NEAL CONAN, HOST:
For 40 years now, Sweet Honey in the Rock has created music deep in the tradition of the African-American community. When the women joined us in our studios in 2005, they outlined the group's message: Keep moving forward, and make a way for those who are coming behind you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I REMEMBER, I BELIEVE")
SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) I don't know how my mother walked her trouble down. I don't know how my father stood his ground. I don't know how my people survived slavery. I do remember. That's why I believe.
CONAN: "I Remember, I Believe," written by founding member Bernice Johnson Reagon, who retired from the group in 2004, and now another retirement. After almost 35 years with Sweet Honey, long-time member Ysaye Barnwell announced plans to step aside. You'll recognize her voice as the one that occupies the bottom register of the harmonies. She joins us in a moment.
We want to hear from those of you who've worked decades to help build a company, a group, team or an institution. How did you know it was time to go? 800-989-8255. Email us:firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ysaye Barnwell is back home from her final international tour with Sweet Honey in the Rock, and joins us here in Studio 42. Nice to have you in the new building.
YSAYE BARNWELL: Thank you so much.
CONAN: And let me ask you that question: How did you know it was time?
BARNWELL: I had a birthday last year, and realized that I had been in Sweet Honey for exactly half of my life. And something hit me, because there are a number of things I've been involved in at the same time that I've been involved in Sweet Honey in the Rock, and I realized that I was beginning to struggle with how to do everything. And I felt like I really had been trying to nurture and grow some other projects and things, and then I wanted to spend maybe the next third of my life actually seeing them come to fruition, and felt that perhaps now was the time. So I announced it to the group last July, and at the end of May, that will be my leaving day.
CONAN: And I'm sure since then, you've had time to wonder, you know, maybe I - this project I could've kept going. Maybe the group, I should've stayed in and cut back on some other things.
BARNWELL: You know, earlier in my life, at the - in fact, at the time that I came into Sweet Honey, I went through one of those door - closing-door-opening experiences. And because I didn't realize that was what was happening, I was emotionally devastated for about five years. And for me right now, it was very, very clear that this door with Sweet Honey was closing for me, and that other things were opening, and I didn't want to have another five years of devastation.
BARNWELL: So I really thought that I needed to pay attention to all of the things that I was thinking and feeling.
CONAN: So it must've been bittersweet to go on this tour?
BARNWELL: It was. It was. And it was a different kind of tour, because we moved so fast that we didn't really have time to appreciate the places that we were in. And so it really felt like a full agenda, but sad because we didn't get to see people we had met before, et cetera. Yeah.
CONAN: And do you have full confidence that the institution you did so much to build and support over the years is going to thrive without you?
BARNWELL: I trust God. I really do. And I believe that the women in the group want the group to go on. We wanted it to go on when Bernice left and people had fears and doubts, and I think the same thing will happen now. But I think that the group has a legacy. The group has strength. The group has foresight. And I believe that it will figure out how to move forward.
CONAN: Was your decision easier because of Bernice Reagon's example?
BARNWELL: No, I don't think it had anything to do with her example. I think I just knew for myself that that was what I needed to do.
CONAN: And there's still a little time left. Where are you going to be performing?
BARNWELL: My last concert that I'm aware of is May 11 at - in Malibu at Pepperdine.
CONAN: Oh, that's a nice place to say goodbye.
BARNWELL: It's a lovely place, yeah.
BARNWELL: So I'm really looking forward to it. There is kind of a situation where there's a conference going on. And so they've held some tickets for the conference participants and other people are being told it's sold out, but I hope that they will work that out.
CONAN: We want to hear from those of you in our audience who have helped to build institutions and teams and companies and - how do you do it with time to go? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And we're going to start with Laurel. And Laurel is on the line with us from Pensacola.
And we're still having problems with our phone system, which is dropping calls as soon as we pick them up on the air. So, Laurel, if you could do us the favor, try to call back. We'll see if we can get it fixed. Or zap us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. And Ysaye Barnwell, remind us, 35 years ago, how did you get together with Sweet Honey in the Rock?
BARNWELL: I was in a totally different profession, but I was conducting a choir at All Soul's Church Unitarian here. I was also studying sign language interpreting and was interpreting the service that Sunday and sang a solo in church for the very first time in my life. And Bernice Johnson Reagon happened to have gotten up that morning and decided instantly to come to that service. And afterwards she came to me and she said, I'm with Sweet Honey in the Rock. We're looking for a new member. Auditions start tomorrow. Will you come?
CONAN: That's a pretty direct approach.
BARNWELL: Pretty direct. And I thought, well, you know, what can I lose? So I did.
CONAN: And was it an immediate acceptance?
BARNWELL: Well, it was a four - it was a month-long audition.
BARNWELL: And I learned about 40 songs, all the parts. I had the best time I've ever had in my life. And after that the group invited me to join.
CONAN: And that experience of singing - it's hard to explain. It's a little like being in a string quartet all those years the way voices blend over time, the way you play with each other.
BARNWELL: Mm-hmm. And I actually had played in string quartets. Violin is my first instrument. And so this was really very much like that. And I liked the openness and the fluidness of the group and the fact that every note didn't have to be the same every time, that you had some room to move and to react to what had been sung a second ago to create where you wanted to go.
CONAN: And to play with time. Nobody ever plays the same piece of music at the same speed ever twice in a row.
BARNWELL: That's right. And with Sweet Honey, we don't even play in the same key because we don't have a pitch pipe. Someone just starts the song and then the rest of us join in.
