Decades-spanning musical director of world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers
Dr. Paul T. Kwami, Musical Director, and Curb-Beaman Chair of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the globally recognized vocal ensemble at Fisk University, died on Saturday, September 10, 2022, in Nashville, TN. He was 70.
With a musical legacy that spans nearly three decades and includes the highest musical honors and accomplishments – receiving a GRAMMY award, directing international performances in the world’s most prestigious venues, earning a National Medal of the Arts, Americana Lifetime Achievement Legacy Award, being inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame – and personal accolades including a Doctoral and master’s degree, Dr. Kwami’s extraordinary life began in Ghana, West Africa where he was born in the small mountain town of Amedzofe.
One of seven children and the eldest son of Theophilus Walter Kwami and Monica Rosaline Kwami, music was in his blood and a part of his heritage. A disciple of his musical father, Dr. Kwami learned theory and conducting, and to play piano and violin. His father inspired his understanding of self-discipline and dedication that followed him throughout his life.
Between rough-hewn duties on his family’s farm, garden, and coffee plantation during harvest season, he, unlike other peers, couldn’t go out to play on Sunday afternoons until he was done practicing piano.
After attending boarding school for high school, he studied music at Ghana’s National Academy of Music and stayed to teach after.
He wed Susanna Evelyn Asare in 1982. Dr. Kwami and his bride would eventually welcome three beautiful children.
Despite the legacy that he would go on to create, Fisk University was not on his radar until he met a missionary, and friend of his father, who recommended he continue his music education at the Nashville university.
Dr. Kwami took the suggestion to heart and applied to Fisk University in 1983. Generously, the missionary’s church provided him with a scholarship to attend.
His departure to pursue music meant leaving behind his life in Ghana which included his parents, wife, and job. He had the support and pride of his first music teacher, his father, behind his courageous decision. Sadly, after Dr. Kwami left for the States, he would never see his father again.
Once he arrived on campus, Dr. Kwami learned about the history and significance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and joined the ensemble whose culture he would shape.
From 1983-1985, he traveled around the country performing alongside his peers. His favorite song as a student member was “Lord, I’m Out Here on Your Word,” whose lyrics reflect his spirit: (Lord I’m Out Here On Your Word / If I Die on the Battlefield / Lord I’m Out Here on Your Word / Glad I got My Religion in Time)
After graduating in 1985, he earned his Master of Music degree from Western Michigan University where his wife Susanna then joined him. Later he would go on to obtain his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the American Conservatory of Music in 2009.
Solicited to serve as part-time director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1994, he returned to Fisk University where he would eventually be promoted to full-time faculty member in the music department and Musical Director – making him the first African to direct the ensemble and to hold the Curb-Beaman Chair position.
At the helm of the ensemble, Dr. Kwami made history. During what’s known as “Era 4,” taking place from 1994-2022, he preserved and progressed the rich musical legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
During this time the ensemble was invited to perform in some of the most iconic venues in the world including Apollo Theater, Carnegie Hall, Ryman Auditorium, The Kennedy Center and The White House; and for several organizations such as Pfizer, The American Musicological Society, UNCF, Duke University and more.
In the first decade of Dr. Kwami’s musical direction, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2000) and earned a Dove Award (2004). Six years later they were part of the inaugural class of inductees into the Music City Walk of Fame in Nashville.
Amidst the prestigious accolades that the group earned under his leadership, are the inspired missions embarked on by the ensemble. When he became Musical Director, he believed that it was necessary for the group to visit Ghana, his home country that served as a source of slaves and one of the regions where the roots of Negro spirituals can be traced to.
With perseverance over the early obstacles of coordinating the trip, the ensemble arrived in the West African country in 2007. The visit was then named and now remembered as “A Sacred Journey.” Some Ghanaians refer to the nation’s 50th independence anniversary as the year of Jubilee; serendipitously, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who were named in reference to the same event referenced in Leviticus 25, were there for such a historic celebration.
In addition to performances while in Ghana, the group visited the home and burial place of W.E.B. DuBois, a famous activist, sociologist, and Fisk graduate. The extraordinary experience was a pilgrimage to the origins of the music they had made known worldwide.
