoney.com, and say that you're--you know, that we know who you are and you're trying to reach us.

CHERYL: All right. I...

Unidentified Group Member: It's a blessing a to hear from you.

Unidentified Group Member: Congratulations.

Unidentified Group Member: And congratulations.

Unidentified Group Member: Congratulations.

CHERYL: Ty(ph) has the main--I think the main e-mail. I'm sorry, people, for doing this, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Group Member: Cheryl was a member of the DC Black Repertory Company.

CHERYL: I love you all.

Unidentified Group Member: She was one of the original members of the company.

CONAN: Ah.

CHERYL: Yes, the real workshop rehearsal...

Unidentified Group Member: Uh-huh, that's right.

Unidentified Group Member: And she was in Bernice's workshop, too.

CHERYL: Yes. I'm sorry, ladies. But I love you all and I miss you.

Unidentified Group Member: We love you, too.

CHERYL: You're a part of my life.

CONAN: Thank you for the call, Cheryl Lee(ph)...

CHERYL: Thank you.

CONAN: ...and also let me add my congratulations, as well.

CHERYL: All right, then. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

We're talking with Sweet Honey in the Rock. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail we got from Lucia(ph) in Tok (pronounced Toke) or Tok (pronounced Tahk)--I'm not sure which it is. Well, Tok (pronounced Toke), Alaska, they say; there's a pronouncer here at the bottom. `A friend of mine took a vacation at an island resort in British Columbia and spent it singing with the members of Sweet Honey in the Rock. She's not a singer, but felt the experience was liberating and therapeutic. Could Sweet Honey members talk about teaching the rest of us to sing and how they help non-singers find their voice?'

Dr. BARNWELL: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Group Member: Ysaye is the master.

CONAN: Is she?

Unidentified Group Member: She is the master.

CONAN: Ysaye, go ahead.

Dr. BARNWELL: Wow. Yeah. I do work shops because I really feel that people want to sing. I feel like everybody wants to sing. I feel like most people have horror stories about singing and they are intimidated and afraid, and I would like it to be my personal mission to eradicate that from the Earth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BARNWELL: And I would like us all at some point to know a core of the same songs so that one day we can sing them around the world together at the same time.

Unidentified Group Member: Ooh, that would fantastic.

Dr. BARNWELL: Wouldn't that be fabulous? You know, with the technology and everything, you know.

Unidentified Group Member: Ooh.

Unidentified Group Member: Well, you know, people have prayer, they do...

Dr. BARNWELL: That's right.

Unidentified Group Member: They have days of prayer and everybody's praying at the same time, or meditating.

Unidentified Group Member: And people do it same circle.

Dr. BARNWELL: Right.

Unidentified Group Member: And do it same circle. Well, you know, at the same--the certain time. Oh, Sweet Honey, it sounds like a project.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Group Member: Hmm. They do, though.

Dr. BARNWELL: I think the thing that's important is that when you look at music and singing out of African world view, there isn't anything extraordinary about singing. In the Western world, we sort of elevate everybody who is an artist up to a level that no one can aspire to reach. And so I try to get people to understand that singing is just a part of our culture and our society and that we all are expected to participate in it, you know. And if you have one note, sing it loudly and strongly and with gusto and we'll find your key and we'll sing with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There's some that keys that will remain undiscovered for a very, very long time.

Dr. BARNWELL: You mean like H?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah.

Unidentified Group Member: The key of H.

CONAN: In my case, H-flat.

Unidentified Group Member: H-flat.

Unidentified Group Member: OK.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Susan, Susan's calling us from Jacksonville, Florida.

SUSAN #1 (Caller): Hi. I am just so in awe to be on the phone line with you. I started listening to Sweet Honey back in the '70s when I was living in Berkeley and saw lots of Sweet Honey and Cris Williamson and Holly Near and lots of folks. And a couple of years ago, you were in Jacksonville during black history month. And I teach at an inner-city high school, and I took a couple of students with me. And one of you sang a song about lack of representation for citizens of Washington, DC, and this student was so moved to finally put a name to so much of the unfairness that we face in our life that she not only is now in college, but has decided she wants to go to law school and has just...

