MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, February 12th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Myrna Brown.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. As part of Black History Month, Emily Whitten reports now on the 150th anniversary of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choral group at Fisk University in Nashville.
Audiences know them best for their acapella renditions of black spirituals, but the Singers recently earned a Grammy nomination for a different style.
EMILY WHITTEN, REPORTER: Last June, the Fisk Jubilee Singers released an album called Celebrating Fisk! to mark the 150th anniversary of Fisk University. It was originally recorded during two concerts in 2016 and 2017 at the Ryman Auditorium. Gospel singer CeCe Winans took the stage first, setting a jubilant tone.
MUSIC: Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine. Oh what a foretaste, of glory divine.
By inviting very different artists from across the musical spectrum, they put a new twist on the Jubilee Singers’ traditional spirituals. Here’s country singer Rodney Adkins.
MUSIC: I’m working on a building, built for my Lord.
Last November, I made a short drive into Nashville to find out more about the album and the Fisk Jubilee Singers legacy. A couple of masked music majors welcomed me into the historic home turned music department.
AUDIO: ‘Are we just going to wait for him to come?’ ‘He’s in here.’ ‘Oh, I’m glad I peeked in then. Thank you.’ ‘Your Welcome’…
Shawna from Chicago explained how she came to Nashville.
SHAWNA: This year was the first year I was a main singer. Last year I was an apprentice. And it was so cool to hear about the rich culture and history of the Jubilee Singers. To be able to sing African American Negro spirituals and learn about my ancestors.
The American Missionary Association founded Fisk University in 1866 to serve newly freed slaves. But many former slaves couldn’t afford tuition, and some Southern whites actively opposed education for blacks. In order to raise funds to keep the school going, missionary George L. White organized the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1871. They quickly became a success, introducing slave spirituals to the world for the first time.
MUSIC: Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.
Paul Kwami is the current musical director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. His office is in a small nook of the music department. Pictures and concert posters decorate the room. A large portrait hangs over an unused fireplace.
KWAMI: ‘That’s me.’ ‘That’s you? Oh, ok!’
A Fisk student painted the portrait back in 2000. Like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Kwami has changed over the years. His story begins back in Ghana, where he grew up singing Negro spirituals in church and school. He arrived at Fisk University as a student in the 1980s and became director of the Singers in 1994.
He soon learned that the Singers sometimes experience friction or personal challenges. When students come to him with problems, he often shares a Scripture verse and prays with them. Another challenge—students often feel the pressure of singing in prestigious venues. They may not sing well in rehearsal or their voices may be strained. When that happened at Carnegie Hall, Kwami pointed his students to God for help.
KWAMI: I asked them to pray individually, and when they finished, they all came back together. I talked with them. Encouraged them. We walked onto the stage. It was one of the best concerts of that year. From beginning to the end.
During Kwami’s more than 25 years as director, the Singers won the National Medal of Arts, a Dove Award, and three Grammy nominations. So in addition to caring for his students, he takes the legacy of the Singers seriously.
KWAMI: First of all we have to preserve the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced the Negro spirituals to the world. That’s is like our trademark symbol.
That includes songs as familiar as this one, taken from their Grammy Nominated album, In Bright Mansions, from 2003.
MUSIC: He’s got the whole world in His hands, He’s got the whole world in His hands.
When listeners already know most of the songs in your repertoire, how do you keep folks buying concert tickets and albums?
First, Kwami starts by inviting God into the process.
KWAMI: I believe God prepares us in our rehearsals for whatever He wants to do. It’s our responsibility to be open to Him. To be yielded to him. The only way we can do it is to understand these songs and make them part of who we are.
He also looks for memorable places to perform. In 2007, he took his Singers to Ghana. They sang in Elmina Castle, once a stop on the Atlantic Slave Trade route. Students took time to weep and pray before the concert as they took in the reality of their ancestors’ time there.
MUSIC: Mawu Nye Lolo…
For the Celebrating Fisk! Album, Kwami diverged from the Singers’ acapella style, bringing in a variety of singers and musicians. That led to a bigger, more diverse audience. It also led to a Grammy Award nomination this year for Best Roots Gospel Album.
For God’s people, the impact of the Fisk Jubilee Singers goes beyond one album or even one generation. A few weeks ago, I spoke online with Karen Ellis, director of the Edmiston Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity in Atlanta. She says slave spirituals remind us of God’s faithfulness in every age.
ELLIS: The body of Christ needs to know that those experiences exist and that the faith of those fathers and those mothers those ancestors of the faith was enough.
That’s definitely a legacy worth celebrating.
MUSIC: This is my story, this is my song. Praising my savior all the day long. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my savior all the day long.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Emily Whitten in Nashville, Tennessee.