November 20, 2008
FISK JUBILEE SINGERS RECEIVE NATION'S HIGHEST HONOR
National Medal of Arts presented at White House ceremony
NASHVILLE - - The Fisk Jubilee Singers were presented the 2008 National Medal of Arts during an impressive ceremony held Monday, November 17 in the East Room of the White House. One of nine recipients, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were presented the award by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
The National Medal of Arts is the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States Government. The award is presented by the President of the United States to individuals or groups who, in his judgment, “…are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.” Honorees are selected by the National Endowment for the Arts from nominations solicited from individuals and organizations throughout the United States.
In receiving the award, the Fisk Jubilee Singers are being recognized for their significant contributions to preserving African American spirituals. For 137 years, the chorus has performed in the United States and around the world, sharing America’s rich cultural heritage.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers are students of Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee. Opened in 1866, it became the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color.” Five years later, when the school was in dire financial straits, a music professor created the nine-member choral ensemble of students and took it on tour to earn money for the university.
The original Jubilee Singers introduced ‘slave songs’ to the world in 1871 and were instrumental in preserving this unique American tradition known today as Negro spirituals.
During the past three years, the Tennessee Arts Commission has brought additional recognition to the Fisk Jubilee Singers through its American Masterpieces project, funded through the NEA. The Commission has produced a teacher’s guide focusing on the important history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the African-American spiritual. The educational guide, with accompanying CD and DVD titled The Fisk Jubilee Singers: Singing Our Song, has been distributed to more than 1,700 schools in Tennessee. Funds have sponsored performances to every major region of Tennessee and provided direct technical assistance to the ensemble.
“What a tremendous honor for Fisk University and the Jubilee Singers,” said Rich Boyd, executive director of the Tennessee Arts Commission. “Fisk is the first ever historically black university to receive the medal, and only the second university in history to receive the award. It’s a very prestigious award that recognizes the legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It is humbling to know that the Tennessee Arts Commission, through the American Masterpieces project, was instrumental in the Jubilee Singers receiving this country’s highest award in the arts.”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers have received many awards during their long history, but this honor has provided the group with much-deserved recognition. Paul Kwami, musical director for the Fisk Jubilee Singers, says receiving the National Medal of Arts may be the greatest honor the group has ever received. He was especially pleased that the award was presented along with other recipients who are “great contributors to the arts.”
“This group should count their blessings in accepting the award on behalf of all the past Fisk Jubilee Singers, and look forward to inspiring future generations,” said Kwami. “It is just beginning to sink in. This award has special significance because it is the highest award in the arts, and has provided us with national and international recognition. I am very happy as I think back to how the original singers turned these traditional spirituals into an art form.” He also gave recognition to the Tennessee Arts Commission. “The American Masterpieces project has placed a focus on the traditional Negro spiritual, and brought attention to the legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers were invited to perform prior to the ceremony, as a tribute to the 1872 Fisk Jubilee Singers who performed for President Ulysses S. Grant, making the ensemble the first black choir to ever perform in the White House.
The 2008 National Medal of Arts recipients include:
Olivia de Havilland, actress, Paris, France
Fisk Jubilee Singers, choral ensemble, Nashville, TN
Ford’s Theatre Society, theater and museum, Washington, DC
Hank Jones, jazz musician, NEA Jazz Master (1989), New York, NY
Stan Lee, comic book writer, producer, Los Angeles, CA
José Limon Dance Foundation, modern dance company and institute, New York, NY
Jesús Moroles, sculptor, Rockport, TX
The Presser Foundation, music patron, Haverford, PA
The Sherman Brothers, songwriting team, Los Angeles, CA and London, England
“These individuals and organizations represent the variety and scope of great American art, from the traditional fine arts to popular culture,” said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. “This lifetime honor recognizes their exceptional contributions to our national culture.”
For more information on the National Medal of Arts, visit the NEA’s Web site: www.nea.gov/news/news08/medals.html
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