Grammy-winning Fisk Jubilee Singers on a mission to preserve spirit of Black music
In recent years, efforts to diversify the Western musical canon have received plenty of attention. This Sunday, two groups committed to that mission will take the stage at Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Knight Theater.
The Grammy-winning Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University, an HBCU in Tennessee, will perform acapella classics.
The Charlotte Strings Collective, an orchestral ensemble comprised of local music educators and musicians who exclusively play the work of Black composers and arrangers, will open for the group.
As March is Music Education Month, the production is a fitting opportunity for audiences to be entertained and educated through a musical journey that centers genres and compositions historically excluded from mainstream attention.
About Fisk Jubilee Singers
The singers from Fisk have a long and proud tradition.
In 1871, Nashville’s newly established Fisk University was in financial peril. That prompted school treasurer and music director George Leonard White to send the school’s choir on tour as a fundraising vehicle.
White’s idea was met with some skepticism, but off they went.
Over the course of 18 months, the students performed in nine states and audiences came out to support them. For their first concert in Ohio, the group earned $50, which they used to make a charitable donation to victims of the Great Chicago Fire.
Word spread about their talent, ticket sales multiplied and White’s vision came to fruition.
The Fisk singers also were notable for two key reasons: its nine members were African-American and they performed traditional Negro spirituals. Post-Civil War audiences were not accustomed to experiencing this culturally authentic genre. During that era, racist minstrel shows were the norm.
But in accord with Fisk’s mission to provide a quality education to freedmen and African-Americans, White felt it important to recognize and preserve their music.
When searching for a name for the group, White was moved by the historical reference to the Hebrew Jubilee, a time when all slaves were set free. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were born.
Over 150 years of history
The group traveling to Charlotte this week for its first-ever performance in a secular venue here is comprised of 13 students, and is led by Anthony Williams, also the lead organist and professor of music.
After longtime director Paul Kwami’s death last year, Williams took over the role he originally held from 1987 to 1990.
He was well-suited to take up the mantle as his own academic research focuses on reclaiming the work of Black composers that to date have not received their due. That includes John Wesley Work, the subject of his doctoral dissertation.
Though the music that the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform is traditional, it is anything but outdated. Concertgoers will hear a little bit of everything — including secular sounds.
“One number we do is an arrangement of contemporary composer Moses Hogan’s ‘Old Time Religion,’ “ Williams said. “And because Hogan was from New Orleans, I tell the students, if you listen to this it is almost like listening to a New Orleans brass band play.
“If you go to a parade and hear or see a Mardi Gras parade, you’ll hear this type of music by a brass band and kind of feel that freedom in it,” Williams added. “So while it stays true to the spiritual genre, you still feel the freedom that he’s trying to bring out in this piece.”
A portrait fit for a queen
Throughout the group’s 152-year history, its focus on sharing the music that is uniquely part of Black culture has remained intact.
Iterations of the Fisk Jubillee Singers have traveled as far as Ghana at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy to perform for the nation’s 50th anniversary of independence (2007) and earned the National Medal of Arts (2008).
But it was perhaps an 1873 visit to England to perform for Queen Victoria that was most memorable. Not only did the proceeds from the trip pay for the construction of the campus’ Fisk Jubilee Hall, but her impression of the group prompted her to bestow Nashville with the name of “Music City.”
What’s more, a portrait of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, commissioned by Queen Victoria, still hangs in that university hall today.
Highlighting ‘the positive’
The theme of historical reclamation and preservation will provide the framework for Sunday’s show.
Malik Johnson, one of the founding members of The Charlotte Strings Collective, looks forward to providing a history lesson of lesser-known compositions by African-American artists.
The group was founded in the wake of the 2020 police killing of George Floyd to highlight Black achievement and excellence in the arts. Their first performance, at the peak of COVID, was a virtual rendition of a William Grant Still piece.
“We put it on YouTube and we just blasted it out,” said Johnson. “It was right after the George Floyd incident. The timing of that was perfect because we saw what some people were doing… taking a violent route or destructive route, and that’s not me.
“(It was) a positive way for all of us to channel our emotions, and use art to highlight something positive.”
Fisk’s Williams is pleased to have the collective opening for his students. It reinforces the work he does in from the conductor’s podium as well as behind his own desk.
“It is important that folks see this unknown and underappreciated repertoire, so I applaud the (Charlotte Strings Collective) for doing this music,” he said.
“In my own work, I’m finding this music and so much of it was never published because of the earlier years of our country, which practiced a form of musical segregation,” Williams said. “A lot of publishers overlooked the music or turned their nose up at it, so to speak. A lot of composers didn’t get published.”
On Sunday evening, attendees will have the opportunity to become students for a lesson in music appreciation.
Want to go?
Fisk Jubilee Singers will perform at 7 p.m. Sunday March 19 at Knight Theater in uptown Charlotte. Ticket info: blumenthalarts.org/events.
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