The storied ensemble under Dr. Kwami’s direction brought the rich tradition of the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
The next year, Dr. Kwami alongside Honorable R. O’Leary accepted the 2008 National Medal of the Arts from President George W. Bush at the White House in Washington, D.C. The pair shared the honor on behalf of a collaboration between the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Tennessee Arts Commission that established an educational curriculum focused on the history of the singers and their music. The curriculum was distributed throughout Tennessee where the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed in many schools and communities.
In 2013, The Kennedy Center presented a program that focused on gospel music. Dr. Kwami and the Fisk Jubilee Singers were invited to collaborate with The Kennedy Center in presenting a brief educational program that connected the Negro spiritual to gospel music. In this performance, the Singers demonstrated the historical importance of this music in the development of African American Music.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers performed at Ryman Auditorium in the spring of 2016 and 2017, which is customary each year. Initially what was captured from the two performances for archival purposes only became the tracks of their first-ever GRAMMY award-winning album, after Mike Curb, owner of Curb Records suggested producing an album of the recordings.
Together Dr. Kwami, Jim Ed Norman, Shannon Sanders, and Mike Curb produced Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album) which was released in June 2020. The collection of 12 songs that represent the powerful and vibrant history of Fisk University, and its Fisk Jubilee Singers won the 2020 GRAMMY for Best Roots Gospel Album.
Special guest appearances on the album include Ruby Amanfu, Keb’ Mo’, Lee Ann Womack, The Fairfield Four, Rod McGhana, Derek Minor, Shannon Sanders, Rodney Atkins, Jimmy Hall and CeCe Winans.
The 150th Anniversary year – 2021 – continued to be a monumental time for Dr. Kwami and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The celebration also included a special video dedication from his former students.
At the National Museum of African American Music’s (NMAAM) Celebration of Legends Benefit Concert in June 2021, Dr. Kwami and the Fisk Jubilee Singers were presented the Rhapsody & Rhythm Award alongside fellow groundbreaking honorees Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson, and Chaka Khan.
Only three months later, Dr. Kwami and the ensemble were honored with the Americana Music Association’s prestigious 2021 Lifetime Achievement Legacy Award, presented with the NMAAM, at the annual Americana Honors & Awards at Ryman Auditorium.
Each year on October 6, Fisk University celebrates the anniversary of the tour nine Fisk students embarked on in 1871 that raised enough money to keep the university’s doors open and buy the land it still sits on. In 2021, Jubilee Day was celebrated with a convocation on the campus of Fisk University. During the pilgrimage, Dr. Kwami and Fisk University arranged for the Jubilee Singers to perform at the gravesites of the original Jubilee Singers in Nashville, Tennessee.
Fisk Alumna, poet and author Nikki Giovanni delivered the keynote address in commemoration of the ensemble’s 150th anniversary.
The 150th-anniversary celebrations continued with The Sesquicentennial Concert at Ryman Auditorium on November 11, 2021. Guest artists who joined Dr. Kwami and the Fisk Jubilee Singers included Ruby Amanfu, Tommy Sims, Brassville, Dr. Bobby Jones, Rissi Palmer, Natalie Hemby, Jason Eskridge, Curt Chambers and Kyla Jade. Dr. Kwami was assisted by Shannon Sanders, co-musical director.
Dr. Kwami’s dream to preserve the paramount history of the ensemble was realized in June 2022 with the release of an official 150th-anniversary commemorative book, Heritage & Honor. Heritage & Honor is the first of its kind to capture the rich and robust history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers® spanning 150 years. It is a timely celebration of their storied history and dedication to uplifting the collective spirit of the masses.
In March of this year, Dr. Kwami was invited by MidAmerica Productions, Inc. to serve as a guest conductor during the opening concert of its 39th season at Carnegie Hall in New York, N.Y. The special occasion marked the first appearance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the storied Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage. Dr. Kwami directed a collaborative effort that included Nashville schools Harpeth Hall and Montgomery Bell Academy on the main stage. Special arrangements by Dr. Kwami and others were included in the historic performance.
