DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast

27: Interview with Dr. Ysaye Barnwell: Singer and Composer From Sweet Honey in the Rock, Author, Actress, Educator

April 14, 2021

“You know, I try to figure out:  What is not right here? And some things can’t be fixed. And then, if it can’t be fixed, I have to decide, do I want to stay here and be a part of this or is there a way that I can use my energies in a more positive way?” -Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, Retired Professor at Howard University College of Dentistry, musician, composer, actress, author.


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 In this episode, Coach Gabriella Dennery MD sits down with renowned artist and professor Dr. Ysaye Barnwell. Dr. Barnwell has enjoyed a successful career as a professor of speech pathology at Howard University College of Dentistry, and simultaneously traveled extensively worldwide as a member of the African American a cappella band, Sweet Honey In the Rock (1979-2013). In addition to composing many of Sweet Honey In the Rock’s songs, Dr. Barnwell has been commissioned to create music for dance, choral, film, and stage productions.  Dr. Barnwell's acting credits include a principal role on a television series called A Man Called Hawk and a role in the 1998 film Beloved. Barnwell released a solo recording of stories and song, Um Humm, in 2000. She has also written a children's book with CD, No Mirrors in My Nana's House.  A second children's book and CD set was released in March 2008: We Are One


Dr. Barnwell earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in speech pathology from State University of New York at Geneseo, and a PhD in speech pathology from the University of Pittsburgh. She earned a Master of Science in Public Health from Howard University. Wikipedia

She is an incredible woman with a wealth of knowledge to share.

Excerpts from the show (in no specific order):

Coach Dr. Gabriella: “What led you to a doctorate in speech pathology and a professorship at Howard University?”

Dr. Ysaye: “When I was about twelve years old, I went to my first play on Broadway and it was about Helen Keller. I never forgot how I was consumed by that. The things that drive me now and have driven me all my life were:

  •  How do you work with people who have differences where society would demand that they somehow or other deal with it?
  • Or, my own sadness of being enveloped in music all the time, and knowing that there are people who will never hear it. Is there a way to compensate for that? Is there a way to compensate for the skills that they don't develop the way in which (so-called) “normal” people would develop them?

So sign language was so fascinating to me, and lip reading was so fascinating to me. I wanted to share all of the auditory things that I had grown up with all my life with people who somehow don't have access to that. When I chose my major in college, I thought I wanted to go into deaf education, but then I realized that there were all of these other communicative problems that people have. I don't like doing one thing, (because) it's just going to help one person. It could help everybody, so I went into speech path and I learned about all kinds of facial abnormalities. It's just been my life. I've had this kind of span of things that I've been interested in, and I've kind of poked my head in every now and then to see what I can learn, what I could offer,  etc. So I've had a really enjoyable life.” 


“Then on top of all that to be in Sweet Honey in the Rock and then, you know, say to myself, ‘Okay so what else can I bring to this group? Excuse me, there are people who can't hear you. Can we add an interpreter here? Sure.’ So I became the interpreter and a singer. Then I realized, wait a minute, this is not working for me because there are five voices in this ensemble and we are adding a sixth (the interpreter). I cannot do two voices at the same time. If I was the lead on every song that would be different, but I'm not, and that's cool and I like what I do in the background. But I can't sign what the lead is singing when I'm doing a background thing. So that was the beginning of Sweet Honey in the Rock using a sign language interpreter as an integral part of the group.” 


Coach Dr. Gabriella: “Was there any point where you thought maybe you shouldn’t do that (be a professor while a singer, composer and traveling with a band), but you should just settle down and do what everybody else does? Was that ever a question for you?” 


Dr. Ysaye: “No, that was never a question. Everything seemed to fit together for me, which is really weird but true. Even in terms of being a songwriter, because you know I did a post-doc in public health and I was in Sweet Honey in the Rock at the time and that's when I wrote “More Than a Paycheck” because we had been invited to sing with steel workers and different conventions and things like that and for me all of that began to come together. Well, so how can I sing to this group and not share what I've just learned with other folks who don't realize what the commonalities are? But if you write a song like “More Than a Paycheck”, you know, where everything I'm doing is more than the paycheck I'm getting and I am collecting things that are hazardous to myself or dangerous to myself and others or things that kind of make relationships a little bit difficult. I mean we all do that and so “More Than a Paycheck” for me is about exploring and discovering what's positive and negative about what I'm exploring. Can I make a change in it or should I just leave it alone? And those are really my questions. You know, I get involved in things and I see what it is. If I'm going to leave, I want to leave positively or else I have to figure out ways to make it work not only for me personally but for the whole community that it's part of.” 


Correction: During the recording, it was mentioned that Dr. Barnwell holds a PhD in Speech Therapy. She holds a PhD in Speech Pathology. 


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