Unidentified Group Member: Really?

SUSAN #1: It all stems from that moment and hearing you put so much of what she felt into words. And I just want to thank you so much.

Unidentified Group Member: Oh, thank you and thank her, yes.

Unidentified Group Member: Thank you for that, thank you.

Unidentified Group Member: Yes, that's what it's about.

Unidentified Group Member: Yeah, that's what it's about.

Unidentified Group Member: That's what it's about.

Unidentified Group Member: Give her our best.

SUSAN #1: I will. Thank you so much, and keep singing.

Unidentified Group Member: All right. Well, thank you, Susan.

CONAN: I'm not sure there's too much of a problem with that. Susan, thanks very much for the phone call.

We're going to take another short break now, and when we come back we'll continue our conversation, with Sweet Honey in the Rock and get a chance to hear some more of their music.

If you'd like to join the conversation, again, give us a phone call. It's simple: (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. Back after the break. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Announcements)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Tomorrow, it's "Science Friday." This week, the Kansas Board of Education approved new science standards that cast doubt on the theory of evolution. Join Ira Flatow for the latest news on teaching evolution, plus a conversation with author Chris Mooney about what he calls the Republican war on science. That's all tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION/"Science Friday."

Today, we're in Studio 4A and my guests are Sweet Honey in the Rock. They are Arnae, Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson. If you have questions for the group about their career or their music or about their message, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

But let's take a break from talking. How about another tune?

Unidentified Group Member: ...(Unintelligible) say a little bit about where this comes from?

Dr. BARNWELL: This is "No Mirrors in My Nana's House." It's a song and it's also a book now, and it's also been on Nickelodeon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Group Member: Oh, yes.

Dr. BARNWELL: But it started it as a piece for dance, actually, with a story. So it started before that with a friend of mine in Washington, DC, who told me about her growing up.

Unidentified Group Member: Mm-hmm. Yes.

Dr. BARNWELL: Yes, go ahead.

Unidentified Group Member: OK. Well, I'm going to sing the song.

Dr. BARNWELL: Yes, she's going to sing the song.

Unidentified Group Member: Let the song tell the story ...(unintelligible) calm down. OK?

(Soundbite of "No Mirrors in My Nana's House")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) There were no mirrors in my nana's house, no mirrors in my nana's house.

There was no mirrors in my nana's house, no mirrors in my nana's house. The beauty that I saw in everything, the beauty in everything, was in her eyes. Was in her eyes.

I'm telling you now there were no mirrors in my nana's house, no mirrors in my nana's house. No mirrors in the house. No mirrors in my nana's house, no mirrors in the house.

I never knew that my skin was too black. I never that was my nose was too flat. I never knew that my clothes didn't fit. I never knew there were things that I missed. But the beauty in everything was in her eyes, was in her eyes.

There were no mirrors in my nana's house, no mirrors in the nana's house. There were no mirrors in my nana's house, no mirrors in my nana's house. No mirrors in the house.

I was intrigued by the cracks in the wall, the dust in the sunlight that spilled on the floor. The noise in the hallway was music to me, the trash on the rug it was itchin' my feet. And the beauty of everything was in her eyes, was in her eyes.

Oh, don't you know there were no mirrors in my nana's house, no mirrors in my nana's house. There were no mirrors in my nana's house, no mirrors in my nana's house.

The clothes outside was a magical place, I only knew love and I didn't know hate. And the beauty in everything was in her eyes, was in her eyes.

I'm telling you now there were no mirrors in my nana's house, no mirrors in my nana's house. There were no mirrors in my nana's house, no mirrors in my nana's house.

And the beauty that I saw in everything, the beauty in everything was in her eyes, in her eyes. Child ...(unintelligible). No mirrors in the house, no mirrors in the house. No mirrors in the house, no mirrors in the hose.

CONAN: Sweet Honey in the Rock. "No Mirrors."

How many songs do you guys know?

Unidentified Group Member: Hundreds.

Unidentified Group Member: Hundreds.