CONAN: Have to adjust.
CONAN: Let's see if we'd get Laurel back on the line. I think she's with us from Pensacola. Laurel, I apologize for our problems. Laurel, are you there? Laurel? Laurel, are you there? We're trying to be a little patient with Laurel because we're having these technical problems. Could you turn your radio down please, Laurel? Laurel, turn your radio down.
LAUREL: I thought so but...
CONAN: Yes, Laurel, if you'd just speak with us and turn your radio down, you'll be fine.
LAUREL: I'm here. Can you hear me?
CONAN: OK. You're on the air. Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead.
LAUREL: Well, I didn't have anything more to say. I don't know where it cut off, but anyone that's been - especially if you started something, it is tough and difficult to leave it, and so I think that - don't wait for, how should I say, you know, a defining moment. But for me it was sort of that. I didn't want to see another year, and so I stopped. But as I said previously, I'm glad that I did not stop beforehand but I'm glad that when I stopped, I stopped.
CONAN: What business were you in? What kind of venture?
LAUREL: I was in an educational program that I established. And it's still flourishing. And I like to think that it's flourishing because it was started with such a strong base.
CONAN: With your strong base.
LAUREL: There are those who have said that. I certainly didn't do it by myself.
CONAN: Few of us do. But nevertheless, some people make important contributions. And do you revisit your program, go back and see what they're doing?
LAUREL: Well, I hear from them, and I am participating in, you know, one of the honor societies there. And so I do still have my hand in, but I'm not working in the nuts and bolts of it anymore.
CONAN: That raises a question, Ysaye Barnwell. Are there emerita members of Sweet Honey in the Rock? Will you be coming back?
BARNWELL: I have said to the group that if they're in a pinch and they need a substitute, that if I was available I would gladly join them. There are several really special productions that we've put together, and if invited I would join them for those as well.
CONAN: Laurel, thanks very much for the phone call, and thanks especially for your patience.
LAUREL: All right. Thank you. Bye now.
CONAN: Appreciate it. We're talking with Ysaye Barnwell, who after more than 35 years...
BARNWELL: Well, actually it's only 34.
CONAN: Only 34. Well, Gee Willikers. Leaving Sweet Honey in the Rock way too early. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And as you think back on what you've done over these years, yes, it's an institution, yes, you played too well, probably hundreds of thousands of audience members at this point. But are there moments that stick out for your?
BARNWELL: Absolutely. Yes. On my birthday one year - I don't remember exactly what year it was but it was in the mid-'80s, I think, we sang on the stage of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas to an integrated audience with Daisy Bates sitting on the front row. That to me was amazing because I was the same age, I think, as the children who are struggling to enter that school. We were the first concert at the Obama White House. We sang at most of the rallies when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and toured the United States.
I think things like that are just - they're unforgettable and they really do mark. The significance of the music that we sing to various struggles and the fact that people here us and listen and identify and understand when it might be really important for us to join them.
CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in on the conversation, and let's try to go to Mary. And Mary is on the line with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.
MARY: Yes. It's good to be here, and thank you for accepting my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
MARY: Yes. I had a similar experience as to Laurel, the previous caller. Seven years ago, I co-founded a Jesuit high school in Palm Desert, California, and we're one of the youngest Jesuit high schools in the world. And just this past summer I resigned. I founded the - I was one of seven faculty and I built the art department and wrote curriculum and programs. And I knew it was time. It was an intuitive thing. I was tired.
MARY: Frankly, I - we did everything, we wore every hat imaginable, mentors, faculty, student mentors, retreat leaders, coaching, admissions, recruiting, the scholarship, everything, and it was wonderful. And it - I think - I used to say graduate school was the toughest thing I'd ever done but the best. But I would say that this experience was really, really tough but actually the best.
And I miss my students. I'm still in touch with my students, many of whom I taught as elementary students. And they came up to high school and I had a second shot. It was a great experience but I just knew, I was tired and I wanted to get my hands back in art-making. So now I'm on the East Coast. I'm extremely happy, broke...
MARY: ...but so happy, and I took a leap of faith, and I'm glad I did.
CONAN: Congratulations, and I'm glad you're happy with your decision.
MARY: Oh, thank you so much. I really, really am. And I became (unintelligible) educator. I didn't know what that meant when I first started the school, but it changed my life and the kids really blessed my life every day, and it was great. And I'm painting actively now and making sculpture and onward to the next phase.
CONAN: Onward. There's a good word. Thanks very much, Mary.
MARY: You're so welcome.
CONAN: And, Ysaye Barnwell, I'm sure that your experiences on stage were still magical. I imagine the travel got old.
BARNWELL: Actually, I don't mind travel and I think I'll continue to do it.
CONAN: Oh, good.
BARNWELL: But I think it's always tied to what I'm traveling to, and the reason I'm traveling, and the people that you meet along the way. So I don't mind it.
CONAN: Well, we wish you the best of luck in your travels and your continuing ventures.
BARNWELL: Thank you so much.
CONAN: And thanks for all the music for all those years.
BARNWELL: You're so welcome, and thank you for having Sweet Honey here. I appreciate it.
CONAN: Well, we enjoyed the experience. Believe me, it was our pleasure. Ysaye Barnwell back home from her final international tour with Sweet Honey in the Rock. She joined us here today in Studio 42.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANTING MEMORIES")
ROCK: (Singing) I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me, to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes. I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me, to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes. You used to rock me...
CONAN: Tomorrow, actors talk about how they navigate auditions for stereotypical roles and keep their careers moving forward. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.