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Fisk's Jubilee Singers celebrate 150 years of American tradition

The Grammy-winning college singing group is embedded in the HBCU's history.

Andrew Davis knew early on what his main extracurricular activity in college would be, well before the first day of school.

“I wanted to be a part of the Fisk Jubilee Singers ever since high school,” said Davis, a senior at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, majoring in music education. 

Davis was drawn to the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ repertoire, rooted in the tradition of African American spirituals, songs created by enslaved people that express the hardships experienced on plantations mixed with biblical stories. Paul Kwami, the ensemble’s music director, took the choir to Davis’ high school in Durham, North Carolina, to work with the students.

Davis, a tenor, is a part of the storied group, which marked 150 years of celebration and preservation of an American musical tradition on Wednesday. Oct. 6 is customarily known as Jubilee Day.

The anniversary of the Fisk Jubilee Singers comes amid renewed interest in historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, like Fisk. Enrollments and private endowments have risen at many HBCUs nationally after years of federal underfunding and a lack of private donations. Federal funding for private HBCUs decreased by 42 percent from 2003 to 2015, according to a 2019 report by the American Council on Education.

Even as the Fisk Jubilee Singers have dealt with their own challenges, such as rehearsing in inadequate spaces that lacked air conditioning — which sometimes resulted in the 16-member ensemble’s practicing in temperatures over 83 degrees — the choir, which won a Grammy Award this year, has managed to contribute to the university’s coffers by raising $25,000 to $50,000 a year.  

The Fisk Jubilee Singers perform March 19, 2017.Courtesy Fisk University

Kennedi Hall, a recent graduate and former Fisk Jubilee soprano, initially had no intentions of joining the choir, until she arrived on campus and saw that its presence was well known. After being recommended to join the choir, she decided to audition.

“Being a member of the ensemble has been life-changing,” Hall said. “The group has taught me unconditional love, the importance of teamwork and the importance of music as a universal language.”

In recent years, with growing interest in racial justice activism, in particular, more Black students are turning to historically Black colleges and universities as spaces of refuge and belonging.

Enrollment at Fisk has climbed by 32 percent over the last four years. The increase has also sparked a surge in inquiries to Kwami about the ensemble’s audition and recruitment process. Although the choir consists primarily of undergraduate students, Kwami said, he recently got an email from an incoming graduate student about how to become a Fisk Jubilee Singer.

“There’s a lot of interest,” Kwami said.

A 1909 recording of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015. With its recent Grammy Award for best roots gospel album for “Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album),” the Fisk Jubilee Singers have been paramount in drawing attention to the university’s performing arts credentials.

Fisk President Vann Newkirk Sr. said the university stands apart from other HBCUs because of its intimate size, its commitment to social equity and its performing arts. “This is the age of Facebook, this is the age of TikTok, and having the Jubilee Singers in front of students, I think that’s how we keep our brand alive. That’s how we keep the interest in the university,” Newkirk said.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers perform April 7, 2018.Courtesy Dave Hawkins / Fisk Jubilee Singers

Fisk got the largest Nashville-based donation in its 155-year history this year, $2.5 million, dedicated to scholarships and the John Lewis Center for Social Justice. And last month, the Fisk Jubilee Singers got an anonymous donation of $1.5 million to jump-start their endowment, which will help support the ensemble with recruitment and retention, as well as its efforts toward building a performance arts center for the campus.

Still, the private gifts fall short of the overall needs of the university and its students, Executive Vice President Jens Frederiksen said.

“Some of the big challenges that continue to face the institution are infrastructural,” Frederiksen said. “The pandemic and the environment that we’ve experienced for the past year and a half has created certain hardships beyond the usual in terms of financial strains.”

The financial constraints have forced the Fisk Jubilee Singers to scale back their recruitment practices and halt plans for the continued renovation of a historic home with funding by longtime supporter Mike Curb, a Fisk trustee emeritus, in 2018. The house is a quasi-performance space for the Jubilee Singers and a place of refuge for students. Frederiksen said that the choir initially intended to build a recording studio in the home but that after the exterior renovation was completed, it ran out of money and chose to shift its efforts to updating the interior.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers spread the sounds of spirituals throughout the country when the nine-member ensemble embarked on an 18-month national tour on Oct. 6, 1871, starting in Cincinnati. The purpose was to raise money for the fledgling Fisk University. The first tour generated about $40,000, half of which was used to buy the land where Fisk stands.

The first day of the tour would also mark the official Jubilee Day, which is celebrated annually on Oct. 6 and serves as an introduction to the next class of Jubilee Singers.

“Celebrating the 150th anniversary, I consider it a day on which those young men and women [the first Fisk Jubilee Singers] should be honored,” Kwami said. “It is also another day for us to let the world know that the first few listeners’ legacy continues to thrive and should serve also as an inspiration for young men and women who are attending Fisk University, particularly those who are currently Fisk Jubilee Singers.”

Kwami has been a part of the Fisk Jubilee Singers for almost 38 years, first as a student member and now as its music director. He said that by connecting with the music on an emotional level, the students are able to connect the songs of our past to messages of today.

This year’s celebration culminates in a keynote lecture by the poet Nikki Giovanni, a Fisk University alumna, and a concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

“We were reaping the harvest of the seeds sown by our ancestors,” Hall said. “No matter what obstacle comes our way, we are able to persevere and stand the test of time.”

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