Sweet Honey in the Rock is an award winning African American female a cappella ensemble with musical roots in the black church - spirituals and gospel and jazz and the blues. I heard them about twenty years ago at Woolsey Hall and I was hooked. They were amazing. I believe their music transcends time and racial barriers.
They began in 1973, have gone through twenty two different female singers, won a Grammy, shared a stage with the poet Gwendolyn Brooks at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta and they are still going strong. They sing loud and strong and they sing with a purpose. My unit has quite a few strong voices but not enough women.
This lesson plan is about singing and lyrics. It is about listening and writing and I want to start with Sweet Honey in the Rock. On day one (of about a two week activity of give and take) I will have students listen to a song called "A tribute." A tribute explains the social and political message of the group - "Try to crack a rock and you will see the power of a woman and it will blow your mind". They continue with, "Take a taste of honey and you will see it is just what you are missing." They use a combination of strength and sweetness to fight for their causes which they refer to as all the isms -racism, sexism, ageism, etc.
"There Are No Mirrors in My Nana's House", another one of their popular songs deals with the self image of young black women trying to grow up in a very white country (I never knew my nose was too flat, my skin was too black) The beauty this young girl saw was through her grandmother's eyes who defined beauty for her, not magazines or cosmetics. She learned that beauty is in the eyes of those who love you. I can't really express how important a message this is for teenagers. Always has been, probably always will be.
One of their songs that I particularly like is "LA, Birmingham, Soweta", "as we fight against misogyny, race hatred and aids " is an excellent way to discuss the significance of those places (apartheid, race riots, bombings)
This lesson plan is also a chance to compare lyrics with poetry. How are they similar? How are they different? Make sure students notice that both don't necessarily follow rules of grammar or formal expression. Also point out that both poetry and lyrics send a condensed message not necessarily explained in detail. For example, "Ain't no one know at sunrise how this day's going to end, ain't no one know at sunset how this day's going to end." I interpret this as none of us have the power over what will happen in the future. All we have control over is the moment and how we react to our surroundings. Sweet honey in the Rock believes in the power of political activism, as did Tupac and Bob Dylan.
After we talk about the messages and lyrics I will have the students think about their own message they would like to express. Then students should write their own lyrics that express that message for them. Then write a paragraph to show how those lyrics explain the message because like poetry the lyrics might be symbolic or esoteric and may take some explanation. It is suggested that each student read them out loud to the other members of the class. Perhap this can be taken to ever-greater heights if a musician in the room can be convinced or inspired to collaborate with and provide some music?
"In nonsense is strength" Kurt Vonnegut