Bernardine Evaristo on Sweet Honey in the Rock: “They encapsulate the early years of black feminism”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

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I first heard Sweet Honey in the Rock sing at the 1985 UN World Conference on Women in Kenya, where they blew me away. It was my first visit to Africa and I was a young black feminist surrounded by 13,000 feminist women from all over the world, many in traditional dress. It was an incredible and unforgettable experience, and Sweet Honey gave the triumphant closing concert in Nairobi. They are an African-American, female a capella group whose vocal power and range would put some of today’s biggest singers, who rely on autotune, to shame. Their rousing and political songs, which veer from themes of injustice and oppression to expressions of love and beauty, are steeped in the traditions of blues, soul, gospel, folk and reggae.

I subsequently saw them appear every time they gave a concert in London; the audiences primarily packed out with women. More than 20 women have come and gone since the group was formed in 1973, and I like to think I caught them in their heyday during the Eighties. If one group encapsulates the early years of black feminism, it’s this one. They’ve earned several Grammy nominations, and won the award for best folk album, although that doesn’t do justice to the variety of their music styles.

I’ve chosen Selections 1976-1988 because it introduces people to some of their best songs. Sometimes I go years without listening to them, and then I’m driving along somewhere, put this album into the CD player and I’m immediately and sublimely transported – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. 

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Bernardine Evaristo was the joint winner of the Booker Prize for her eighth book, Girl, Woman, Other, in 2019. Manifesto: On Never Giving Up will be published in October 2021.

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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