By Ashley Benkarski
NASHVILLE, TN — The legendary Fisk Jubilee Singers are continuing to honor African American history with their Spring Sing concert, performing March 8 at 7:30 p.m. with jazz singer Ledisi at Ryman Auditorium to perform their choral renditions of Negro spirituals.
The Singers will be led by Fisk Musical Director Dr. Paul T. Kwami, who will be joined by award-winning producer Shannon Sanders as co-musical director. Proceeds will contribute to the Singers’ Endowed Scholarship Fund, an endeavor that will ensure the legacy of the foundational contributions of the original ensemble.
In the 1800s the Fisk Jubilee Singers traveled all over the United States and Europe to
raise money to sustain the Fisk Free Colored School. $20,000 was raised during the first tour and was used to purchase the land Fisk stands on today, Kwami explained. The ensemble also raised $150,000 during a European tour which was used in the construction of Jubilee Hall, now part of the National Register of Historic Places. Jubilee Hall is the first permanently erected building on a historically black campus for the purpose of providing education, he added. The Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced the Negro Spiritual to the world, led by George White. To do that, White realized the songs had to be transformed for a wider audience. “Considering the situation of our ancestors, they sang to themselves on plantations while enslaved,” Kwami said. Ella Sheppard, one of the original members of the ensemble, helped transform the spirituals into choral art-forms and she is often spoken of as the matriarch of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. A composer and pianist, Sheppard performed with the ensemble for 11 years.
Sheppard’s mother was on the way to drown her but an older lady, seeing what she intended to do, stopped her and said that God had great things for her to do, and that she would sing before kings and queens, Kwami said.
Indeed, the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed for Queen Victoria and other people of nobility all over Europe while representing their school and the city of Nashville. In doing so, the students also revealed the intellectual abilities of African Americans.
When reading about the early life stories of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers no one would
have expected them to accomplish so much, Kwami said. Perhaps that’s exactly why their story has persevered for so long and continues to influence so many today. Their legacy still inspires the current generations of Singers who still perform the Negro spirituals for millions around the world.
“I believe we would not be singing these songs today had it not been for travel and sacrifices of the original Fisk University Singers. That, I believe, is an important thing we should always remember,” Kwami said.
“It’s important to honor the original members of the ensemble. It’s our responsibility to continue celebrating them.” Kwami himself sang with the ensemble before becoming the musical director. Raised by a father who taught and composed music, Kwami said he was “born into music” and followed his passion, leading him to the National Academy of Music in Ghana where he learned to be a music teacher and taught for six years. While in Ghana and seeking opportunities for further studies in America, he met a missionary who urged him to apply to Fisk. Kwami started his studies at Fisk University in 1983, and sang with the Fisk Jubilee Singers for two years.
He got the Director position in 1994 and has accomplished an outstanding honor during his tenure.
His collaboration in 2005 with the Tennessee Arts Commission led to the production of an educational curriculum that was distributed in schools around Tennessee. Additionally, he
conducted master classes and his students performed around the state, reaching audiences in remote areas. As a result, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were awarded the National Medal of the Arts at the White House in 2008 by President and Mrs. George W. Bush. “While working on this project, I had no idea that it would lead us to receive such a prestigious award,” Kwami said.
He urges people to come see the upcoming show at the Ryman Auditorium and support the Singers. “This is a community event, we want people to know what Fisk can offer to the community,” Kwami said, adding that it gives his students the opportunity to perform with some of the greatest and most admired artists. Tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster and the Ryman’s website.