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Sweet Honey for Ears and Soul


In a pop world that often values flash over substance, it's not easy for a group designed to uplift and motivate to survive over a long period. That makes Sweet Honey in the Rock's life span of nearly three decades (and counting) all the more remarkable.

The group's music is about empowering people to deal with issues such as racism, sexism and discrimination. Heavy stuff, but as any Sweet Honey follower could tell you, it makes for a powerful experience.

"We're very unique," says founding member Carol Maillard, who will be with the group when it headlines the Wilshire Theatre on Saturday. "Our music appeals to people who feel disenfranchised. They need it. It's nourishing to them. People listen to Sweet Honey and hear their hearts being spoken to."

The Washington, D.C.-based group has been presenting its rich, a cappella sound--encompassing traditional African songs, spirituals, R&B, folk music and reggae--since 1973. Bernice Johnson Reagon, formerly a member of the Freedom Singers, was inspired to form the group by her activist experiences in the civil rights movement. There have been 22 members since its inception. The current lineup consists of Maillard, Reagon, Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil and Shirley Childress Saxton.

Sweet Honey's sound and image aren't compatible with what most urban teens relate to, and Maillard concedes that's a concern. "It's something we discuss as a group. I wish we were in that pocket and that more young black kids, in particular, could be exposed to our music."

While the teen audience may remain elusive, Sweet Honey has recorded albums aimed at children, such as its current release, "Still the Same Me" (on Uni/Rounder), which has been nominated for a Grammy. The group also conducts workshop programs in the Washington area designed to help youngsters discover traditional African American gospel and New World music.

All its prestige hasn't added up to a high profile, though, and Maillard admits that it gets frustrating. "Even after all of these years, the visibility is not there and our record company doesn't know how to address it."

Still, there is comfort in the integrity of its messages and the singers' bond with their audience. (Saturday's show is a benefit for the Liberty Hill Foundation, a Los Angeles community activist organization.)

"People come for a connection," Maillard says. "Our message is something that people everywhere can understand because it mirrors what they're going through. The whole world has been influenced by the struggle of African Americans."

Pausing, she adds, "You know, there is no typical Sweet Honey fan. Our audience goes from mink to jeans. At our concerts, you see such beautiful faces, such diversity. And that is thrilling. It's electrifying."

* Sweet Honey in the Rock, Saturday at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 8 p.m. $30 to $125. (310) 453-3611, Ext. 116.

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