URBANA — They've performed for 40 years, including at the White House; received a Grammy Award nomination; and collaborated with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.
Yet the powerful, versatile and talented all-female a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock is not a household name. Original member Carol Maillard said that makes no sense because the group is so "formidable."
But many fans crave their music, and Sweet Honey has fed off that love and support over the decades.
"There is a need for Sweet Honey in the Rock in this world and the way their sound and their music comes together and touches people," Maillard said.
So Sweet Honey, which will perform Saturday night at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, keeps on keepin' on, as Maillard put it, offering along with their impressive musical talents their message of uplift and calls for social justice everywhere.
And over the decades the singers have kept it fresh, incorporating hip-hop and rap into their repertoire of blues, spirituals, traditional gospel, reggae, African chants, old lullabies and jazz improvisation.
Twenty-three women have sung with Sweet Honey since it was founded in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon, with Maillard, Louise Robinson and Mie at the D.C. Black Repertory Theater Company.
"A few members of the company wanted a vocal ensemble and asked Bernice to work with us to put it together," Maillard said.
She and Robinson are the only original members remaining with Sweet Honey; Reagon retired in 2004 but continues to travel and lecture.
The other members are long-timers Ysaye Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel and Aisha Kahlil, as well as American Sign Language interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton, who appears on stage.
All Sweet Honey members are able to sing all vocal ranges and write and arrange songs as well. When people tell Maillard they saw Sweet Honey in the 1980s or '90s, she tells them they have to hear them today.
"We have different music, different sounds, different soloists, different feelings," she said. "We try to constantly evolve and evolve the music and stay contemporary while paying homage to the past. We try to keep it fresh."
In concert Saturday night, Sweet Honey will perform its usual mix of music. Because the concert falls in February — Black History Month — the ensemble will bring the civil rights movement to the fore.
The concert is not part of Krannert's regular season but rather a special event of the University of Illinois celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.
"Sweet Honey in the Rock embodies the essence of issues of freedom, equality and justice," UI Associate Chancellor Menah Pratt-Clarke said in a news release. "It is precisely for these reasons and the values they epitomize that we are delighted that Sweet Honey in the Rock will be a part of this celebration."
Sweet Honey performs 50 to 60 concerts a year and has released more than 20 albums. The newest, to be released later this month, is a double CD that's a little different.
It was recorded live over two nights at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and the vocal ensemble, which usually performs a cappella with occasional hand percussion, was accompanied by a jazz trio (piano, bass and drums).
The Appleseed Recordings release, "A Tribute — Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center," pays tribute to some of the seminal songs that first inspired Sweet Honey's singular blend of folk, blues, jazz, gospel and ethnic music.
Sweet Honey doesn't go on long-term tours but will get in a few miles in March, Maillard said, as the group goes to England, Belgium, Oman and Australia.
And for those of you wondering about the ensemble's name: It comes from Psalms 81:16, which offers the promise to a people of being fed by honey out of the rock.
If you go
What: The a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock performs as part of the University of Illinois celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tryon Festival Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U
Tickets: $20 for adults; $15 for senior citizens; $10 for students and youths high school age and younger