The story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is a significant chapter in the story of Music City. And few are as ingrained in the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers as Dr. Paul T. Kwami, as the ensemble returned time and again to the Mother Church in Nashville throughout his life.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers were among the first to perform at Ryman Auditorium, then known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, after it opened its doors to the public in 1892. For 130 years since, the Singers have returned to the iconic stage.
Dr. Kwami performed at the Ryman as a student member of the group during a fundraiser for Fisk University. After he became director in 1994, he made it a priority to get his students on the Ryman stage too.
On June 28 of this year, the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed Jubilation! An Enduring Musical Union in concert with Allison Russell and O.N.E. the Duo to celebrate Ryman Auditorium’s 130th anniversary. Dr. Kwami beamed with pride as he co-directed the ensemble with Shannon Sanders. This would be Dr. Kwami’s last concert performance with his beloved Fisk Jubilee Singers®.
Dr. Kwami’s decorated career and meaningful legacy will be remembered by his family, Fisk University, the community of Nashville and the musical world at large.
He is survived by his devoted wife Susanna (Susie), and his adoring children Paul E., Delali, and Rachel.
Family of Dr. Paul T. Kwami: It is with deep and immeasurable sadness that we share the news of the passing of our beloved husband, father, brother, cousin, uncle, and friend, Dr. Paul Theophilus Kwami. His passing leaves a gaping hole in our souls as well as in our community and in our world. Dr. Kwami passed onto glory on Saturday, September 10, in the early morning hours, surrounded by family in Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Kwami was a humble yet passionate child of God – exuding excellence, loyalty, a deep faith and an unmatched work ethic that he embodied as the Musical Director of the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers for nearly 30 honorable and prosperous years. To know him was to love, respect and cherish him. A natural-born mentor, he gave of himself freely to those he cared for and invested in the lives of many with a joyful heart. We are forever grateful for the community that surrounds us and for the outpouring of love and support that our family is being shown in this extremely difficult time. We thank you for honoring Dr. Paul T. Kwami’s life. May his legacy continue to live vastly on this Earth while he takes a deserved rest in his bright mansion in his Father’s house. Out of respect for the Kwami family, for the time being, we ask that you please refrain from contacting family members as we process this unimaginable loss.
Cece Winans, Gospel Recording Artist: “I had the honor of meeting Dr. Kwami and singing with the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Ryman Auditorium in 2016. His kind and humble spirit along with his love for Fisk and his students was so apparent. May God’s peace and strength carry his family and Fisk University.”
Dr. Bobby Jones, gospel singer, television host and radio broadcaster: “Dr. Kwami, a scholar, gentleman, a friend and highly spiritual.”
Butch Spyridon, CEO, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp: “There are not enough superlatives to describe Dr. Kwami. A talented, humble treasure with a drive and vision for excellence for the Fisk Jubilee Singers. I don’t believe Fisk or Nashville truly understands this loss. Personally, I am heartbroken. I valued our relationship.”
Brenda Gilmore, State Senator: “From a young music student in Ghana to the Musical Director of the GRAMMY-winning Fisk Jubilee Singers, Dr. Paul Kwami was a one-of-a-kind, Nashville success story. His legacy of hard work, leadership and service inspires and delights as much as the soaring spirituals heard from the chorus he led for decades. Though he has achieved greatness, he walked with humility, and whether he was working with music icons or kids who came up from nothing, Dr. Kwami saw in every person their God-given gifts. Dr. Kwami created beautiful music to praise the Lord, and we are so grateful to have been in the auditorium. I am especially proud that I sponsored legislation recognizing his contributions to Fisk University just this year.”
Harold Moses Love, Jr., State Representative: “One of the most beneficial parts of having Fisk University in my legislative district was having the pleasure of interacting with Dr. Paul Kwami for the past 10 years. Dr. Kwami exemplified professionalism and pride as the Musical Director for the Fisk Jubilee Singers and his impact will be felt for years to come.”
Freddie O’Connell, Nashville Metro Councilmember: “The legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers has ensured that Nashville has been Music City for more than 150 years. Dr. Paul Kwami drew from this earthly choir heavenly sounds during the time he directed them. I have heard Dr. Kwami’s sacred art performed in Jubilee Hall, at the Ryman, on New Year’s Eve and more. We will need a balm from Gilead to heal this loss.”
