The 2019 Fisk Jubilee Singers with Director Dr. Paul Kwami (center right) in front of the Harris Music Building at Fisk University in Nashville. Credit: Pat Casey Daley

Few pillars of Black history in America are as essential as song. From the musical traditions adapted during the gruesome era of chattel slavery to the uplifting hymnal marches of the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, the human voice has always been a crucial arrow in the quiver of the African American struggle for freedom.

Perhaps no musical outfit embodies the history of this tradition like the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Founded in 1871 at the country’s first liberal arts university to admit “young men and women irrespective of color,” the acapella vocal music ensemble’s inaugural tour traced the route of the old Underground Railroad just a few years after the final shots of the Civil War. 

“Before they traveled in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were the ones who collected and arranged the Negro spirituals, thereby transforming them into art,” says Dr. Paul Kwami, music director for the ensemble and a professor of music at Fisk University. “That enabled them to present the songs in concert. By doing so, they ended up introducing this specific genre of music to the world.”

Today, the vocal group composed of Fisk University students continues to garner critical acclaim as it celebrates 150 years of bringing songs of sorrow, redemption and jubilation to the world. The collective was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000, before being awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2008. Last year, they won a Grammy Award in the category of Best Roots Gospel Album for their 2020 recording, Celebrating Fisk!: The 150th Anniversary Album.

“My students and I have the responsibility of preserving this music, and we do so by singing it in concerts, and talking about it whenever we have the opportunity,” Dr. Kwami says. “It’s our responsibility to remember the sacrifices of the first ensemble, who probably didn’t know we would be talking about them today. They left this legacy for us. We have a responsibility to share it with other people.”

Boulderites will get the opportunity to hear this legacy in full fidelity on Sunday, Feb. 27, when the Fisk Jubilee Singers bring their soulful sound to Macky Auditorium for an afternoon of sacred songs from a long and revered tradition of Black resilience. 

Founded in 1871 at the country’s first liberal arts university to admit “young men and women irrespective of color,” the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ inaugural tour traced the route of the old Underground Railroad. Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

‘This history belongs to all of us’

Sunday’s free show will culminate two months of visual and performing arts programming presented by NAACP Boulder County as part of its Walk With Me series. Events kicked off on Jan. 16 with the opening of the Ernest Withers photography exhibition at Dairy Arts Center, featuring images from the acclaimed Civil Rights era photojournalist, which finishes its run on the day of the final performance.

Over the past month and a half, Walk With Me has highlighted Black contributions to artistic disciplines like photography, dance and spoken word, but the origins of its name and mission align with the musical tradition embodied by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

“The title actually comes from a Negro spiritual titled ‘Walk with Me,’” says NAACP Boulder County President Annette James. “And because so much of the Civil Rights era was about marching as a mode of connecting and harnessing energies, it just seemed fitting.”

Bringing the Fisk Jubilee Singers to town is a project years in the making for James and NAACP Boulder County, who inked a contract with the vocal group before the pandemic disrupted performing arts schedules across the country. Now that the moment is here, she hopes it will continue her organization’s work in uplifting Black experiences while improving Boulder’s cultural quality of life across the board. 

“We try to do things that are gifts to the community — as a way to share history and culture, although this history belongs to all of us,” she says. “We try to expose a niche that people wouldn’t necessarily get to see in our state and region.”

NAACP Boulder County’s latest gift will be presented when the curtain opens at Macky Auditorium on Sunday afternoon. In terms of illuminating an underexposed area of culture, James says concertgoers can expect a performing arts experience that scrambles pre-existing notions of African American musical tradition. 

“It is not the typical Negro spiritual in the call-and-response genre, which I think people think of when they think of Negro spirituals,” James says. “It’s almost operatic, and in many respects, it has a more classical kind of demonstration.”

From his office at Fisk University in Nashville, Dr. Kwami reflects on the ensemble’s legacy of upending audience expectations. “In many cases, it’s a surprise when people hear us,” he says. “Sometimes they walk into our concerts not knowing what to expect. Then they hear these pure voices singing beautiful melodies with wonderful harmonies.”

The Fisk Jubilee Singers’ technical prowess and stylistic ingenuity will be a draw for music lovers of all backgrounds, but James hopes the upcoming performance will serve as a reminder of the many ways the Black community strengthens cultural life in Boulder.

“Black folks are a relatively small demographic in this community, but we’ve always been here, and we’ve always been contributing,” she says. “I think the more people have opportunities to resonate with art, with culture, the more vibrant our community becomes.” 

The Fisk Jubilee Singers perform at Macky Auditorium at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 27. Proof of vaccination status is required. Reserve your free tickets here.

Archived work by Jezy Grazy for Boulder Reporting Lab.