NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Dr. Paul T. Kwami, longtime musical director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, passed away Saturday morning in Nashville surrounded by family.
Fisk University announced Dr. Kwami’s death Saturday night stating that the loss has left “a gaping hole in our souls as well as in our community and in our world.”
Dr. Kwami was director of the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers for nearly 30 years. Family and friends say to know him was a privilege.
“To know him was to love, respect and cherish him,” said Kwami’s family in a statement, “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.”
The Jubilee was formed in 1871 and introduced spiritual songs originally sung by slaves. They became instrumental in preserving this musical tradition. Now they now travel throughout the world.
Kwami began his nearly 30-year-long career at Fisk University in 1994. Two years later, Freddie Steen, a former Fisk Jubilee, would enter his classroom.
“He was able to teach us 8-part harmonies, but he taught us something even greater than that,” Steen said. “He imparted the spirit of the original Jubilee singers onto us, and that impartation is a zeitgeist of what it means to be a Jubilee singer.”
Steen told News 2 Kwami was a father figure to many of his students. He said he first got to know what kind of person Kwami was when he allowed Steen to bring his young daughter to Jubilee practices, because he didn’t have anywhere else to take her.
Steen said he still uses much of what he learned from Kwami in his daily life.
“He taught us more than anything to rely on the faith in Christ,” Steen said. “He walked that, he talked that, and I am one of many, many singers whose works do follow.”
Kwami’s impact reached beyond the Fisk Jubilee singers.
Dr. Latarchal Morton, a 1998 Fisk graduate, told News 2 she was a freshman the same year Kwami began teaching at the university. She remembered students of all ages from across the country coming to Fisk to become Jubilee singers, mainly because of Kwami.
“When Fisk won the Grammy last year, for me that was Dr. Kwami’s way of reminding the world why Nashville was called the Music City,” Morton said.
In an interview, Dr. Kwami told News 2 that one of his biggest hopes for the 150-year-old ensemble was to win a Grammy award.
In 2021, that dream came true after the ensemble took home their first Grammy Award for Best Roots Album under Dr. Kwami’s leadership.
“It’s been my desire to see Fisk Jubilee singers win a Grammy because we brought a lot of things to the American music. And therefore, I believed that it was time for us to win a Grammy and we did,” Dr. Kwami told News 2 after the historic win.
The family is asking for privacy at this time and states that funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.