Sharon Hurt, Nashville Metro Councilmember: “Oh what a beautiful mind, man and spirit this world had in Dr. Paul Kwami. Nashville was so fortunate to have him for so long, because of him alone, Nashville was the envy of many worldwide for he made it his home. He was truly a gentle giant in the world of music. He was the treasure chest that protected the amazing diamonds we know as Fisk Jubilee Singers (those he found in the rough or brilliantly shown)! What an extraordinary life he shared. He will be truly missed.”
Brandon Taylor, Nashville Metro Councilmember: “I express my deepest condolences to the family, friends and Fisk University for the loss of Dr. Paul T. Kwami. For 30 years, Dr, Kwami and the Fisk Jubilee Singers have shared their gift of music with Nashville and the world. Dr. Kwami’s spirit will live on forever in the angelic voices of the Jubilee Singers.”
Ruby Wolter, high school senior at Harpeth Hall, who performed with the Harpeth Hall Chamber Choir alongside the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Carnegie Hall in Spring 2022: “I learned so much from my time working with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Dr. Kwami. As a high school performer, it was such a valuable experience to rehearse and perform at a professional level while under such incredible direction. We learned the importance of understanding the meaning behind the music we sing and how to work together as an ensemble to convey a message. I am so grateful for the time and energy Dr. Kwami put into our Carnegie Hall performance.”
Mike Curb, founder of Curb Records: “Paul Kwami was not only a Nashville treasure; he became a national treasure. He achieved his dream of winning a GRAMMY with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and through his creative genius he led the Jubilee Singers to international success. Paul set the highest standards and we were fortunate to work with him for the past 25 years. We will continue to honor the legacy he built for Fisk and honor him for the incredible example he set for all of us.”
Dr. Jens Frederiksen, Executive Vice President, Fisk University: “Dr. Kwami has been an extraordinary mentor, conductor, educator and director for over 25 years. His legacy transcends continents and generations. His gentle demeanor and sublime insight have transformed countless lives and our gratitude to him knows no boundaries. His music has inspired audiences all over the world, and he has embodied the spirit of the Lord and the Fisk Jubilee Singers every step of the way. He has taken this legendary ensemble to new heights both in terms of their performances and also the individual lives and success stories he has shaped. Dr. Kwami is that rare treasure that improves life for all of us by just being around. There has never been a Dr. Kwami before and there will never be another.”
Pete Weien, SVP & Chief Operating Officer, Opry Entertainment Group: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of Dr. Kwami and offer our condolences to his loved ones. He was a wonderful person and was adored by everyone at Ryman Auditorium. We had the privilege of working closely with him for many years through our special connection to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who have performed at the Ryman for 130 years. Today, hundreds of thousands of people visit the Ryman each year and start their experience with a video featuring Dr. Kwami’s beloved Fisk Jubilee Singers. His passing is a great loss for the city of Nashville, but we are heartened by the fact that his legacy will live on as part of the Ryman’s rich musical history.”
H. Beecher Hicks, III, CEO of NMAAM: “Our hearts and our thoughts go to the family members of Dr. Kwami and the Fisk University community. Dr. Kwami leaves a legacy that has greatly impacted the American Soundtrack. The staff of NMAAM expresses our deepest sympathy and condolences to the family of Dr. Kwami and the Fisk University community. Dr Kwami’s dedication to education, musical excellence and achievements will be celebrated through our continued work.”
Jackie Patillo, Executive Director, Gospel Music Association: “All of us at the GMA are so saddened by the passing of Dr. Kwami. He was such a light to our community as both a member of the GMA Foundation Board and his decades long role as the Musical Director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. We are so grateful for his many contributions to Gospel music and for his tireless service to spreading the message of Jesus. Our prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”
Shannon Sanders, 3-X GRAMMY Award Winning Producer; Executive Director, Creative BMI Nashville: “History will recognize Dr. Kwami as a defining figure in the legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Dr. Kwami graciously preserved the integrity of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, while masterfully ushering them into a new millennium. He is the standard.”
Eric Holt, co-founder of Lovenoise (concert promoter): “I learned a lot from working side-by-side with Paul over the several years we helped produce the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ Annual Spring Sing at the Ryman. One of the main lessons was quiet leadership. Paul was a man with vision, passion and purpose that knew how to push/nudge in the most subtle ways. He did so with grace and humility.”
