They Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock brings messages of social justice to Jorgensen

The professional a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock performs at Jorgensen. The group sang about powerful messages regarding equality and freedom. (Julie Spillane/The Daily Campus)

Lots of people complain about President Donald Trump’s wall on Facebook or to their friends over breakfast. It’s not every day you hear five women singing gospel-blues music about how the wall is messed up. After 45 years making music about a variety of social justice issues, the all-female African-American acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock kept up with the times as they performed in the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts singing songs about the political and environmental issues the United States is facing today.

On Wednesday night, the performers of Sweet Honey in the Rock took the Jorgensen stage clad in red and black: Five singers, a sign language interpreter, and one male instrumentalist, Romeir Mendez. They then proceeded to share an hour and a half of their classic hodge-podge, hymn-like, historically inspired music.

Although the topics and sounds of their songs change from year to year, since its founding the group’s mission has been to bring social change and inspire audiences through music. The songs they performed at Jorgensen covered topics like gun violence, immigration, racism and access to clean water.

Member Aisha Kahlil wrote one of the songs they performed, “The Living Waters,” specifically about how humans have destroyed the natural purity and beauty of the earth’s waters. Before the song began, Kahlil spoke to the audience about how the song came to her, saying, “Water is life. What if we don’t have it?” The song brought awareness to environmental issues and important disparities like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

“I wish we had this in schools every day,” education graduate student Patricia O’Rourke said after their performance.

In addition to new, relevant songs the group also performed several of their older numbers, citing how it was disheartening that after so many years, the same social issues plague the United States. In particular, their song “Echo” emphasized how the past is very much still a part of the world today.

“They disrupted our sense of time with this song,” philosophy graduate student Darian Spearman said. “Forty years really isn’t a long time, and they were alive during so much.”

Despite many of these heavy-topic songs, the group also has several uplifting, upbeat songs. For example, for their number “Ella’s Song,” they encouraged the audience to sing with them, in a celebration of the struggle for freedom. The song honors civil rights activist Ella Baker, using her famous quote, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

For the second half of the show especially, the group was just having fun together on stage. Mendez had a solo number on the upright acoustic bass, and at one point, several of the vocalists would get up to dance. Although the songs in this portion of the show had less of a deep meaning, it gave the performers a chance to show off some of their other vocal skills.

In between songs, the group was very conversational and would discuss anecdotes that related to their songs, or how their creative process worked. At the end of the show, they asked for the lights on the audience to be raised so they could see who they were interacting and building connections with.

Ultimately, between their fun songs and more serious socially-conscious numbers, Sweet Honey in the Rock didn’t just come to UConn to entertain their audience, but rather to draw a promise out of them. Over and over they asked the audience to sing along: “Let there be peace, and let it begin with me.” It is surely the group’s wish that everybody sitting in the audience Wednesday night will let peace begin with them.


Alex Houdeshell is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.