Studio Sessions

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Today, we're honored to welcome back to our studios Sweet Honey in the Rock. For more than 35 years this a cappella ensemble has been entertaining and inspiring audiences through the strength of their songs and the sweetness of their voices.

They are currently on tour, and we are delighted to have them join us again, in honor of their 35th anniversary. With us are, and I'm going to ask them to introduce themselves so you can hear their voices individually - they are…

Ms. AISHA KAHLIL (Member, Sweet Honey in the Rock): My name is Aisha Kahlil.

Ms. YSAYE MARIA BARNWELL (Member, Sweet Honey in the Rock): Ysaye Maria Barnwell.

Ms. LOUISE ROBINSON (Member, Sweet Honey in the Rock): Louise Robinson.

Ms. NITANJU BOLADE CASEL (Member, Sweet Honey in the Rock): Nitanju Bolade Casel.

Ms. CAROL MAILLARD (Member, Sweet Honey in the Rock): Carol Maillard.

Ms. SHIRLEY CHILDRESS (Member, Sweet Honey in the Rock): I'm Shirley Childress.

MARTIN: And they are back here in NPR's Performance Studio 4A. Welcome back, ladies.

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK (Musical Group): Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: So before we talk about what you've been up to since we saw you last, how about we start off with some - something sweet. What shall we hear?

Unidentified Woman #1: Something melodic?

MARTIN: Yes, what shall we hear?

Unidentified Woman #2: Well, why don't we - why don't we do "Give Love."

MARTIN: From the new album?

Unidentified Woman #2: Actually, this is the new - the latest recording that we have.

MARTIN: All right, let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Give Love")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Who is going to tell us about it?

Unidentified Woman #3: Nitanju, why don't you tell…

MARTIN: Nitanju, tell us about this song.

Ms. CASEL: This song is part of a whole suite of music that we put together for Alvin Ailey, American Theater, and we spent our last seasons performing with them doing this music that we created. And so the whole piece is about family and relationships and all that, and this is one of the songs that we brought together for this. And I choreographed the ballet to it.

MARTIN: Yes, which you can see on YouTube. I don't know if I'm allowed to say that. Can I say that? It's on YouTube...

Ms. MAILLARD: You can see it live on October 23rd...

Dr. BARNWELL: Oh no. This is - yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAILLARD: ...here in Washington, D.C.

Dr. BARNWELL: Yeah. That's why we're singing that one for our anniversary concert this year.

MARTIN: Aisha, I wanted to ask, do have this right? You used to teach dance? Do I have that right?

Ms. KAHLIL: Yes.

MARTIN: So what was it like for you, having worked in both genre, to see this collaboration?

Ms. KAHLIL: It was wonderful. I was a little disappointing for me because I'm having some problems with my hips and so I couldn't move as much as I would have liked to. You know, or I'd been taking the company class and, you know, doing all that, but...

MARTIN: I was going to ask about that. Did you want to jump out there?

Ms. KAHLIL: Well, I...

MARTIN: I know I do in my seat but...

Ms. KAHLIL: I kind of held in there. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KAHLIL: I kind of hung in there the best way that I could. Yeah.

MARTIN: So it was a little bittersweet.

Ms. KAHLIL: Yeah.

MARTIN: A little bit.

Ms. KAHLIL: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Shirley, I'm glad to see you. We didn't get to visit with you when the group was last here. And I did want to - for those who can not see your beautiful art form, you are a sign language interpreter. And I wanted to ask, how did you come to this role and how do you go about interpreting this music for those who can not hear it?

Ms. CHILDRESS: Thank you. Thank you, Michel. Spiani(ph) started working with sign language interpreter with Dr. Ysaye Barnwell and through the vision I think of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who saw Dr. Barnwell singing and signing and said my gosh. She sounds terrific and she looks terrific and she's signing and this message encompasses all people - all humanity.

And I work as a sign language interpreter, professionally, and happened - and being at the right place at the right time and meeting Dr. Barnwell and she said hey, I can sing and I can sign. I can do both, but it's hard for me to do both at the same time, simultaneously and to...

Dr. BARNWELL: And to interpret for...

Ms. CHILDRESS SAXTON: ...to interpret. Right.

