The Faith and Music of Dr. Paul Kwami

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Dr. Paul Kwami passed away on September 10 at age 70. My heart is grieving this great loss, rejoicing in our hope of eternal life, and thankful for a life lived so very well. Dr. Kwami was the longtime director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University, an historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee. He was a man deeply committed to Jesus Christ.

The Founding of Fisk University and the Fisk Jubilee Singers

In 1866 northern missionaries founded a school in Nashville, Tennessee. The school’s purpose was to educate those who had once been enslaved. In time the school became Fisk University. In 1871 a group of students called the Fisk Jubilee Singers traveled to raise money for the school. The group sang a cappella. Among the songs they sang were spirituals that had been integral to the culture of America’s enslaved people. By singing these spirituals in America and Europe, the group helped to preserve these beautiful songs to the present day.

The Jubilee Singers have received many honors. In 1872 President Grant invited them to sing at the White House.  While on an overseas tour in 1873, they sang for Britain’s Queen Victoria. She commissioned a floor-to-ceiling portrait of the Jubilee Singers which has long had a place of honor in Jubilee Hall on the Fisk campus, a building they helped to build through their fundraising efforts.

Studio portrait of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Throughout its history, Fisk University has continued to have a Fisk Jubilee Singers group. They continue to sing a cappella and they continue to sing spirituals. Many years ago we had the privilege of seeing the group perform live in a concert at the Cookeville Performing Arts Center. I don’t have words to describe the experience. I was amazed at the beauty flowing from these college-age men and women as they sang the faith songs of their ancestors—such poise, such presence, such power, such voices in such young people!

Dr. Paul Kwami became the group’s music director in 1994. He said that the group used the beauty and power of their music and singing to win the love of people. Dr. Kwami and his faith were an inspiration to the singers and to their audiences. He touched their hearts and souls and helped them to excel musically. In 2000 the group was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. In 2007 the U.S. Department of State invited them to travel to Dr. Kwami’s home country of Ghana to celebrate the country’s 50th anniversary. In 2008 Dr. Kwami traveled to the White House where President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush awarded the National Medal of Arts to this historic group. Dr. Kwami fulfilled a dream in 2021, when the group received a Grammy for their album, “Celebrating Fisk!” which they had recorded at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

My Email Friendship with Dr. Kwami

In 2021 Ray and I enjoyed watching a documentary featuring the singers and their director, Dr. Kwami. COVID restrictions caused the documentary to be available only on a limited basis. Believing that its powerful message of faith and unity was a crucial one for America, I found Dr. Kwami’s biography and email address on the Fisk University website. Here is an excerpt of the email I sent to him:

. . . my husband and I were privileged to learn about the new documentary in celebration of 150 years of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. . . . What an absolute delight it was. . . . The documentary was brilliant. The singing was beautiful. I especially loved when the singers made the famous 1870 photograph come alive and the opportunity to hear the stories of the individual members of the original group. . . . Thank you for talking about your personal faith during your interview. Thank you for caring for the spiritual and emotional lives of your students. Thank you for helping them be the very best performers and people they can be. Thank you for teaching them unity and love for one another.

I can’t thank you enough for this wonderful experience. As I watched and when the documentary was finished, I kept thinking that many, many people need to see this documentary. I believe it can have a powerful impact for healing in our nation. The dignity, the grace, the kindness, the talent, the message are all very powerful.

Please make this available nationwide. I would love to help make it known among the homeschooling community around the country and around the world . . .

I soon received this touching reply.

I pray that this email finds you well. I woke up early yesterday, checked my emails and read your beautiful message. I was overcome with gratitude to God for working through my students and me to bless you and other people.

Thank you for being one of our greatest fans and thank you for sharing our story with people across the nation. We were unable to present our live performances this year because of COVID-19. In a conversation with the staff at TPAC [Tennessee Performing Arts Center], we decided to film and share our program. It was also an opportunity for us to tell the story of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, who lived through many hardships before enrolling as students at the Fisk School. Your email confirms that we achieved our goals, and I am very grateful to God for this.

While it is not a perfectly produced documentary I believe, as you do, that the whole world should see it. I will work with TPAC and make this happen.

Thank you.

True to his word, Dr. Kwami did work to share the message of that documentary with a wider audience. In the fall of 2021, I learned that a revised documentary, Walk Together Children: The 150th Anniversary of the Fisk Jubilee Singers®, would be airing on public television stations in 19 states. I wrote to Dr. Kwami again:

Dear Dr. Kwami,

It was with joy that I learned that PBS is airing your documentary, Walk Together Children. I still believe, as I wrote to you last spring, that the whole world needs to see it. I pray that God blesses it with a wide audience. Thank you for all the ways you serve Him.

With joy and a grateful heart,
Charlene Notgrass

Two days later, I received this reply:

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Thank you very much for blessing me with your email, which I read yesterday. It is very exciting to see what God is doing and the way He is doing things. I believe He will use this film to change lives around the country one by one, and it will all be to His glory.

Thank you.

On a Saturday afternoon this past May, I was surprised by another email from Dr. Kwami. I am sad that it was my last. He told me that he had been preparing for his Sunday School lesson the next day. In the course of doing so, he had come across a page on the Notgrass History website. He thanked me for what our company does and expressed his desire that God guide our team and me. Such kindness from this very busy man who was doing such important work touched me deeply.

Paul Theophilus Kwami was born in the small town of Amedzofe in Ghana. He grew up on his father’s coffee plantation. He had six siblings. As a child, Kwami picked coffee on the family plantation and learned to play piano from his father, who was a music teacher. After receiving a degree in music education from the National Academy of Music in Ghana, he met a missionary who told him about Fisk University.

Kwami moved to Nashville and attended Fisk. A friend encouraged him to join the Jubilee Singers. Kwami earned a second bachelor’s degree in music education from Fisk. He got a master’s degree in music education from Western Michigan University. In 1994 he became the music director of the Jubilee Singers. He obtained a doctorate from the American Conservatory of Music in 2009.

Dr. Kwami’s family issued the following statement after he passed away.

It is with deep and immeasurable sadness that we share the news of the passing of our beloved husband, father, brother, cousin, uncle and friend, Dr. Paul Theophilus Kwami. His passing leaves a gaping hole in our souls as well as in our community and in our world.

Dr. Kwami passed onto glory on Saturday, September 10th in the early morning hours surrounded by family in Nashville, Tennessee.

Dr. Kwami was a humble yet passionate child of God – exuding excellence, loyalty, a deep faith and an unmatched work ethic that he embodied as the Director of the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers for nearly 30 honorable and prosperous years.

To know him was to love, respect and cherish him. A natural born mentor, he gave of himself freely to those he cared for and invested in the lives of many with a joyful heart.

We are forever grateful for the community that surrounds us and for the outpouring of love and support that our family is being shown in this extremely difficult time.

We thank you for honoring Dr. Paul T. Kwami’s life. May his legacy continue to live vastly on this Earth while he takes a deserved rest in his bright mansion in his Father’s house. Out of respect for the Kwami family, for the time being we ask that you please refrain from contacting family members as we process this unimaginable loss.

I am deeply grateful that God gave me a small connection with such a man.

But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness;
My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
Because He has dealt bountifully with me.
Psalm 13:5-6

 

 

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