“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.”
Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the acappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, is an African American singer, composer, scholar, and social activist.
Bernice Johnson Reagon was born on October 4, 1942, outside of Albany, Georgia, to parents Beatrice and Reverend Jessie Johnson. She entered Albany State College (now Albany State University) in 1959 where she began her study of music. She also became active in the local NAACP chapter and then the SNCC. After her arrest at a demonstration resulted in her expulsion from Albany State, Reagon transferred to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. However, she withdrew after just one semester at her new school to join the Freedom Singers, a group that toured the country to fundraise for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights campaigns. Later, she returned to Spelman to complete her undergraduate degree in 1970. She then received a Ford Foundation fellowship to study at Howard University, where she was awarded the Ph.D. degree in 1975. During her time at Howard, she served as vocal director of the DC Black Repertory Theater and formed an all-female, African-American a cappela ensemble called Sweet Honey In The Rock.
Reagon became an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, serving as field secretary for SNCC, and a respected song leader. The Freedom Singers, organized by Cordell Reagon in 1962, was the first group to travel nationally. The singers realized that singing helped provide an outlet for protestors when dealing with issues like mobs and police brutality.
In 1965, Reagon utilized her talent and passion for using song as a communicative voice to record her first solo album, Folk Songs: The South. The following year, she was one of the founders of the Harambee Singers in Atlanta that supported the Black Consciousness Movement.
Reagon, a specialist in African-American oral history, performance and protest traditions, has served as music consultant, producer, composer, and performer on several award-winning film projects – notably PBS television productions such as Eyes on the Prize (1987) (in which she also appeared) and Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990) – and was the conceptual producer and narrator of the Peabody Award-winning radio series, Wade in the Water, African American Sacred Music Traditions.
Reagon’s work as a scholar and composer is reflected in publications on African-American culture and history, including: a collection of essays entitled If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition (2001); We Who Believe In Freedom: Sweet Honey In The Rock: Still on the Journey (1993); and We’ll Understand It Better By And By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers (1992). Reagon has also recorded on several albums.
In 1973 Reagon founded the six member all female a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. In addition to Reagon, the women in the original group were: Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casle, Shirley Childress Johnson, Aisha Kahil, and Carol Maillard. The only instrument they used was their voices along with shekere and tambourine. They have traveled all over to places like Europe, Japan, Mexico, and Australia. The group’s fan base is of different ethnic backgrounds, religions, and sexual orientations. Regon’s musical roots come from the rural South Baptist Church. She has advocated “music’s informational and transformative power to ask” and the impact music has had on the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1995 Reagon received a Charles Frankel Prize for her contributions to the public understanding of the humanities. The award was presented at the White House by President Bill Clinton. Other notable awards include the 9th Annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities given in 2003 by the Heinz Family Foundation. In April 2009 Reagon received an honorary doctoral degree from the Berklee College of Music. In 2000 she won the First National Leeway Laurel Award at the Leeway Foundation in Philadelphia.
In 1963 she married Cordell Reagon, another member of The Freedom Singers. Her daughter, Toshi Reagon, is also a singer-songwriter. Reagon believes that black people have created their own world. African Americans had to use what ever territory at their disposal to create a people. And that territory wasn’t land it was culture. She also said there was so much done because black culture was the only thing black people could call their own. That is why she feels black culture is the most powerful in the world.