Dr. BARNWELL: ...five different voices and five different musical lines, etcetera.

Ms. CHILDRESS SAXTON: Exactly.

Dr. BARNWELL: And hold my own. No. No. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILDRESS: So it was being where I was supposed to be with having the right skills and talents - and being on time.

MARTIN: And speaking of being on time, Ysaye, where was my invitation when you performed at the White House?

Dr. BARNWELL: Girl...

MARTIN: It somehow did not arrive.

Dr. BARNWELL: It didn't get to you?

MARTIN: I - I...

Dr. BARNWELL: Ooh. We have to talk to the post office.

MARTIN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BARNWELL: I'm so sorry.

MARTIN: Which is it's just my way of pointing out that among the other things you've been up since we saw you last...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...is that you were invited to perform at the White House.

Dr. BARNWELL: Yes. We were the first concert in the new White House.

MARTIN: The first in the new Obama administration.

Ms. KAHLIL: Woo-ho. Yeah.

MARTIN: Now you are no...

(Soundbite of clapping)

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, you are no stranger to honors in this group, but if I may ask, what was that experience like?

Dr. BARNWELL: You know, it was wonderful. I really had secretly wanted us to sing at the inauguration.

Ms. MAILLARD: No it wasn't secret, Ysaye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BARNWELL: No that wasn't...

Ms. MAILLARD: No...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BARNWELL: That wasn't what I said. I had secretly I had, and then I tried to make it known.

Ms. MAILLARD: Yes.

Dr. BARNWELL: And then I had to release it, because I realized I didn't control it, no matter how hard I tried. And I tried hard.

Ms. MAILLARD: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BARNWELL: And when I released it, like in about two weeks there was this call.

Ms. MAILLARD: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BARNWELL: So, I feel like, you know, we were supposed to be there. Now, it was a grand celebration. It really was. We were there with this new administration. The first lady had invited 200 school children to come to the White House. Their excitement, our excitement, her excitement, it was just all too much. And we met a number of people, one of them was Admiral Rochon, who was the head usher at the White House and heard the name; although, we were in another room, of a staff member who had been working there for 51 years.

And just, there was history and there was the future coming together in this amazing way all at the same time. And we sang what we wanted to sing, no questions asked. We had a wonderful time. There was a beautiful program with all the lyrics. The children turned pages back to see where we were. It was lovely. It was lovely.

MARTIN: Well, we're so glad that you agreed to come by and see us after making such high (unintelligible).

Dr. BARNWELL: Oh, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BARNWELL: How else are we going to tell the world about what we did?

Ms. CASEL: What did you just say?

MARTIN: After being in such high cotton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BARNWELL: I've never heard that before.

Ms. CASEL: You never heard it?

Dr. BARNWELL: I've never heard that. Uh-uh.

Ms. CASEL: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are enjoying a special performance and visit with members of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock. They are celebrating their 35th...

Dr. BARNWELL: Actually, can we make a little correction?

MARTIN: Sure. Go ahead. Sure.

Dr. BARNWELL: We're actually starting our 36th year. We celebrated our 35th year on the tour with Alvin Ailey; and it was their 50th and our 35th, and so now we're actually exiting 35 and entering 36.

Ms. MAILLARD: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, we are women so I thought we would shave a little bit.

Dr. BARNWELL: All right, girl.

MARTIN: Sort of shave it back.

Dr. BARNWELL: Well, make us 30 already.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASEL: Twenty-five.

Dr. BARNWELL: Twenty-five. Going to give us all a little more time.

MARTIN: Do you want to sing something else?

Ms. MAILLARD: This is another tune from "Go In Grace."

(Soundbite of song, "Grace")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK (Vocal group): (Singing) (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: I know people always want to know this, but what is the secret do you think to hanging together as a group? Now you have changed...

Ms. MAILLARD: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...within the group.

Ms. MAILLARD: There've been 23 different women who have been in Sweet Honey in the Rock since 1973. And I think, for all of the women in Sweet Honey, there's a level of dedication and commitment to the music, to the women who are in the group, to the work that the group tries to do to the mission of Sweet Honey in the Rock. And I think it takes a lot of sacrifice and a lot of offering of your time, and your talents, and your mind, and your spirit and your body, and I'm tired just talking about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BARNWELL: Patience.

