Growing up in Nashville, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were, and remain, a constant presence for the developing Black singer. My own reference for Western classical singing in the Black aesthetic begins with them. In fact, when I first started formal voice study, it was in the hopes of becoming a Jubilee Singer.
And I honestly don’t know the Jubilee Singers without Dr. Paul T. Kwami.
Kwami, who passed away on Sept. 10 at age 70, assumed leadership of the ensemble in 1994, and it was his singers who I wanted to be like. It was his mastery and discipline that wanted to attain. It was his leadership that I wanted to somehow come close to exhibiting.
It’s easy to list the accolades, accomplishments, and growth of the Fisk Jubilee Singers under Dr. Kwami. However, it is imperative to highlight his influence and prowess in the community and the artistic field. I am not a Fiskite and never was a Jubilee Singer, but I wouldn’t be doing what I do today if it were not for Dr. Kwami.
The Chief Musician
In the Bible, the head of Levitical vocal or instrumental ensemble in the Temple was known as the Chief Musician. This person was responsible for preparing and leading the finest musicians in worship services.
The comparison is deeply appropriate, as Dr. Kwami was a deeply devout man of faith. He unashamedly saw his service to the Fisk students and the greater community as an extension of God’s calling for his life.
Regardless of who was the leader on paper, Dr. Kwami’s word and approval were what you wanted. And that went beyond Fisk. As we created programs or approached new music, young musicians would always ask ourselves, in the back of our minds, “What would Dr. Kwami think?”
In “The Elder in African Society,” Joseph Mbele describes the archetype of the elder as “a wise, dignified and powerful figure, who keeps the culture alive and guides the young.” The National Library of Medicine puts it more succinctly, referring to elders as “transmitters of culture.” This, indeed, was Dr. Kwami. He guided his students, institution, and family in the spirit of Sankofa. He also stands as the embodiment of the African foundation of the Negro Spiritual.
When outsiders come into the community, they must visit the elders.
The Howard University Gospel Choir visited Nashville in 2019. Since HGC was the first collegiate gospel choir, I knew we had to make an exchange happen between them and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Dr. Kwami lovingly welcomed the fellow HBCU choir, and Fisk Memorial Chapel provided the space for a transformative experience. Both ensembles sang with depth and power.
Then Dr. Kwami, the elder, gave historical context and spoke life into the visitors, sending them forth with his blessing.
The Ancestor and Legacy
For African people of the Diaspora, as well as many in the Christian faith, death is not the end. Those who make the transition journey on to glory and live on through memories and lessons. While not physically among us, they are still guiding us. As the negro spiritual says, “dere are angels hov’rin’ roun’. ”
While Dr. Kwami leaves a rich professional legacy, his impact as a cultural bearer, mentor, father (literally and figuratively), and ambassador for our city should not be sidelined. There is no Inversion Vocal Ensemble or W. Crimm Singers (a.k.a. The Wakanda Chorale) without Dr. Kwami. So many of the integral musicians from these and other aggregations are of his lineage, and his impact and spirit will continue to be a large, looming presence for generations.
For me, Dr. Kwami was one of my most important formative influences, and I remain grateful for the example he set as a leader, scholar, and educator. My condolences go out to the Kwami family (especially my Nashville School of the Arts classmate, Paul Kwami, Jr.), current and former Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Fisk University family, the Nashville music community, and the larger Black sacred, concert, and choral world.
Dr. Paul T. Kwami is now a venerated ancestor and, to borrow from Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, he’s “in the stands” pulling for us.
Nashville native Patrick Dailey is an internationally acclaimed countertenor and professor of music at Tennessee State University.
He was recently a featured guest artist on America’s Got Talent with Metaphysic. For more information, visit patrickdaileyct.com.