Tunisia Scott, Tunisia Scott Consulting: “I shared these exact words with Paul on the day of the book launch: You are a beautiful reflection of God’s grace and excellence! I pushed myself to new heights and new levels because I wanted to make you proud. With Heritage & Honor: 150 Year Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers we made history not only representing the singers but also representing Dr. Kwami’s legacy. It has been an unforgettable honor to work with him on such greatness over the last two-plus years, and I will forever be grateful.”
Janine Smith ‘84 ‘87, Chair, Fisk University Alumni Association: “The passing of Dr. Paul T. Kwami ‘87 is an incredible loss for the Fisk family, the Nashville community and the world of music. As the stalwart Musical Director of the renowned Jubilee Singers, he continued and built upon the musical legacy of the original Jubilee Singers. More importantly, he was well-liked and respected by all for his musical talent, spirit of excellence and benevolence.”
Michael R. Twyman, Fisk Class of 1987, close friend and college roommate: “I met Paul in August of 1983 as we both began our journeys at Fisk University. What we shared in common was our strong Christian upbringing, loving parents and families, and a commitment to academic excellence. Our Fisk experience allowed us to build upon all three. Through the many life transitions of growing our families and careers, we continued our relationship as brothers in Christ. Dr. Kwami’s long tenure as Musical Director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is not only God-ordained, but also serves as a personal ministry and extension of his spiritual faith. Spirituality is inextricably woven into all the performance preparation and planning and evident in every single note sung by the Jubilee Singers— this is solely attributable to his leadership and example. His giving of time, talent and treasure to Fisk and the Jubilee Singers has come with great sacrifice to his own family, as he is respected and revered by students as a mentor and/or father figure. Dr. Kwami’s mark on Fisk history will endure for many generations to come, and we are all indebted to him for his many years of unselfish service.”
Arica Ellis, on behalf of Fisk Jubilee Singers, Fisk Jubilee Singer alumni under the direction of Dr. Paul T. Kwami: “His introduction to his first group in Spring of 1994 changed the lives of Fisk students and faculty, as well as the world at large. Dr. Kwami was not only our director, but he was also a man of God, a father, a mentor, a source of love and laughter, and a friend to us all. We are forever grateful for the prayers that he continued to offer for us, for the support he provided while we were students as well as after we were no longer students. We will continue to keep our focus on Jesus. God’s love, mercy, grace and peace be manifested upon the family. May all of you may be blessed with his comfort and peace. ‘Talk about a child that do love Jesus. Here is one, Oh yes, Lord, here is one! Rise, Shine!’”
Geo Cooper, Class of 1982 and representing generations of the Fisk Jubilee Singers both past and present: “In bright mansions above, in bright mansions above, Lord, I want to live up yonder, In bright mansions above.’ The long and storied history of Fisk University and its crown jewel, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, is steeped in tradition and excellence. Over the years, many have led this legendary circle of song, leaving huge footprints for future directors to fill. Maestro Paul Kwami was charged to take the helm of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and from the beginning of his tenure until his last day, he carried the Jubilee torch as well as any of his predecessors, forever ensuring his place among the greats. The Fisk Jubilee Singers alumni, generations of Jubes across the globe, pray Godspeed to the soul of our great maestro, whom we shall hold forever in the highest of esteem.”
Marie Sueing, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp: “What a joy it has been to have the opportunity to work with such a compassionate soul. Dr. Paul T. Kwami was an exemplary example of excellence, he expected our best because he gave us his best in all that he did. As a servant leader, he gave so much of himself to everyone he touched. He was a loving husband and father, and I pray that his family finds solace in knowing that the legacy he built will impact generations to come. I will greatly miss my friend.”
Rosetta Miller-Perry, Publisher, The Tennessee Tribune: “In memory of Dr. Paul T. Kwami, recommends everyone should obtain the historic book – HERITAGE & HONOR, a 150 Year Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This book is dedicated to the generations of Fisk Jubilee Singers, past, present, and future. It is also dedicated to the millions of fans and supporters of this great legacy around the world.”