Unidentified Group Member: Can't even count.

CONAN: Hundreds.

Unidentified Group Member: We can't even count.

Unidentified Group Member: Maybe thousands.

ARNAE: We knows songs that we don't know that we know.

Unidentified Group Member: Yes.

ARNAE: That's--you know, that's what happens. We know songs that we don't know that we know.

Unidentified Group Member: Exactly.

ARNAE: And one of the things my coming into the group--I used to...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. This is Arnae.

ARNAE: Yes. Hi. I used to work as a substitute, and I'm a huge fan of Sweet Honey. So this is a fan's dream come true.

CONAN: So when you were a substitute, did you have to know those hundreds of songs and be ready to plug in at any minute?

ARNAE: Absolutely. And sometimes I didn't know, but there is this Sweet Honey saying, `Take it from my mouth,' taking the song from the mouth and singing it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Group Member: It's like being plugged into the person who's got the words...

ARNAE: Absolutely.

Unidentified Group Member: ...so you look into them on all--whatever. Your whole body is in tune to whatever those words are going to be. I was a sub also for a little while.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Unidentified Group Member: So I know--some songs I absolutely did not know, but I know the form.

ARNAE: Right. Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Group Member: You know the form, you can hear where...

CONAN: You can hear where the changes are going to come.

Unidentified Group Member: ...the chordal structure is going...

CONAN: Yeah.

Unidentified Group Member: ...and you can find something to do.

CONAN: And you can...

Unidentified Group Member: One note.

CONAN: And if you don't now the words, you could hum.

Unidentified Group Member: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Group Member: Yes, that's right.

Unidentified Group Member: That's right.

Unidentified Group Member: Or echo.

Unidentified Group Member: Or echo.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Susie, Susie is with us from Cincinnati.

SUSIE (Caller): Yes, I am.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

SUSIE: I have two comments to make. One is that Sweet Honey in the Rock is one of my favorite two concerts. I saw you all and I saw Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and you're my favorite two concerts ever.

CONAN: Good company.

Unidentified Group Member: All right.

Unidentified Group Member: Thank you.

SUSIE: Definitely.

Unidentified Group Member: You might be able to see us together later in the summer.

Unidentified Group Member: That's right, yeah.

SUSIE: Oh, I'd love that.

Unidentified Group Member: Just watch our Web site.

SUSIE: OK. My other comment was that I'm a sign language interpreter, and I was amazed to find that you all had your own sign language interpreter. And it just added another dimension to your music that was just fantastic. It was wonderful.

Unidentified Group Member: Thank you.

Unidentified Group Member: Thank you.

CONAN: Ysaye, you were talking about one of the reasons you came into the group was as an interpreter, but then found you couldn't do two things at the same time. But the group has kept an interpreter all these years.

Dr. BARNWELL: Unidentified Group Member: Absolutely. Her name is Shirley Childress Saxon, and she's been working with us since 1980. And we are really, really fortunate to have a sign language interpreter who has moved into the artistic element...

Unidentified Group Member: Yeah.

Dr. BARNWELL: ...in the way and with the great depth that she has, because most interpreters don't get a chance to be that expressive. So she's fortunate, and so are we.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. She knows all those songs too, huh?

Unidentified Group Member: Oh, yeah.

Dr. BARNWELL: Yes, she does.

CONAN: Yeah.

Dr. BARNWELL: But she--you know, she listens.

Unidentified Group Member: Uh-huh.

CONAN: I also--Why is it that a musical group feels it's so important to communicate with those who can't hear them well?

Dr. BARNWELL: Unidentified Group Member: Because actually a lot of deaf people like music. They just need to understand what the words are. And so if you're ever in an environment like Gallaudet University, you will hear music all over the campus; it's blaring. But they may not really understand all of the lyrics, and we want them to know exactly what we're singing.

CONAN: Susie, thanks very...

SUSIE: And Shirley does just a wonderful job at it. Thanks again.

CONAN: OK, thanks for the call.

Unidentified Group Member: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go now to Susan. And Susan's calling us from Cleveland.

