NEA Arts Magazine

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Tennessee Arts Commission Presents the Fisk Jubilee Singers

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Fisk Jubilee Singers

The Fisk Jubilee Singers' performance at the Dixie Carter Performing Arts and Academic Enrichment Center in Huntingdon, Tennessee, supported by a Tennessee Arts Commission grant. Photo by Nicole Kaklis.

Tennessee Arts Commission (TAC) Executive Director Rich Boyd says the arts make life in Tennessee "richer and rewarding," not surprising for a state that helped birth both the blues and country music. TAC was established in 1967 to stimulate the arts throughout the state and to encourage interest in Tennessee's cultural heritage. In FY 08, the commission invested $6.6 million in arts programs through direct grants in 23 different categories, with additional indirect support through its Arts Build Communities and Student Ticket Subsidy programs.

Fisk University, a historically Black university founded in 1866, received a 2007 grant from TAC to support a statewide tour of the historic Fisk Jubilee Singers. For more than 130 years this internationally renowned a cappella choir has sung and preserved the songs of the American Negro spiritual tradition, performing at such diverse venues as the United Nations, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Ghana's 50th anniversary of independence celebration.

Despite their international acclaim and induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, however, the ensemble was not very well known at home. This made it a perfect fit for TAC's American Masterpieces program, which aims to acquaint Tennessee's citizens with the best of its cultural heritage. The multidisciplinary project involved several TAC program areas, including folk arts, arts education, and arts access, which provides direct support for projects by arts organizations of color and to organizations whose programs primarily benefit persons of color.

The grant has enabled the Fisk Jubilee Singers to perform at several of Tennessee's historic venues, including Memphis's Orpheum Theater and Knoxville's Tennessee Theatre, as well as at Nashville's new Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The tour also included educational concerts for students, which featured post-performance question-and-answer sessions and other opportunities for the students to personally interact with the singers.

Another project outcome was the creation of educational materials for grades 1–12, including a teacher's guide that follows state education standards, a video documentary of the group's history, and In Bright Mansions, one of the group's most popular recordings. Boyd said, "The education kits are in every public and private school in Tennessee, and they're also in every school, university, and municipal library." TAC also has helped the Fisk Jubilee Singers to build their organizational capacity by upgrading their equipment, buying uniforms, and developing quality promotional materials.

"I can simply say that the grant and working with TAC has helped to open a lot of doors culturally and educationally," reported the group's musical director Paul Kwami.

Boyd added that the relationship has been mutually beneficial for the arts commission's staff. "It's made us better arts managers and administrators and people, just being involved in this project. And that's from the heart."