For nearly 150 years the Fisk Jubilee Singers have traveled the world preserving the American musical tradition known as “Negro Spirituals.”
The a cappella ensemble, made up of Fisk University students has been around since 1871.
Inside the rehearsal room on the campus of Fisk University, members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers fine tune their instruments.
“It feels amazing to be a part of it,” said Andrew Davis, a tenor. “I feel a whole plethora of emotions when I walk into rehearsals, when I walk on stage.”
In 1871, the original Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced “slave songs” to the world.
They broke racial barriers in the United States and abroad, entertaining kings and queens in Europe, including Queen Victoria in 1873.
“The queen said ‘Who are these young people? Their voices are magical. Where are they from,” said Fisk University historian Dr. Reavis Mitchell. “She was reportedly told they are from Fisk in Nashville, and she said ‘I don’t know this Nashville, but it most certainly be a musical place.’”
Mitchell said the original ensemble were pioneers in many ways.
“They are also one of the first groups to use music as a way of really large fundraising,” said Mitchell. “Eventually they ended up in Carnagie Hall. People wouldn’t give them places to stay. Restaurants wouldn’t allow them to come in and eat. It was still a racially-charged country. They’re really on the front lines of changing America’s perception of the African-American.”
Mitchell said the singers are ultimately students.
“What we’re most proud of is they’re among the best academic students,” said Mitchell. “These students don’t come to Fisk to sing, they end up singing. They come to be educated in a Fisk tradition.”
For the students, the enormity isn’t lost on them.
“Being a part of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is more than you. You are literally part of history. You have to look at the bigger picture,” said soprano Cortney Townes. “We are ministering, not necessarily performing, but ministering to people and touching the hearts of people.”