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The Jubilee Singers, HBCU Fisk University's a cappella ensemble, celebrate 150 years


Earlier this year, an upstart won a Grammy in the category of Roots Gospel.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And the Grammy goes to "Celebrating Fisk!"

CORNISH: Of course, this upstart had an edge. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were founded 150 years ago, born on the campus of Nashville's Fisk University.


FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

CORNISH: The school, rising up during reconstruction, used former Union Army barracks for classrooms, and it needed money. A singing group started touring to raise enough funds to keep the doors open, which it did, singing spirituals that include some of the earliest known recordings of that music. Professor Paul Kwami is part of that legacy. Born in Ghana, he came to Fisk as a student. He became their music director in 1994. We marked the 150th anniversary with this conversation, starting with the stories of the people who started it all.

PAUL KWAMI: Well, in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, led by their director, George White, travelled around the United States singing songs. George White originally told them to sing Western classical music because he was not sure of the kind of reception an African American, young choral group would receive.

CORNISH: And we should say, this is shortly after the Civil War. And this is a time when schools, like historically Black colleges like Fisk, are being set up, so they are also fundraising - right? - fundraising from white audiences.

KWAMI: Because money was needed for the school. But in doing so, they happened to sing the Negro spirituals, and that was a time when they introduced this wonderful genre of music to the whole world.


FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.

CORNISH: This gets to the legacy and influence of the Jubilee Singers. Can you talk about either the technique or what is it about the singers who come from this group that makes them remarkable?

KWAMI: Learning about the history, first of all, of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, but also learning about the values that are embedded in the Negro spirituals. I personally see the Negro spirituals as songs that build our faith, songs that inspire us, but also songs that encourage us to do good things for people. And so it becomes a way of training young students who come to Fisk and sing in the ensemble to go off, remembering that there is a legacy that they continue to carry on, and that is to be good and to do good to people.

CORNISH: What do you think is the value of having a group like this today? I mean, it's a question that's asked even of HBCUs themselves sometimes - the value of an all-Black environment, the value of still talking about this history in this way, long past the era of integration.

KWAMI: These songs, the Negro spirituals, still contain powerful messages that are life-changing. When I teach my students, we always talk about the lyrics. We do talk about the historical significance of the songs, but we always talk about the effect the messages and the melodies and harmonies have on us today. As a result of such discussions, we develop an emotional attachment with each song. And so when we are out performing, we perform as if we are the ones who actually wrote these songs. We also have the responsibility of sharing the messages of these songs with all of our listeners.


FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) Going to walk and never tire, walk and never tire.

CORNISH: And your favorite song - is there anything you still hum to yourself?

KWAMI: There is a spiritual, which I'm sure you know, if you want to sing along with me. It's "He's Got The Whole World In His Hand" (ph). It's one of those beautiful spirituals that reminds us of God taking care of us. (Vocalizing).


FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) He's got the whole world in his hands. He's got the whole world in his hand. He's got the whole world...

CORNISH: One hundred fifty years ago, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were raising money, you know, to - for the college so that African Americans could have access to education and to be considered human - right? - humans who can learn. What do you think your ancestors, so to speak - right? - in that community would think of where you all are today?

KWAMI: When I remember the life stories of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, some of whom were slaves, some who did not know their parents and yet left this rich legacy for us, if they were to come back today, I am sure they will be very happy that we are still singing the Negro spirituals and also still talking about them.

CORNISH: I don't know why, but that kind of made me - I feel like I'm going to cry.

KWAMI: I know. A very quick story - Ella Sheppard, for example. Her mother took her on a journey to drown her in a river, but then an elderly lady came across them and realized what was about to happen and told Ella's mother to look up at the skies and that God had great things for her to do and that she would sing before kings and queens. She became the mother of the Fisk Jubilee Singers who helped George White along their journeys. I listen to those kinds of stories, and personally, I am determined to let the world know that they were not ordinary people who became original Fisk Jubilee Singers, and that's why we have a responsibility to preserve this legacy and to tell their stories always.

CORNISH: Paul Kwami, thank you so much for speaking with us. And congratulations on the celebration in this moment.

KWAMI: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. It's been nice talking with you.


FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) God's gonna trouble the water. Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God's gonna trouble the water. See that host all dressed in white. God's gonna... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Justine Kenin