Ms. MAILLARD: And patience.

Dr. BARNWELL: With each other.

Ms. MAILLARD: Yeah. And I think we're - the six of us are - we really understand that we have to continually trust one another and trying to let go and hold it all together all at the same time, if you know what I mean, Michel?

MARTIN: Do you have meetings?

Ms. MAILLARD: Oh honey, do we ever.

Ms. ROBINSON: Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo. We are the meeting-est(ph) group.

Ms. MAILLARD: We meet. We meet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAILLARD: We...

Ms. ROBINSON: (Unintelligible)

Ms. MAILLARD: Excuse my English, but we be meeting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBINSON: You know when...

MARTIN: Yeah. Louise wants to talk.

Ms. ROBINSON: ...when I was raising my daughter, and I'm still am I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBINSON: She's a grown woman and I have a grandchild. You know, I would say well, I've never been the mother of 10-year-old before or I've never been the mother of a 15-year-old before. So I think what happens in this group, we've never been people in Sweet Honey for 36 years before. So every year can bring new things and, you know, Sweet Honey started when people 20 - as young as 18.

Ms. MAILLARD: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROBINSON: So you've gone through a whole lifetime, you know, through marriages, relationships, children, grandchildren. So we're constantly changing.

MARTIN: Do you think that Sweet Honey will around for my children?

Ms. ROBINSON: How old are your kids?

Ms. MAILLARD: How old are they?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAILLARD: Have you started yet? How old are they?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAILLARD: We hope maybe your child will be a Sweet Honey.

MARTIN: Oh.

Dr. BARNWELL: There you go. Yes, we need the next generation.

MARTIN: Oh yes they're...

Dr. BARNWELL: We're looking for replacements.

MARTIN: Do you think so?

Ms. MAILLARD: Ysaye listen, now said child people going to be emailing and sending CD's and...

Dr. BARNELL: Well, you know..

Ms. MAILLARD: ...calling up, send them to...

MARTIN: Do you think - do you hope now?

Dr. BARNELL: Well, we have some other - we have some ideas about what we might want to do down the line...

Ms. ROBINSON: Consider doing.

Dr. BARNELL: ...and considering doing and we will hold on to those ideas for now. Over the years that the group has grown, we feel that this is an institution. So if that is the case, it has to be preserved as an institution and continued as an institution. And so that's why we do think about those children who are coming up in the world now. We want to have music for them.

We want to welcome them to the world, caution them about the world, teach them about what's in the world, bring them into the broader audience of adults. And we are thinking about how it is we as women will continue the group as we begin to move and change. So yes, we're thinking about that seriously.

MARTIN: Well, happy 35th going into 36.

DR. BARNWELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: Year 36th.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: To Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Ms. CASEL: Thank you.

MARTIN: You're just in the prime. You don't think that 30 is the new what? What is it?

Ms. MAILLARD: Oh honey, 20 is the new embryo.

MARTIN: Twenty. Yes. Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASEL: Thank goodness.

MARTIN: Is there one more song you'd like to share with us before we let you go?

Ms. MAILLARD: Sure.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for spending this time with us.

Ms. MAILLARD: Oh we're happy to be here.

Ms. ROBINSON: Thank you.

Ms. MAILLARD: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Ready?

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes.

(Soundbite of song from, "Go In Grace")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) Sound of freedom. Freedom till it come. Sound of freedom. Freedom till it come....

MARTIN: Aisha Kahlil Ysaye Barnwell, Louise Robinson, Nitanju Casel, Carol, Maillard, Shirley Childress, Sweet Honey in the Rock here in Studio 4A at NPR headquarters. For more on Sweet Honey, including a video from their previous performance here at NPR, please check out our Web site at NPR.org.

Sweet Honey in the Rock, thank you so much.

(Soundbite of song from, "Go In Grace")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) Let there be peace on earth; let the moment be now, where every man and woman understands their part. Let there be peace. Let there be peace. Let there be peace. Let there be peace. Let there be peace on earth and let it extend to every border near and far, restore peace again. Let there be peace on earth let this be the day, when all humanity will raise their voices to say. Let there be peace. Let there be peace. Let there be peace.

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song from, "Go In Grace")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) Let there be peace.

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