SUSAN #2 (Caller): Yes, it's a very popular name today.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SUSAN #2: What I would like to ask--we've had a lot of setbacks in our movement, whether it's the Supreme Court nominations and Bush re-election, but you've maintained your optimism. How have you done that?

Unidentified Group Member: Whoa.

Unidentified Group Member: By God's promise.

SUSAN #2: Hmm.

Unidentified Group Member: Mm-hmm. You know, we believe. We're all spiritual women, and I don't mean by a certain religion. I just think that we know that our life force is from God and that, you know--I'm speaking for me...

Unidentified Group Member: Go ahead. Go.

Unidentified Group Member: ...but I think you know across the board, we want to uplift people. We want to give people hope. We don't want to lay down and die. We want to live and we want to rise above. And, you know, that's how we do that.

CONAN: Well, Susan, let me turn that around and ask you. Clearly, after some of those things that you regard as disappointments, you managed to get out of bed the next day.

Unidentified Group Member: Yes.

CONAN: So what's kept you going?

SUSAN #2: Well, I want to run on and see what the end's going to be.

Unidentified Group Member: Ooh, yeah!

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Unidentified Group Member: All right.

Unidentified Group Member: Run on, run on. Whoo!

SUSAN #2: We will come together again.

Unidentified Group Member: Yes.

SUSAN #2: We really will. And we'll--and the majority of the people of this country will unify and make a better world.

Unidentified Group Member: Yeah. People have to be open to growth and know that they don't know everything at the moment that they think they're supposed to know at--that sometimes things will unfold. And you just have to get up in the morning, like you said, and run and see what the end is going to be. Put one foot in front of the other, wade in the water, the whole thing. Just keep on moving because if you stop, it's over.

Unidentified Group Member: That's right.

Unidentified Group Member: You have to keep moving forward.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Susan.

SUSAN #2: Thank you.

CONAN: Moving forward, musically moving forward, Nitanju, let me ask you. You come from a--excuse me, I'm looking in the wrong direction. Sort of a hip-hop act. I knew you were hiding there behind the microphone. How do you incorporate hip-hop into the kind of music that we're hearing today?

Ms. NITANJU BOLADE CASEL (Sweet Honey in the Rock): I don't understand your question.

CONAN: Well, you come--do you bring that element into the program with you?

Ms. CASEL: I tend to write a lot of lyrical poetry interpreted in a rap, hip-hop fashion.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CASEL: I don't consider myself a hip-hop artist or even a rapper.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. CASEL: I'm a talker. And a lot of times, I have a lot to say. And the fastest way for me to get it out is through that kind of spoken word. And I've written "Young and Positive," I've written "Give the People the Right to Vote," I've written "Tribute," I've written "Little Shakarai," I've written "Leader of the World Community(ph)"...

Unidentified Group Member: "Priority." "A Priority."

Ms. CASEL: Yes. And a lot of those have that format in the song.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And not just format, but topics. Is it important to keep the group current with events?

Ms. CASEL: Absolutely. This group--we discuss all of the issues that are going on today constantly. They're in all of our songs, they're in our music. That is a part of our mission. In addition to uplifting and writing spiritual music, in addition to music that informs, we also have to write music that let's people know that we are aware of what is present today and leave that music hopefully in a tradition and a legacy where long after we have left this planet, those songs are still around where people will have access to that music and grow and learn and use them as tools as how to move forward in the future, how to deal with some of these things, understand that Harry Moore--his family was--his house was blown up, he and his wife were killed, to understand what happened in the civil rights movement. To use those songs to understand about peace, to understand about better Earth, to understand about the environment, all those things that are happening. Those songs, many of them, are dated by when they were written and they become a part of history.

CONAN: We're talking today with the group Sweet Honey in the Rock. They've joined us here in Studio 4A. If you'd like to join us, it's (800) 989-8255. You can also send us e-mail: totn@npr.org.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Rena, Rena calling from New Haven, Connecticut.

