Fisk University Jubilee Singers



Biography

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, an ensemble of students from various disciplines at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee  perform regularly throughout the world, singing the Negro spiritual and representing Fisk University. 

History of the Fisk Jubilee Singers

Fisk University opened in Nashville in 1866 as the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color.” Five years later the school was in dire financial straits. George L. White, Fisk treasurer and music professor then, created a nine-member choral ensemble of students and took it on tour to earn money for the University. The group left campus on October 6, 1871. Jubilee Day is celebrated annually on October 6 to commemorate this historic day. The first concerts were in small towns. Surprise, curiosity and some hostility were the early audience response to these young black singers who did not perform in the traditional “minstrel fashion.” 

One early concert in Cincinnati brought in $50, which was promptly donated to victims of the notorious 1871 fire in Chicago. When they reached Columbus, the next city on tour, the students were physically and emotionally drained. Mr. White, in a gesture of hope and encouragement named them “The Jubilee Singers,” a Biblical reference to the year of Jubilee in the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 25. Continued perseverance and beautiful voices began to change attitudes among the predominantly white audiences. Eventually skepticism was replaced by standing ovations and critical praise in reviews. Gradually they earned enough money to cover expenses and send back to Fisk.

In 1872 they sang at the World Peace Festival in Boston and the same year President Ulysses S. Grant invited them to perform at the White House. In 1873 the group grew to eleven members and toured Europe for the first time. Funds raised that year were used to construct the school’s first permanent building, Jubilee Hall. Today Jubilee Hall, designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior in 1975, is one of the oldest structures on campus. The beautiful Victorian Gothic building houses a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the original Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria in during the 1873 tour as a gift from England to Fisk.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers today

The Fisk Jubilee Singers continue to thrive as a vocal ensemble. Among their many awards are two Grammy Nominations, a Dove Award, and an induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame as well as the Music City Walk of Fame. By a special invitation from the U.S. Department of State, the Fisk Jubilee Singers traveled to Ghana for the first time in 2007, where they performed to celebrate the 50th Independence anniversary of Ghanaians.  This journey was historic and became known as “A Sacred Journey”.  One of the venues where the performances took place was on the grounds of Elmina Castle. In 2008, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were awarded the National Medal of Arts by former President George W. Bush at the White House.  Other awards of the ensemble include the Governor’s Award, the Recording Academy Honors and the Heritage Award of the Nashville Music Awards.

Paul T. Kwami, the ensemble’s director, was a Fisk Jubilee Singer from 1983 to 1985. Born in Ghana, West Africa, Kwami is one of seven children. His musical training began at home with his father, a musician, as his first teacher. He studied piano, violin, music theory and conducting under his father. After completing the Music Education program at the National Academy of Music in Winneba, Ghana, Kwami taught at the academy for six years before leaving for the U.S. Kwami graduated from Fisk University in May, 1985, and continued his music studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. After graduation he returned to Nashville, and joined Fisk University as the director of the Jubilee Singers and full time faculty member in 1994.

Watch Past Performances

4/22/2010 Video thumnail
4/22/2010: Fisk University Jubilee Singers

Based in Nashville, 2008 NEA National Medal of Arts awardees Fisk University Jubilee Singers—whose original lineup introduced “slave songs” to the world in 1871—are instrumental in preserving the unique American musical tradition known today as Negro spirituals.

Fisk University Jubilee Singers