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Inspired by Gospel and African Rhythms, Sweet Honey in the Rock Delivers Political Punch a Cappella

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With their penchant for songs about Third World sweatshops and the international debt, it’s not likely that Sweet Honey in the Rock will be scaling Top 40 charts anytime soon. But the group’s founder isn’t worried. “I don’t do music to be successful in that way,” says Bernice Johnson Reagon, 47, who by day is a curator in the division of community life at the Smithsonian Institution. “I decided when I was 21 that I had to have music in my life and that as long as I could sing, I would sing. I decided in that same moment that I never needed to be a star. That absolutely cleared things up for me.”

Nonetheless, the all-female a cappella sextet, a cult favorite, can count to its credit eight albums (the latest: All for Freedom), a Carnegie Hall sellout and a sheaf of great notices compiled during a 16-year career. Reagon’s accomplishments as a musician and curator also helped her win a $285,000 MacArthur Foundation award in 1989. Accompanied by percussion instruments, the group sings everything from African chants and American blues to work songs and hymns. Despite their name, which comes from a gospel song, Sweet Honey’s message is more often political than religious. “I think everything is political,” says Reagon. “We are about being accountable.” In “Ode to the International Debt,” for instance, the group sings of “Money going overseas/To buy changes that will never come/Dollar-backed contras spill the blood of the people/In small nations we won’t leave alone.”

All of the women—Reagon, Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Carol Lynn Maillard, Nitanju Bolade-Casel, Aisha Kahlil and Shirley Childress Johnson, who signs the group’s songs for the hearing impaired—hold other jobs. But Reagon, who says the group has turned down offers from major record labels who wanted to commercialize Sweet Honey’s sound, says Sweet Honey is happy that way. “This group is owned by the women in it,” she says. “We are not letting somebody else decide if we’re good enough to be onstage.”