RENA (Caller): Wow! I'm a rabbi, and I have listened to Sweet in the Rock for 15 years. And I hear your songs to be testimonials. And when I'm pounding out sermons, I often blare the music so that it shakes my house. And I just want to express my gratitude for your vision and your ability to convey that through all the technology. And keep doing what you're doing, and thank you and God bless.

Unidentified Group Member: Oh, thank you, Rena. Thank you.

Unidentified Group Member: Thank you.

Unidentified Group Member: God bless you.

Unidentified Group Member: Wow.

RENA: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RENA: And this is my first authentic six digress of separation. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'm not sure the radio counts.

RENA: Oh, it counts. It counts. It's a tool. So--but if I hang--I don't want to hang up 'cause I'm on my speakerphone. So just hang me up. But I want to keep listening.

CONAN: All right.

Unidentified Group Member: OK.

Unidentified Group Member: Thank you.

RENA: God bless.

Unidentified Group Member: Thank you so much.

CONAN: There's a radio for that, too. But anyway, thanks very much for the call.

And let's see if we can squeeze in one more before we'll hear one more tune, Diane. Diane calling from San Francisco.

DIANE (Caller): Hi. I'd like to pay homage to Sweet Honey for all the women groups that have formed around the country because of their exposure to you. I'm from New Orleans, and there's a wonderful group of several sisters--Sister Denema(ph), Sister Anawa(ph), Sister Tayari(ph)--and other sisters who've been singing since the '80s. And not only did they sing your songs, but they wrote songs relevant to New Orleans and the times, things that we needed to hear. And I think that they had the courage to do it because of you. And I want to thank you.

Unidentified Group Member: Amen.

Unidentified Group Member: Thank you. I hope they're all safe.

DIANE: Thank you, sisters.

CONAN: Diane calling us from San Francisco.

And, well, there's one--let me ask you one more question. I described at the beginning of the program Sweet Honey in the Rock as a institution. Do you all see it going beyond you?

Unidentified Group Member: Oh, absolutely. I can't wait to see who the next Sweet Honey--what it all will be. You know, who will these people be? What will they think about? What will the sing about? And how will they interpret the songs...

Unidentified Group Member: Right.

Unidentified Group Member: ...that we are doing now?

Unidentified Group Member: Yeah.

CONAN: And how--what new songs will they bring in? That's what you...

Unidentified Group Member: That's right.

CONAN: But, Carol, talk to us--it's also a business as well as a--you have a message you're trying to...

Ms. MAILLARD: Yes, it is.

CONAN: ...do things for people, but it's also a business.

Ms. MAILLARD: Yes, it is. Yes it is.

CONAN: That part isn't so easy.

Ms. MAILLARD: And the women in the group maintain the business. We have a cadre of people--manager, booking agent, office assistant, people who travel on the road with us--but I think we are very unique in that way. We handle the business, we run the business, we make sure the business is healthy. We have a board of directors and we, you know, keep it going. That's--you know, we keep it going.

CONAN: Well, let's wind it up in this case, 'cause we have time for one more tune, "Forever Love."

Unidentified Group Member: This is a love song that Sweet Honey does. We do love songs in addition to some of the other songs that we offer the world. And this was written by Aisha Kahlil. It's called "Forever Love."

(Soundbite of "Forever Love")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Chanting in unison)

(Singing) All of my love and all of my life, I'll give to you, my love, unending devotion. Tell me you'll stay, don't ...(unintelligible) this love away. You bring me such joy, you bring me such love, my love, my love, my endless devotion.

(Chanting in unison)

(Singing) This you should know, I stand by the door. It's open wide, so come inside, let's make heaven. Effortlessly we'll dance upon the sea, we're riding the tides, sweet love is our guide, my love, my love, my endless devotion.

CONAN: Let me thank our guests this past hour, members of Sweet Honey in the Rock. They are Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, Ysaye Barnwell, Arnae, Nitanju Bolade Casel and Aisha Kahlil.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ira Flatow's here tomorrow with TALK OF THE NATION/"Science Friday."

I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of "Forever Love")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) And follow me on the wings of love, we'll fly, we'll fly, we'll soar to the heavens above--fly to the heavens above--on the rhythms of love--lovely music--of heaven.

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