about dr. ysaye m. barnwell

Dr. Ysaÿe M. Barnwell is a native of New York City who has lived in Washington, DC since 1968.

She is the only child of Marcella  Robinson Barnwell, a registered nurse, and Irving Frederick Barnwell a classical violinist who shared his knowledge of the violin with her for 15 year, beginning at  the age of 21/2.  Barnwell majored in music through High School and then earned the Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Speech Pathology (SUNY, Geneseo, 1967, 1968), Doctor of Philosophy in Speech Pathology (University of Pittsburgh, 1975), and Master of Science in Public Health (Howard University, 1981).  In 1998, Dr. Barnwell was awarded the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by her alma mater - SUNY Geneseo, NY,  the Virginia Theological Seminary, the Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary, and the Chicago Theological Seminary. 

For over a decade, Dr. Barnwell was a professor at the College of Dentistry at Howard University and completing her degree in Public Health, she went on to administered public health programs at Children’s Hospital National Medical Center and at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC and,  as a volunteer, assisted  community based organizations in the use of computer technology.

In 1977, Barnwell founded the All Souls Jubilee Singers and in 1979 she was invited to join the world renowned a cappella ensemble, Sweet Honey In The Rock®. In her first year as a singer in the ensemble, Barnwell (who had trained as a Sign Language interpreter) facilitated the practice of including a Sign Language interpreter as part of the ensemble.

Dr. Barnwell appears as a singer (and occasionally as an instrumentalist) on more than thirty recordings with Sweet Honey In The Rock, and other artists.  In addition, she is highly sought after as a master teacher and choral clinician in African American cultural performance.  Her workshop “Building a Vocal Community®: Singing in the African American Tradition” has been conducted all over the United States, in Canada, Great Britain, Singapore and Australia, making her work in the field a significant source of inspiration and learning for both singers and non-singers, and a model of exceptional pedagogy for educators, and cultural activists and historians.  The workshop has been documented in two instructional (boxed) sets of 4 CDs each with a Manual, produced by Homespun Tapes, Woodstock, NY.

Dr. Barnwell has been a commissioned composer on numerous choral, film, video, dance and theatrical projects including Sesame Street, Dance Alloy of Pittsburgh, David Rousseve’s Reality Dance Company, The New Spirituals Project, GALA Festival Choruses, MUSE: Cincinnati’s Women’s Chorus, The Steel Festival: Art of an Industry (Bethlehem, PA).   In 1996 she was awarded the Bessie Award for her score Safe House: Still Looking, commissioned by Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. In 2001, Suite Death, a setting of four poems by Langston Hughes for baritone, choir and orchestra, was commissioned by the Plymouth Music Series and premiered in Minneapolis, MN. In Feb. 2003, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, DC commissioned and premiered Truth Pressed to Earth Shall Rise, a choral work, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2006 Dr. Barnwell was commissioned by the Waterbury Symphony (in Connecticut) to compose the music for Marilyn Nelson’s epic poem Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem for a premiere performance in 2009. In 2012 The Fortune’s Bones Project®, including public discussions and two performances of the Cantata, was produced by The Clarice at the University of Maryland.  The Project is currently in Seattle where a the performance will be Feb. 22, 2015. Barnwell’s music, published by Barnwell’s Notes, Inc. and distributed by The Musical Source, Silver Spring, MD has been performed and recorded by numerous choral ensembles and individual artists as well as Sweet Honey In The Rock. 

In addition to these endeavors, Dr. Barnwell is an actress whose credits include voice-over narration for film, videos and radio including the recent NPR documentary: W.C. Handy’s Blues,  appearances in the film Beloved, directed by Jonathan Demme, and the TV show A Man Called Hawk.  She was producer of Sweet Honey’s twenty-fifth anniversary recording, ...TWENTY-FIVE..., and ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS:  A Concert of the Sweet honey in The Rock Community Chorus,  and was editor of Continuum: The First Songbook of Sweet Honey In The Rock. In October 2000, Sounds True released UM HMM, a feast of personal and traditional African American stories, poems and songs for children produced by Windhorse Productions. Barnwell has two children’s books published by Harcourt, No Mirrors In My Nana’s House, illustrated by Synthia Saint James and  We Are One illustrated by Brian Pinckney.

Four axioms have proven significant in Barnwell’s life.

To whom much is given, much is required.

As one door closes, another door opens.

Everything matters.

Say Yes!





Photo by Sharon Farmer

Photo by Pietro Exis

Photo by Pietro Exis